By Chris Philbeck
I have been in ministry for 38 years, serving as senior pastor of three churches: a church plant, a turnaround church, and a megachurch. Over those years, my churches have borrowed money for ministry expansion. Raising money was not something I knew much about when I was young, but time and experience have helped me grow in this area of leadership. As the result, two of the three churches I have pastored became debt-free, including the church I serve today.
When I look at the opportunity being debt-free has provided those two churches to make a greater impact on our communities and the world, I am convinced it is the right strategy for the local church. But committing to a debt-free vision is required to make this happen. Every leader understands the power of vision. Vision gives us passion; it shapes our priorities and keeps us focused. There’s no reason why being debt-free can’t be a part of the vision of any local church.
Being Debt-Free Allows the Church to Make an Eternal Impact on Its Community
A few years ago, our church began what we call our IMPACT Ministries, which focus on making an impact on underserved and underresourced communities in the Greater Indianapolis area. This is a unique approach to multisite ministry and a big part of our vision for the future. The simple strategy is to identify underserved and underresourced communities and then live in them, learn about them, and love them.
We began by identifying a community south of downtown. We purchased and remodeled a home, moved a pastor and his family into that home, and then began the process of learning about and loving the community. That led to purchasing and remodeling an existing building to serve as an IMPACT Center where we would serve the community and plant a church. We did all of this without borrowing money because we have a debt-free vision.
We have identified our second IMPACT community, where we have acquired an existing church that will undergo a restart and provide us with a great opportunity to impact the community. Once again, we won’t be borrowing any money to make this happen.
Being Debt-Free Allows the Church to Make an Eternal Impact on the World
At the same time, we’ve been sending more money to our mission partners. This budget year we will give away more than $2 million to help train leaders, plant new churches, translate the Bible into the language of an unreached people group, and provide for a variety of relief and development efforts. We meet these needs through our annual budget, but being debt-free allows us to set aside additional money in our Global IMPACT fund so we can meet other needs, many of which are spontaneous.
For almost 30 years we have been the living-link partner for Ajai and Indu Lall (Central India Christian Mission). Not long ago we received a request for $60,000 to help with a physical need and to make up for a shortfall in their children’s fund. Being debt-free allowed us to send the money from our Global IMPACT fund without having to adjust other obligations or ask our congregation for more money.
How to Create a Debt-Free Vision that Makes an Impact
I have twofold advice for any church interested in increasing their ministry impact by being debt-free.
First, develop a long-term debt-free strategy. I believe in Proverbs’ simple teachings about money. That book teaches about the wisdom of planning ahead. For example, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5). Every church needs a financial plan for the future.
When we committed to being debt-free, we developed a budget plan to make it happen. We paid ourselves first and we incorporated the strategy of investing in The Solomon Foundation to help our money grow. At the same time, we limited the number of full-time staff we employed and focused on meeting ministry needs through recruiting volunteers and promoting a “we’re all in this together” approach among our existing staff. Finally, we were unapologetic in our teaching about generosity as a significant part of being a good steward, and we challenged our people to give generously. We even raised more than $1 million on a single weekend to help with a building expansion. Through all of this, our church continued to grow.
Second, remember your source. When God creates a need, he provides for it. There are dangers associated with borrowing money. Proverbs 22:7 says, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” Too many people and churches live in bondage to debt today, and that’s not God’s will for anyone. But another danger associated with debt is it can cause us not to exercise our faith in God’s ability to provide.
I love how, after Moses led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, they paused at Mount Sinai so God could teach them how to worship. They needed a place to worship, so God commanded that they take up an offering to build the tabernacle. What would a bunch of former slaves have to give? God had been preparing for that day for some time. All the way back in Genesis 15:13, 14, God had spoken to Abraham during a deep sleep and said, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.”
Abraham sometimes must have wondered what that meant because he didn’t live to see it happen. But Moses did. In fact, when God called Moses to deliver his people, he reiterated this same promise. Exodus 3:21, 22 says, “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.” And that’s what happened.
Hundreds of years before that moment in the desert when God told Moses to take up an offering, he had set in motion a plan to provide for that offering. Here’s what happened next. “Then the whole Israelite community withdrew from Moses’ presence, and everyone who was willing and whose heart moved him came and brought an offering to the Lord for the work on the tent of meeting, for all its service, and for the sacred garments” (Exodus 35:20, 21). Eventually, Moses had to restrain the people from giving more because they had already given more than enough.
When God creates a need, he provides for the need. I’m excited about the way God uses the local church to reach the world for Christ. And I’m committed to a debt-free vision for how that can happen through the church I lead.
Chris Philbeck has served as pastor of Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Indiana, since 2001.