How to Avoid the Epidemic Killing Our Churches

by | March 21, 2018

An epidemic of Biblical proportions is significantly impacting churches of today. Currently sweeping across the landscape of Christianity, this epidemic disables and ruins countless churches every year. This deadly disease is debt. The debt epidemic begins innocently enough. It typically begins with someone from the building or finance team passionately misquoting the famous line from Field of Dreams, saying “Build it and they will come.” Soon people begin to nod in agreement. The debt epidemic has begun.

The debt epidemic gains momentum when the architect says, “tell me everything you want in your building and don’t worry about the cost.” Recently, I visited a church in the midwest. In the beginning stages of this disease, the church’s annual budget is less than $300,000. After meeting with the architect, the plans for the new building were presented–a $3 million project. The drawings were beautiful and very enticing. One church member even exclaimed, “there is even a fireplace in the gathering space!” Other early symptoms of the debt epidemic include phrases like, “I’m sure the people in our community will want to help pay for it” or “All of the new people that we attract will pay for it.”

“Build it and they will come” has become, “Build it and they will pay for it.”

The next phase of the debt disease usually includes the church hiring a firm such as Horizons to help them raise the money to build their Field of Dreams. Often what they really want is a plan to inspire others to pay for their building.  During this phase, the church either becomes deathly ill or finds the right prescription to avoid succumbing to death by debt.

How does a church avoid succumbing to the debt epidemic?

 

Here are some ways to avoid the debt epidemic in your church.

1. Preventive medicine is always the best.

Hire someone like Horizons before you hire the architect. We can help set parameters that will prevent your architect from proposing a project that could result in extraordinary debt. This first step can prevent the disease from taking hold and save your church from contracting the debt disease.

2. Always insist on a pre-campaign feasibility study.

A quality study will include a projection of the dollars your church will likely raise from a capital campaign. Although a quality study will provide the data you need to prevent deadly debt, the results can often be a bitter pill to swallow. Churches typically spend thousands of dollars on building plans and church leaders are excited to see it become a reality. However, as your partners in ministry, Horizons’ strategists will honestly tell you if the current plan is beyond your congregation’s capacity to fund it. While potentially painful, knowing (rather than guessing) your congregation’s willingness and ability to fund your project is a necessary step for preventing deadly debt.

3. Test your plan with key financial leaders before going public.

A capital campaign will invite everyone to participate in making your church’s vision a reality, but a few key financial leaders will contribute the majority of funds. (Here’s how to identify and grow a few key financial leaders.) Inviting high-capacity donors to weigh in before unveiling your project to the congregation may illicit substantial support.  For example, a church had fallen in love with a project that cost eight times their budget. Initially it seemed they might take on a deadly amount of debt in order to fund it. After showing the project to key financial leaders, one couple became was so excited they decided to give nearly 40% of the project. Death by debt avoided.

 

How much debt is healthy and how much is deadly?

1. The most effective strategy is to conduct no more than two capital campaigns in a row for any one project.

Many pastors, donors, and volunteers experience campaign fatigue following two three-year capital campaigns. In addition often these same church members are involved in the building project, leading to a strain on volunteer resources. I’ve worked with churches that have had to conduct six and seven campaigns in succession to eliminate their deadly debt. Not only did it exhaust church leaders, but it also prohibited any growth in mission and ministry  until the debt was paid.

2. The pre-campaign feasibility study is an essential tool in right-sizing your project and avoiding deadly debt.

For most churches, it is unwise to take on a project that exceeds two times your feasibility study projection. Of course, this is simply a rule of thumb and may not apply to every situation. Things like high-capacity donors, investment income from endowments, and other factors may play a significant role in determining your church’s ability to fund your project. Also consider whether you have resources misaligned to your mission.

3. Debt service should not exceed 10-15% of your annual operating income.

Most churches that carry debt service exceeding 15% of annual income are unable to begin new programs, hire staff, or expand ministry. Death by debt becomes a real possibility.

 

Succumbing to death by debt is not inevitable. There is a cure.

Incurring a healthy level of debt within the guidelines I’ve shared may be an important strategy for achieving the vision God has for your church.  Field of Dreams may be a great movie, but it does not include sound advice for your building or renovation project.

4 Comments

  1. As always Scott is spot on. Miss you my friend!

    Reply
    • Kristine Miller

      Thank you, Paul!

      Reply
  2. Thanks for a great article. I especially appreciated the value placed on the feasibility study.

    Reply
  3. Kristine Miller

    Thank you for your affirmation, Ed. Much appreciated.

    Reply

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An Interview with Horizons’ Founder, Clif Christopher

Since its inception, Clif Christopher has been on the frontline in responding to Horizons’ clients about church capital campaigns. Providing timely and insightful counsel to pastors and lay leaders is at the heart of Horizons’ mission to guide churches on their journey to achieve their mission. In anticipation of the release of Clif’s latest book, God vs. Money, I invited Clif to share his insights on some commonly-asked questions.

 

Common Mistakes

Kristine: What are some common mistakes churches make when considering the size of their church capital campaign projects?

 Clif: Often churches fail to maximize their giving potential. For example, a pastor recently told me about the growth and enthusiasm expressed in his church regarding a $1,000,000 building project. The church’s budget was $750,000. Given the excitement surrounding the project, it seemed to me the church could likely raise more. I suggested the church look at other needs and consider adding them to the project and have our team assess the congregation’s overall support. Assuming the support is there, this church has the ability to conduct a more ambitious campaign and raise more money for the kingdom.

 

Timing of a Capital Campaign

Kristine: When is the best time to conduct a church capital campaign?

 Clif: The short answer is the best time to conduct a church capital campaign is when the vision is clear and the congregation is rallied behind the vision. However, some churches are too eager to break ground and end up eliminating a lot of the giving momentum. If you break ground before the campaign, you take away people’s ability to participate in helping your dream become reality. Breaking ground before the campaign will result in getting  a building sooner, but you will have far less resources to pay for it. Also, it will be three years before you can conduct another campaign—and that will likely be for debt. Be patient and wait to break ground when you are ready to celebrate the conclusion of a successful capital campaign.

 

Estate Gifts

Kristine: Should capital projects be paid for using estate gifts?

 Clif: Generally, this is not a good idea. Using legacy gifts for capital projects removes the responsibility of the church to help people mature in Christ through more generous giving. Estate gifts should be used to strengthen an endowment fund that enlarges the ministry and mission the church is called to do. It should never replace what present members are capable of and called to do. Have a campaign for the project you feel God is calling you to do, and then use the proceeds from the estate gift to move the church beyond that building and into life changing ministry.

 

Staff Positions and Missions Work

Kristine: Should churches consider adding staff positions or missions work to their campaign funding needs?

 Clif: The problem is you are hoping to leverage enthusiasm for a building project to get money for staffing and missions. These expenses should be funded through the annual budget rather than included in a church capital campaign. Lumping capital needs in with operating expenditures is most often a bad idea. People may resent having a portion of their donations designated to expenses other than capital, and they may choose to withhold their giving. Also, funding a staff position through a three-year capital campaign creates a significant problem after the giving period is over. How will this staff position be funded in year four? If you need to fund a staff position or support a mission endeavor, include these expenses in your annual budget and invite people to support it.

 

Leadership Support

Kristine: How important is it for the pastor and church leadership to express their support of the church capital campaign?

 Clif: Well how important is leadership in any arena? It is critical! If the boss showed up late for work and only showed interest in coffee breaks, would the employees exceed his passion? If a coach was not that committed to practice and winning, would the players give their all? Church members are very in tune with what leaders are serious about. They listen to hear what their pastor feels is at the core of Christian life. Specifically, they listen to hear whether church leaders just want money to pay bills or if they truly believe that generosity is vital to discipleship and living a fulfilled life. It is very important every pastor share their plans for giving every year and why they are making that choice. Members concerned about being a disciple will follow.

 

High Capacity Donors

Kristine: In God vs. Money, you suggest that pastors should build relationships with their high capacity donors. Why is this important?

 Clif: As church leaders, we must stop seeing and relating to persons blessed with wealth as different from others blessed with unique talent and abilities that can be used for Kingdom work. If we knew a person with exceptional musical talent, we would be derelict if we did not spend time with them exploring how that talent might be used. Same goes for educational ability or leadership ability. One key job of a pastor is to help persons use the gifts God has given them for God’s work. This is no less true for those few who have been blessed with wealth. They need and deserve our time to assist them in fulfilling God’s calling on their life. This simply does not happen by speaking in generalities from a pulpit. It happens through relationship and personal attention.

I clearly remember the multi-millionaire who shared how grateful he was for the extensive conversations a college president had with him that helped him determine how to use his vast amounts of money following the sale of his business. When I asked this active church member if any pastor had ever sat down with him and had a stewardship conversation, he said, “No, Clif, you know that preachers do not like to talk about money!”

 

Clif’s books include Not Your Parents’ Offering PlateRich Church Poor Church, and several others. His new book, God vs. Money, is now available on Kindle and will soon be released in hardcopy by Abingdon Press.

God vs. Money

On August 21, 2018, my new book, God vs. Money, will be released. I wrote this book because I am firmly convinced our society, including the church, is in the midst of a war between the will of God and the lure of money. I am also convinced that money is winning the majority of battles because the opposition, the church, has ceased to put up a fight. God vs. Money is a call to arms. I implore you, as church leaders, to engage in this battle because, I believe, our lives depend on it.

Because God vs. Money is likely the last book I will write, I put every ounce of energy I had into each and every page. In doing so, I hope to get the attention of Christian leaders who must make attacking this foe a priority each and every day. My friends, if you care about the Kingdom and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only true salvation for the world, get this book. Going to war is never easy, but this fight is one we have to take on and must win!

Here is an excerpt from the Introduction:

God and Money both made promises. God has kept all of His and money has kept none. But money has better advertising and we keep falling for it. We live in a society where God vs. Money is a daily battle. It is a war and right now we are not winning.

 

In this book, I lay out a plan where those of us in church leadership can educate and inspire people who are capable of winning the war. These are the tools you are going to need to develop people who know how to go up against the lure of money and come out victors on the other side. I hope God vs. Money becomes a manual for pastors and church leaders to train and grow congregations of generous people who resist the lure of money and, instead, seek God’s will for their lives.

God vs. Money was not written to help you get more money.

It is intended to help you develop true disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, who understand they have been given infinitely more than they could ever give. In this book, I contend that a generous life is glorious and leads to everlasting life, while a life being controlled by stuff is a dead end that destroys us and the world around us. This needs to be a war we want to fight. Not just one we have to fight.

Let’s prepare for battle.

 

 

Here is what church leaders are saying about God vs. Money:

Mike Slaughter, Founder and Chief Strategist of Passionate Churches, LLC and Pastor Emeritus Ginghamsburg Church says…

Clif Christopher has been my main go-to coach in applying practical biblical strategies for stewardship in the local church. This is an excellent read for church leaders who find themselves in church cultures adverse to using the “Tithe” word. A great reminder that we as followers of Jesus are the means to resource God’s mission in the world with practical tools to help us apply.

Talbot Davis is pastor of Good Shepherd UMC in Charlotte, NC, and author of Head Scratchers and Crash Test Dummies says…

Clif Christopher has written a Stewardship Tour De Force in God vs. Money.  I found the book both sobering and inspiring – sobering in its analysis of our culture’s obsession with money and yet inspiring in its description of the spiritual power of generosity.  Christopher does not flinch in his directives for pastors and church leaders – and I for one am glad for his boldness.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

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