Recently, I was reading through a magazine for church leaders when a quote in one of the articles caught my attention. The quote was, “Donors don’t give to pay down debt.” Having been personally connected to dozens of debt campaigns that have raised in excess of $170 million, I have found that people will give generously and sacrificially to address the issues and restrictions caused by debt. Moreover, a debt campaign can be highly energizing and catalytic in a church’s journey to realize their vision and mission of reaching people for Christ. However, campaigns focused primarily on debt require a very different approach and strategic messaging.
Campaigns to raise money for debt must connect to and be driven by the church’s overall vision and mission.
Simply asking people to give because the church has debt rarely inspires sacrificial giving. Remember – not one single member of your church is losing sleep because the church is in debt–except maybe the pastor or business administrator. The reason people are not concerned about the church’s financial obligations has much to do with the fact that many church members are struggling with their own debt issues. Therefore, the message surrounding a church debt campaign has to communicate how reducing debt will allow your church to reach more people, make more disciples, and grow your ministry.
If your church has debt, ask yourself the following questions:
- Has the debt had a negative impact in any way on the church’s ability to meet current operational needs?
- Has the church been forced to cut back or restrict ministry focused resources in order to service the loan obligation?
- Could the money currently being spent to service a debt obligation be re-appropriated to new ministries that could inspire and encourage your church and possibly attract new families?
- Have there been negative impacts on the church’s ability or willingness to start new and innovative ministries?
- Is there a mixed message being sent with respect to the manner in which the church is responding to debt and how the membership is challenged to view and manage personal financial obligations?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, then moving forward with a debt campaign is imperative.
Communication before, during, and after a campaign should be open and transparent. The congregation needs to understand how the debt was incurred, how much exists, and the plans for paying it off.
Answer the following questions about debt clearly and concisely.
Why does the church have debt?
Surprisingly, many of your church members do not know or may not remember how the debt came about. If the loan obligation is a result of building construction, members may assume if the building is complete it is also paid in full. If the church conducted a capital campaign but did not raise all of the needed funds, some people mistakenly believe the first campaign actually took care of all of the financial needs. Unfortunately, some people will believe the debt is the result of poor decision-making. Do not assume people accurately recall the events leading up to taking on the debt. Be proactive and transparent when communicating the cause or source of the debt. A clear and accurate timeline of events will provide a strong foundation for your campaign message.
How much does the church owe?
Once the first question has been addressed, make sure there is no ambiguity regarding the full extent of the debt. As with all communication to the church, assume nothing and state facts in several different ways so people can fully grasp what you are saying.
How much is being spent to service the debt?
People are often surprised by how much of the operational budget is needed to service a debt. Help your people see the debt total from both a monthly and yearly perspective. Show the debt service using a dollar amount as well as a percentage of total expenditures. For guidelines on the impact of debt service, go here.
How much interest will be paid over the life of the loan?
The total lifetime interest of a loan creates the “ah-ha” moment for many where the reality of good stewardship comes into play. People are motivated when they can see how much could be saved in the long term by addressing the obligation more intentionally. People will become inspired when they realize how the interest saved could be used for ministry.
How long would it take to retire the current debt if you did nothing?
Help your congregation understand the length and long-term consequences of the loan. Was the loan amortized over 10, 15, or 20 years? Could the reality be, at the current pace of repayment, your children and possibly your grandchildren will still be paying on the debt? Saving years, as well as saving interest over the life of the loan, is just good stewardship.
How will the money currently being spent on debt service be re-appropriated for ministry?
Members need to understand the underlying reasons behind raising funds to eliminate the financial obligation. The goal is not just to eliminate the debt but rather to achieve specific ministry objectives. People are inspired to give more willingly and sacrificially when they understand the objective. Reducing or eliminating loan obligations is to free up resources so the church can engage in new and expanded ministries such as:
- Starting a new ministry to reach more people
- Creating a new staff position to address a ministry opportunity
- Expand an existing ministry to meet the needs of your community
As mentioned earlier, people are not inspired to give so their church can be debt-free. People are inspired by the larger goal of growing ministry.
Include these elements in a campaign to reduce or eliminate debt:
Use the church as an example.
Encouraging families and individuals to be financially free and teaching them how to live with margin is essential for the church. Provide personal financial management classes and encourage your members to free themselves of financial burden. A debt campaign sends the message that the church operates by the same teaching. Find more insights here.
Include something tangible.
Debt campaigns focus on something that happened in the past. Many churches balance that “looking to the past” perspective by including something future-oriented and tangible. This could be a specific mission project or a low-cost facility enhancement. A word of caution here: without question, the primary focus in a debt campaign is eliminating or reducing the debt. Any “add-ons” should not interfere or reduce the potential for maximum results or disguise the main objective.
Keep in mind that the church does not have a choice about whether or not to pay its debt. It must be paid.
Your congregation knows it bears the burden of paying that debt. The only choice the church has is how to pay that debt. What is the best stewardship practice to deal with indebtedness? Eliminating or reducing debt is about changing the future of the church. It is about repositioning the church’s financial picture so the church can invest financial resources in ministry rather than in debt service. It is about effectively freeing the church to make future funding decisions. Changing the debt position in your church does not just impact ministry for two or three years; it repositions the church financially to reinvest in ministry for the next 10, 20, or 30 years. Reducing or eliminating debt is simply good stewardship, and a wise step that will deepen your congregation’s trust in your leadership.