The LORD shall open unto thee his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain unto thy land in his season, and to bless all the work of thine hand: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, and thou shalt not borrow (Deuteronomy 28:12).
HOUSTON?Common sense says that when a church corporately and as individuals operates and lives debt-free, weathering hard economic times is less burdensome. Money is also made available for building up the kingdom of God instead of the financial institutions to whom debtors are obligated.
In a season when corporate giants are falling because of financial problems and the economy is reeling from a national mortgage crisis, such common sense is especially timely.
Someone who can testify on this subject, Pastor John Morgan of Sagemont Church in Houston, has preached debt-free living more than 30 years and can tell of the blessings associated with such a commitment. As of August, Morgan said Sagemont has not been burdened by the economic downtown, has money in the bank, and is in the middle of a building program.
According to polling conducted by LifeWay Research in April and May, 65 percent of 778 Southern Baptist pastors polled said the economy is having a somewhat negative impact on their churches’ budgets. Even so, 52 percent said they expected to meet budget goals. The remaining pastors were evenly split with regard to budget projections, with 23 percent believing they would exceed budgeted plans and 24 percent anticipating a shortfall by year’s end.
Therein lies the problem, Morgan contends. In spite of all the work done by stewardship committees and all of the discussions and questions laid out during church business meetings, ultimately budgets are created based on two things. What did the church spend last year and what does the church anticipate spending in the next year? And, where is the money going to come from?
Such planning, he said, has nothing to do with an awesome God who promised to meet every need.
But such confidence did not come readily to Morgan, who 47 years ago began pastoring with the commonly held budget mentality that declared, “The way you keep a church together is to keep it in debt.”
The premise, he explained, was that when 10 members of a church co-sign a loan, those 10 members and the households they represent are not going to leave the church until the note is paid. Otherwise, they could face personal financial ruin if the loan goes into default.
When Morgan became pastor of Sagemont Church 43 years ago, it was a small church plant started by FBC Pasadena where his father pastored. The church was new, growing, and $660,000 in debt. Of the church’s $2,700 monthly budget, $1,370 went to debt retirement. Nothing out of the ordinary, he said.
When Morgan was elected moderator of the Union Baptist Association, he noted that churches in the Houston-area association gave $2.2 million dollars in charitable offerings, but paid $3.5 million alone on the interest for their debts.
“My simple mind said something’s wrong,” Morgan recalled.
Then he began reading the Bible. Of course it was not the first time the pastor read Scripture but it was the first time he recalled reading one specific verse and feeling the nudging of the Holy Spirit to rethink the way his church dealt with money.
Sagemont had committed, as a church, to read through the Bible in one year. It was early on in his reading that Morgan was struck by a verse in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 28:12, which explicitly stated?”thou shalt not borrow.” Morgan couldn’t get passed that verse.
“It just hit me. God was saying something to me specifically,” he recalled.
Still pondering the significance of the verse he had just read, Morgan turned to the front of his Bible.
Inscribed on the back of the cover was a word of encouragement from his dad who had given him the book. Also printed on the page was Philippians 4:19, “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”
During the course of his reading, Morgan said God kept pointing out specific passages of Scripture. Believers were called to action, called to build, and called to act. God, Morgan noted, always provided the means.
“I noticed that every time there was a building program in the Bible, God always paid for it in cash,” Morgan said, referencing how God prospered his people and through their means provided the material and manpower for building.
The debt within his association correlated with the fact that the debt of SBC churches, Morgan said, had exceeded the $1 billion mark in 1977, and other signs (literal and spiritual) impressed upon him that the people of God were trusting in lending institutions instead of God’s provision. With trust placed in bank notes, Morgan said the words of Proverbs 22:7 echoed in so many ways: “The borrower is servant to the lender.”
Knowing God wanted his church to get out of debt and stay out, Morgan called together three trusted, godly men and told them his plan. Essentially, the men agreed with their pastor’s interpretation of Scripture and agreed with the premise of operating debt free. But, two responded, it wasn’t practical or reasonable. The third wanted to know what the back-up plan would be.
“God is going to supply our need. I don’t know how to back that up,” Morgan recalled saying.
Ultimately the church was on board. Within 14 months the $660,000 debt was paid and just 40 days later, the congregation gave an additional $1 million to start the construction of a new auditorium.
Morgan said the church members were able to give so generously because as individuals they had also committed to living by the standard set by the church as a whole?living debt-free. Morgan created a financial planning program called “Financial Freedom Seminar” and walked his church through the process. Since it was first published in 1978 the seminar has been widely used as a tool for encouraging believers to have a biblical approach to dealing with personal finances.
Sagemont has since built a multimillion-dollar education facility; bought adjoining acreage for further building needs, and leased property?all without debt. There have been fits and starts in the land acquisition process, years when budget was not met, and inexplicable building and purchasing delays.
But in retrospect, Morgan said he has seen God at work through it all as his church has remained faithful to their commitment to live debt free.
Morgan cautioned that his preaching is by no means a “seed planting” gimmick as promoted by some television evangelists. He does not promise that for every dollar given to the church or a specific project, God will reward the giver with even more money. On the contrary, Morgan said his conviction is to remind believers that all they have belongs to God and they should develop a heart’s desire to give back.
By remaining debt free, Morgan said the members of his church have been a part of numerous ministries that would not have been possible were the church burdened by debt. A partial list of activities include: last year 2,018 people went on missions trips; the church poured people and resources into a dying church in San Leon, helping to give it a second life; the church provides scholarships for member students who are pursuing Christian educations; and a retreat, Danbury Lodge, was built with a variety of expectation for its use from providing a place where families could enjoy an inexpensive vacation to a respite for pastors and their wives seeking solace from burdens sometimes associated with life in the ministry.
“Once the church gets out of debt, it controls what they will do and not the bank,” Morgan said.
Aside from the interest