contributed by Rev. Dr. Michelle Morris, First UMC Bentonville
The Year of Jubilee was a celebration that was meant to take place every fifty years in Ancient Israel in which the land laid fallow and was allowed to recover, and all past debts were canceled and people were returned to their ancestral land. It was meant to be a restart for the whole people. As FUMC Bentonville sought to eliminate the remaining $192,000 of past debt, we decided to step into the promise of the year of Jubilee through a campaign to reduce our debt. Here were some guiding principles and lessons learned in the course of this campaign that might be useful as others take on similar challenges.
You cannot always find the “perfect time” to eliminate debt. When the Finance Committee considered taking on this effort, we recognized that the timing in some ways could not be worse: inflation was rising and the church was still rebuilding after Covid losses. However, that same rise in inflation was a motivating factor. Our interest rate was set to go from 4.5% to Wall Street prime plus 1.5%. Whatever debt we could eliminate before then would be critical in saving us significantly before then. We did not have “perfect timing” before us, but we did have urgent timing. We also asked, “Is there ever a ‘perfect’ time to ask people to clear old debts?
Transparency is key. We shared that information about the interest rate. We also shared how much debt there was. We shared how we got into debt in the first place. We shared how much money we had in the bank. We were honest and open with everyone in letters, in sermons, offertory moments, and one-on-one meetings exactly where we were and how we got here. That transparency went a long way in building trust.
You need to be faithful with a little before you will be trusted with a lot. And speaking of trust, it was important that we showed ourselves to be trustworthy. We did that by getting the budget down in line with what we actually were seeing in giving. We made cuts in staff, which were painful but were also our greatest adjustable expense (there is little that can be done about building costs like utilities). Once people saw that we were behaving in a trustworthy way with what they had already given us, they were more likely to give us more. It was the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) coming to life.
You need a plan. When asking people to help you reduce or eliminate debt, they need assurance that you are not going to turn right around and get back into debt. We put that foundation down when we brought our budget in line. Then, we also had a plan for how we would pay off any debt that remained after the campaign, as well as a timeline for that plan.
You get to extend an invitation. Sometimes we are hesitant to ask people to give, and especially to give over and above their usual amount, to the church. Asking them to give to debt can be even more intimidating. Reframe what you are asking. Share that they are giving to God, which is always what we ask when we ask to give. Also, we shared that they would be giving to freedom: releasing us from an old wound and freeing up funds to do greater mission and ministry. We also shared a vision that we intend to move our budget toward giving 25% to mission and ministry by 2030. We extended an invitation to them to be part of that incredible, liberating, mission-affirming work. That is an exciting invitation to extend!
You should use all available resources. Pastor Michelle Morris was invited to be part of a Financial Cohort offered by the Methodist Foundation for Arkansas. She learned many of these principles as part of that cohort, allowing her to lead the Finance Committee through its work. If that cohort comes around again, consider being part of that work. But also remember that regardless, we are a connectional church. You don’t have to try to organize this alone. Talk with other Finance Committees and other pastors who have done similar work and brainstorm possibilities for your context.
Remember, we serve a God of abundance, not scarcity. We planned a Debt Reduction Campaign, with two more components to follow that would have cleared our debt in three years. Instead, we held a Debt Elimination Campaign, because, after just over 2 weeks of sharing this challenge with the congregation, we had commitments to cover 100% of the debt before our interest rate rises! We are so grateful to the faithful people of our congregation. But we are also awestruck by our God who continues to provide and surprise in abundant ways. May you have such an experience as well!