By using credit and creative finance prudently, we need not embarrass our faith or harm our neighbors.
By Gary Moore
The ninth chapter of Luke describes the Transfiguration, when Jesus appeared with Moses and Elijah. Peter reacted in understandable awe, offering to construct a building for each. But, God responded by simply saying that Jesus is his Son and we should listen to him.
That hasn’t prevented Christian leaders from wanting to glorify God by building magnificent structures since. We should understand, however, that doing so usually comes with spiritual and financial stress.
Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation upon hearing a fundraiser preach some creative development theology. Tetzel was under stress to fund St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. Luther’s “95 Theses” were largely about the Roman church’s pragmatic approach to fundraising.
I glimpsed such stresses when I served on the finance committee, and as chair of the endowment committee, for Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA, at the peak of its ministry. Schuller admired the ministry of architecture; he’d constructed three buildings by four of the greatest American architects, and he hoped for a fourth.
Before I joined the board, it had given Schuller parameters for building that fourth facility, although there were concerns about costs. But, he got it done, as he was terrific at development. Schuller was excited — but some of us still believe it was the “beginning of the end.” Ironically, my impression is that those who most greatly enabled the building were the most vocal to subsequently criticize Schuller, which I thought was most unfair. Upon examining our balance sheet, I realized Garden Grove was cash-poor and asset-rich, which meant we were very dependent upon cash flow remaining stable. I also came to realize that Schuller more or less liked living on the edge: he seemed to believe that having cash meant he wasn’t reaching enough souls for Christ.
I run across that mentality in pastors fairly often. When I do, I remind them that God’s Word reminds us of the ant that stores up for winter, and that foresight doesn’t exempt temple priests.
I also remind stressed pastors of churches that are hardly used Monday through Saturday of the famous passage in Malachi that says the temple operated the storehouse — a lot like our modern-day food pantries. When not being used for worship, church facilities have also served as medical clinics, schools and so on. The idea is that there are various ways of being useful. For example, many churches simply donate space for various community events, such as AA meetings. Some also create supplemental income — as did the Cathedral — by operating schools, cemeteries, columbariums, and even turning steeples into cell phone towers.
But, there could be even larger opportunities than these. For example, Crystal Cathedral had auxiliary buildings on prime locations for which I proposed a sale lease-back — a strategy often used in the corporate world. In this approach, the building is sold to an investor and then leased back to the church for a period of time. The church essentially realizes a substantial amount of cash that can help it survive the inevitable winters. The cost comes in the form of future lease payments, which might better reflect the church’s long-term cash flow projections.
One crucial point, here: The time to consider making such “repairs to the financial roof” is when the sun is shining and investors are willing. When Crystal Cathedral entered its winter, Schuller asked me to come out and help him make such repairs. But, we both knew investors wouldn’t come out in the rain at that point.
A theology of moderation
Despite what you may have read elsewhere, I believe Crystal Cathedral was modestly leveraged; Schuller ran a prudent ship, in my opinion. But, that didn’t keep our mortgage from being another source of stress — a predicament I find extremely common in the American church.
As in Luther’s day, our theology regarding that issue tends to be pragmatic. On one hand are ministries that counsel Christians struggling with consumer debt. They often teach that the Bible discourages, or actually forbids, all forms of debt. I’ve even heard credit cards deemed “evil” by churches. I appreciate their motives; but, as demonstrated by Deuteronomy 15:8 and Luke 6:35, both Moses and Jesus taught that we have a moral obligation to lend to anyone in need, which, to my thinking, means credit is hardly unbiblical.
Even so, I believe too many of us in the financial industry regard debt too lightly. And, as the credit counselors say, it’s also true that the Bible says the borrower is the slave of the lender. Of course, Joseph was a slave — but he still stewarded Egypt — so the word “slave” didn’t have the same harsh connotation some credit counselors lend to it. It simply meant that borrowed money usually comes with restrictions, as do modern-day bank loans. And, Romans 13 is about owing others politically, not financially. So, I believe a theology of moderation is appropriate when it comes to credit.
Credit’s greatest danger is that we might not be able to service it, thereby harming both our neighbors and the reputation of our faith. For that reason, churches should at minimum be financed with one-third donations, one-third borrowings from members who’ll then have “skin in the game” of keeping the church alive, and the remaining one-third coming from outside borrowing.
After talking with a securities attorney, it’s often a simple process to issue bonds or promissory notes to members. They can even be purchased by IRAs and such with the assistance of an independent IRA custodian. Those large pools of savings might even allow megachurches to finance satellite churches. A sale lease-back to a friendly investor might easily substitute for borrowing from members.
Stated simply, I believe the use of credit and creative finance can allow churches to more immediately get on with God’s business, as well as to divert some of our savings from the world’s business —financing casinos, for example. By using credit and creative finance prudently, we need not embarrass our faith or harm our neighbors.
Yet, we should always remember the retirees and future college students who are dependent on our churches meeting their obligations. There will always be risks in financial transactions, particularly in today’s global economic climate. That reality demands a truly holistic theology of credit — one we might not have yet. Over the years, some well-intentioned, but theologically challenged, financial authors have taught that the Bible says borrowed money must be repaid, no matter what — even after filing for bankruptcy. That simply isn’t true; it’s reflective of our capitalistic culture.
Having worked on Wall Street for three decades, I know firsthand that investors like to get their hard-earned money back when they make loans by buying bonds and such. They usually deserve to recoup it, but not always — particularly if it causes enormous stress to borrowers who are truly suffering bad times.
As clearly demonstrated by Deuteronomy 15, a major financial teaching of Moses was seventh-year debt forgiveness. (Notice he even said loans had to be made as that year grew near, even though default was likely.) Nehemiah affirmed the concept of debt forgiveness (5:10-11). Jesus even did so when he taught us to pray that God would forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Gary Moore has written six books on the Judeo-Christian morality of political-economy and finance, including Faithful Finance 101 and Look Up America! He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.