Recently I watched a ministry organization that I dearly loved close its doors after decades of amazing service. The reasons for this ministry’s demise were financial, and the key factor that brought it all on was a growing burden of debt.
Managing money in a ministry is a large and important task. Although people don’t usually get into full-time ministry because they love dealing with finances, it takes great financial management to make a ministry viable over the long term. That involves both a lot of hard work and a lot of wisdom. Fortunately, God’s word contains a lot of great principles for dealing with money, and those principles apply just as much to ministry finances as they do to personal finances.
One of the key aspects of biblical financial wisdom is that it warns us to stay away from debt. That can be hard to do in a culture like ours, which is so dependent on borrowing and lending. But if you want to keep your ministry from encountering an untimely demise, it’s critical to keep your organization out of debt.
Why is debt such a big deal? There are a bunch of reasons. The first is that debt makes slaves of us — Proverbs 22:7 tells us that “the borrower is slave to the lender.”
That may sound like a purely philosophical point, but there’s a lot of practical wisdom in it. You see, when you’re in debt, your creditors expect you to pay back some of the money that you’ve borrowed every month, along with some interest. So until you’ve totally paid off your debts, your finances are restricted by what you’ve borrowed. Your organization doesn’t have the freedom to spend its operational money according to the needs of the moment, because some of that money is already committed to paying off debt. Many people wrongly think that borrowing allows them to do more with their money, when in fact it allows you to do less.
Another big issue with debt is that it increases risk, for individuals and organizations alike. The monthly payments that it takes to service your debt tie up portions of your organization’s cash flow, which can make it harder to pay for new projects, needs or expenses. If you’re having trouble paying your bills, it can be tempting to borrow more money… thus creating a cycle of debt that puts you more and more in the hole. Eventually, you won’t be able to make the payments on the money that you’ve borrowed, forcing your organization into bankruptcy.
Carrying debt exposes ministry organizations to risks that they don’t face if they operate debt-free, and it removes the flexibility to respond to changing financial circumstances. If your debt-free ministry encounters a declining cash flow, you can adjust your spending patterns to help balance the checkbook. You can spend less, adjust your staffing, transition to part-time, or take other actions to keep everything square until the cash flow improves. If you’re in debt, though, you don’t have the financial flexibility to restructure. Those creditors demand to be paid, and the payments don’t go away if you encounter cash flow issues. In fact, those debts are the very things that will cause an organization to go bankrupt in the face of difficult financial situations that it could otherwise ride out.
It can be tempting to take on debt for lots of reasons: To buy new equipment, to purchase a piece of property, to float through rough financial times. But the costs to your organization are always, always, always higher than the benefits. Debt can cripple the effectiveness of your ministry, or even bring it to a halt completely. If your organization survives on donations or other outside support, you owe it to your supporters to manage money in a responsible way. After all, it’s not really their money or your money — it’s God’s money, and He intends to see it used for the benefit of His kingdom. When you have to use that money to pay debt, it’s not really being effective in the Kingdom. All it’s doing is enriching the bankers who loaned the money to you in the first place.
If you run a ministry organization, I hope you’ll take this warning seriously. Debt can destroy the great work that you’ve spent a career building. In this world where there is so much work to be done, we can’t afford to watch great organizations fold because of financial mismanagement. Steer your ship clear of debt, for the Kingdom’s sake.
Photo by Dan Moyle. Used under Creative Commons License.