A commitment to consistent financial stewardship — and the guidance of a like-hearted lending partner — enabled Blackhawk Church to set a course for debt elimination.
By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
For the finance team at Blackhawk Church in Madison, Wisc., solid financial stewardship is a priority.
Led by Director of Accounting & Administration Jon Mueller and Director of Operations Darren DeKeyser, a team of volunteers — which ensures an extra layer of accountability — makes it a point to periodically assess Blackhawk’s existing debt structure.
The team was aware that loan rates were dropping and were lower than the church’s existing rates, which were fixed. They wanted to take advantage of the historically low-rate environment to secure a long-term fixed rate loan.
“Our existing financing was flexible, allowing us to proceed,” Mueller recalls.
So, the goal quickly became to secure a more competitive long-term financing package. And if doing so could also help the church establish a trusted relationship with a lender to accommodate future growth, then that would be ideal.
Blackhawk reached out to several national church lenders and a regional bank to understand what (better) terms might be available. Most lenders would fix the interest rate for five years, but Blackhawk was interested in fixing the rate for a longer term.
In the end, Thrivent Church Financing — which was recommended to the church by a capital stewardship partner — was able to meet the church’s needs, presenting Mueller, DeKeyser and team with a number of rate and term options.
But it wasn’t just a matter of meeting the church’s financial needs; this lender also appeared to not just understand, but share, the church’s ministry objectives and culture.
Case in point: COVID
The past few years have presented several unique challenges to securing church financing: namely, uncertainty. Blackhawk wasn’t exempt from these concerns; but flexibility, along with planning and foresight, made them surmountable.
COVID was in full swing when the church began its conversations with Thrivent Church Financing. However, by quickly adapting and providing online services, engaging small groups, encouraging electronic giving, and maintaining a servant attitude, Blackhawk has maintained its financial strength and momentum throughout the pandemic.
Importantly, as DeKeyser points out, the church was committed to showing this flexibility to its lending partner if it helped. He and the team were prepared to share what contributions looked like over various periods in time, as well the plans enacted to minimize immense financial uncertainty.
But that’s not all Blackhawk had on its plate at the start of this new lending relationship: it was also in the midst of a planned senior pastor transition plan. Here again, transparency was critical.
“We understood that the senior pastor transition would be a part of our conversations and the lender’s discovery,” Mueller says. “We described Blackhawk’s existing structure and what it would look like in the future. Thrivent leadership was also able to observe transition videos and speak directly with the exiting senior pastor.”
In these ways, Mueller says, Thrivent Church Financing was able to observe a “healthy, well-planned transition” that would not negatively affect the relationship moving forward.
Freeing up funds
Blackhawk now enjoys more financial flexibility all-around, having successfully minimized interest expense, while maximizing ministry investment.
Across the board, budgets — which were reduced at the pandemic’s outset — have been increased. “While the overall budget has been relatively flat, the reduction in interest expense and the fully amortizing loan allowed for the deployment of dollars historically allocated toward principal and interest across other areas of the overall budget, including ministry,” DeKeyser points out.
When the pandemic draws to a close, he says the church expects the full effects of refinancing to continue. At some point, when the debt is completely paid off, those resources will be infused into the ministry.
“The Kingdom benefits when the Church is debt-free”
Thrivent Church Financing shared this guiding principle, and Mueller, DeKeyser and team understood the long-term benefit of aligning under this value.
“On more than one occasion, several Thrivent Church Financing staff have stated that their goal is not to burden the church with excessive debt or hamper the ministry, but to help enable the church to thrive regardless of the loan balance,” Mueller explains. “Ultimately, if the church is debt-free or reduces its principal and interest expenditures, more of its budget dollars can be deployed toward ministry and the health of the church.”