The Hidden Side of Paying Off Church Mortgages Early—We Can’t Take It With Us

A really good church (whose leaders I once met on a trip out west) recently kicked off a Capital Campaign to pay off their building mortgage early. Their motivational tagline is, Financial Freedom-Missional Freedom. I just don’t buy it. The order seems out of line with the gospel.

overloaded vehicles 1086

It reminds me of the Parable of the Rich Fool who stores up his wealth for the future. He says to himself, “Soul, You’ve stored up plenty of good things for many years. Take it easy” (Luke 12:19). Then God comes along and says, “Tonight your soul is required of you.”

What if God were to return the day their mortgage is fully paid. I think he’d say, “You have seven million dollars buried in your building; of what use is that now?

Because where we are going, we can’t take it with us.

Daily Bread

My own church—like that Capital-Campaign-Church—began by meeting in local school buildings. We had enough resources to cover missions, salaries, and building rental. And God provided our daily bread.

There is great mental value in a monthly rental model; we ask God for resources to cover our daily expenses. Even if we own our church building, the mental model of a monthly mortgage helps. We haven’t built up treasures on earth. We can’t say to our collective soul, “Take it easy, our building is paid for.”

When the children of Israel were in the wilderness, God provided daily bread in the form of manna. Any manna collected for “tomorrow” bred maggots and stank.

God gives enough for today. We can’t take it with us.

The misplaced priorities of today and tomorrow

Their argument goes like this. If we work extra hard today to pay off our three and a half million dollar mortgage, then tomorrow we’ll have an extra three hundred thousand dollars a year for mission and outreach.

I know the argument, but it doesn’t work. Who knows what tomorrow brings? We only have today.

Why not campaign today to increase mission funding and tomorrow we pay off our building? In fact, why not take a second mortgage on the church—a type of selling all we have—to serve other missions? Or use it to pay off the mortgage of a poorer church?

The thirty year-old church above is the daughter another church that was only twelve years-old when it planted them. That “mother” church itself was the daughter church of yet another church plant.

This church has church planting in its DNA. Why not raise capital to start another church in a poor neighborhood or another city? I think they bury their talents in a building today for Missional Freedom tomorrow.

The mental model of monthly needs

Let’s go back to our mental model of monthly needs. There is great value in asking God for our monthly needs. It forces us to rely on God’s moment-by-moment provision.

Many churches begin by renting schools. They ask God to supply their daily needs.

Eventually, the human-resources required for weekly setup becomes a burden. We want to use our time (as well as our money) for outward services of mission, not just inward services of chair and sound system setup. So we buy a building.

But that building mortgage still fits in our mental model of asking for monthly needs.

That church with the new capital campaign has a monthly mortgage of less than fifteen percent of its monthly budget. That seems about right. Probably too low. There’s got to be a reasonable percentage; too big a monthly percentage makes us church-poor and too little of a percentage is a treasure on earth that moth and rust destroys.

What’s so bad about considering our monthly mortgage just like our old monthly rental? We use our today’s money for today’s needs. Why build up treasures here on earth?

Why the big push to pay it off, delaying (yet again) their built-in DNA to church plant?

These are really good folk

I know that this is a gospel-centered church, really good folk. I once met with  its staff and I respected every single one. I would recommend their church to  newcomers to their city. I don’t mean to pick on them. I wish all churches were led half as well.

And I suspect they’ve considered everything I raise here.

But their new campaign stirred this question that haunts me every time I hear of other churches doing the same thing. Why invest all this energy in an earthly asset? Ask me to invest in souls, yes. Ask me to invest in a building? Yuck! We can’t take it with us.

How much better it would be if some of our business-folk formed companies to purchase our churches and simply lease them back. Our churches would be free of earthly possessions; we could pray, “Give us this month our monthly lease payment.”

On the other hand

But maybe I’m wrong. Yet again. And maybe the “worldly wisdom” of other churches is right. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced. Let’s pay off our mortgages today, so that tomorrow—when there is surplus—we can support missions.

So here is my idea. I’m going to quit tithing for the next five years. I’ll bury that money to pay off my mortgage and prepay all of my future property taxes. Maybe it’ll take ten years.

Once paid, I’ll have lots of extra money to help with my church’s Capital Campaign. I’ll give out of my surplus. Of course, that means the church’s mission work won’t get funded for twenty years. I’ll first pay my mortgage then help the church pay theirs. And then we’ll do mission together.

Who knows, maybe in twenty years or so, we’ll be able to start that new church plant or help that inner city church pay their expenses.

Although in twenty years I’ll probably be dead. And I can’t take it with me.

Sam

++++++++

If you like this, please share it with a friend using a button below:

I need your help; because You are my marketing department.
  The primary reason people read these articles is because friends like you share them with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Would you please share it by pressing one of the share buttons above?
I can't thank you enough.

I reserve the right to remove offensive, off-topic, or lengthy comments (see the Comment Policy page).

What do YOU think?

26 thoughts on “The Hidden Side of Paying Off Church Mortgages Early—We Can’t Take It With Us

  1. I’m with you on this Sam. After recently reading “Pagan Christianity” my eyes have been opened to the waste in having a church building at all. Since it will take some time (if it ever happens) to get us back to really being the church, and meeting in homes or ad hoc buildings, your suggestion makes sense in the meantime.

    • Cynthia, I always love your comments. I had completely forgotten about “Pagan Christianity.” Good reminder.

      American churches (at least) are in such a mess, I don’t know where to begin. Fortunately, God seems to figure things out just about the time we finally and desperately gasp, “God help us!”

      Sam

  2. Great article Sam! I like the line “Ask me to invest in souls, yes. Ask me to invest in a building? Yuck! I’ve had my stomach turned a few times listening to these projects. You are not the only one making some noise about needed changes here. Last year I heard a pastor speak about his change from the “Church Focused Framework” of ministry, to the “Kingdom Focused Framework” of ministry. Most of his life (churches he went to, seminary training, current church he pastors) was based on the Church focused i.e. “take care of the franchise first” way of thinking. It was so encouraging to see someone in church leadership step out of the wrong model, he even presented this change in a model on a Sunday morning service. Very bold, and his people followed.

    • Hi John,

      The pastor you mention is bold. I like it.

      We have a hard balance to strike. There is much wisdom in all kinds of areas that we apply to churches; some of it is good and some of it isn’t.

      Churches are not primarily businesses to which we exclusively apply business wisdom. But neither are we to be stupid and completely ignore understanding budgets and fund allocation.

      My concern is simply making treasures on earth.

      There are roughly 350,000 churches in the US alone. Let’s say 1/3 of them own buildings (I can’t find the figures). If each building was worth $150,000, the total value of church buildings in the US is: $15,750,000,000.

      That’s a lot of billions of dollars that will be buried treasures when Christ returns.

      (Though I don’t know how many churches DO own their buildings, nor do I know the average value. I suspect the actual value is even higher.)

      Sam

  3. Sam interesting thoughts, some I agree with but others well. I tend to agree that if the church is able to have a building campaign of 2.5 mil then long before we go there something went wrong possibly but like you said that could be wrong.

    • I’m laughing at your reply. You agree with some of the thoughts and you’re not so sure about the others.

      Honestly? Me too.

      I hear of so many churches buying into worldly wisdom.

      I’m not sure what is right, but the huge investments in building assets just seems wrong.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Sam

  4. Very thought-provoking! Just curious: would you apply this same thinking to keeping personal debt? Would you ever encourage someone to get out of debt completely? Seems like similar principles would apply.

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for this thought provoking and challenging question.

      I do NOT think we should apply the principles the same way. Churches are not primarily businesses, they are missions. They are not (or shouldn’t be) inward facing ghettos, they are outward reaching expressions of the body of Christ.

      If we used the business models, almost every pastor should be paid much more than they are, (based on their level of education and experience). But they don’t receive as much as others of comparable education, because they recognize the mission element of their service. (Of course there are scandalous exceptions, but that is why they are scandalous.)

      Churches–if anyone at all–should exemplify resting in God’s daily provision and not building up treasures on earth.

      I genuinely wonder what Christ will about the Church’s accumulated wealth upon His return.

      We need to question worldly wisdom. I know a few Christian families that simply sold their house and now just pay rent. They say they are much more at peace; but they don’t say it is for everyone.

      I know some Christians who say they earn more in the stock market than the cost of their mortgage interest; they say it is better to make profit in investments than pay off the low, tax deductible interest.

      And I know others who have paid off their mortgage and are more peaceful that way.

      I think a more important question is how much should we invest in our church buildings period. I see too many monstrous investments in church fortresses.

      When St. Francis first heard God tell him to build his church, his first instinct (like so many of us) was to work with bricks and mortar.

      God wanted him to change hearts. Which he did.

  5. Sam, you assume a lot of negative things when you write this! I believe it is wrong for Christians to be in debt corporately or personally. It is a bad witness. It is possible to have a campaign to pay off church mortgages AND still be zealously, first and foremost investing in souls! If you pay off debt, God also blesses you in abundance of material things needed to really make a difference. Then you are coming from a place of right order, not indebtedness. I’m involved in a church that is paying off the mortgage on the side while Very Heavily invested in intercity mission work, international mission work, inner city(s) mission work, campus outreach, youth work and strongly pushes mission work every day in every way. Believe me, investing in souls is first, and the mortgage payoff is still happening!

    • Hi Marie,

      Thanks for commenting, and thanks for disagreeing with me. We all need to examine what we believe, and it is good for us to be challenged, as you do to me.

      I agree that it is not my place (at all) to judge another’s heart. I can’t do it anyway. Only God knows knows our thoughts, our backgrounds, our wounds, our parents, our temptations, and our inner workings.

      I’m thrilled you are a member of a church that is invested in mission work. That’s terrific.

      I still question the spiritual value of investing in paying off the mortgages, leaving that asset in a cold, brick and mortar building. If it is “wrong” for Christians to be in debt, the church should never have taken a mortgage out in the first place, and they should sell their building now and rent until they can pay cash for one. Why would they take out a mortgage, and later say it is wrong to be in debt?

      Did you ever see Schindler’s List? It is the true story of a German man who saved the lives of more than a thousand Jews during WW II. He uses his own personal fortune to bribe Nazi officials and guards, all to save souls. His personal fortune runs out just when the war is over.

      In the end he is sad because he realizes he could have saved more souls if he had sold his car and his watch.

      That is my hope for our churches; that we save souls with our last pennies, not that we pay off mortgages for a building that will crumble.

      Sam

      • Sam,

        While I agree on your point about big churches, if a church already has a mortgage, I think they should pay it off.

        Proverbs 22:7 is pretty clear about that. “The rich rules over the poor, And the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.”

        While the Bible doesn’t outright say that we shouldn’t give ourselves to slavery (or maybe it does and I just can’t put my finger on it), most critical readers would understand what is being implied here. How would this not apply to a church?

        Further, your argument completely ignores a very critical factor of debt….risk. There are so many things that could happen to cause a church financial troubles. Many churches have had to close their doors due to money issues the congregations probably considered to be unforeseen. Those things aren’t unforeseen. Crazy, unlikely, and expensive things will happen. When a church carries no debt, they free their funds not only to pay for the missions that are so critical, but to also pay for the “unexpected” expenditures that could cause the church to close their doors.

        Maybe instead of suggesting that churches not pay off the mortgage early, maybe you should suggest they sell that big, expensive, earthly treasure?

        • Hi Fabdancr1,

          Thanks for entering into this discussion.

          I love the fact that we can have people from different cities and varied church backgrounds … and just talk about issues.

          We should do more of this.

          I like your conclusion (or suggestion). Maybe some churches should sell off that earthly treasure; and maybe some of us with large houses should consider it as well.

          Thanks,

          Sam

  6. I love this principle and the perspective it encourages. I’m just hesitant to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to churches (although I sense you may be disclaiming that much, as well).

    My husband runs a non-profit that is mission-oriented. It’s often been tempting to prioritize the financial bottom line over the mission, especially when there are danger signs among the funding sources. But he has repeatedly found that if you serve the mission first, the funding is always there.

    He’s not particularly mystical about it, though. These are the questions he tells his Finance Officers to ask themselves when the payroll looks iffy: 1) Have we been prudent stewards of the resources we have? 2) Have we been appropriately pursuing sources of support? If the answers to both those questions is ‘yes,’ then he tells them to just trust God with a clear conscience. If the answer to either one is ‘no,’ then they know how to address the problem.

    His organization isn’t a church, and the pursuit of funding sources involves conventional fundraising, but the principle is apparently sound, because they’ve managed to flourish through decidedly hard times for non-profits.

    • Hi Martha,

      Yes. I dislike one-size-fits-all. That is part (at least) of the reason I wrote this article. The current wisdom-of-the-world says pay off church debts, “debt is bad.” I want to say, “wait a minute … is there another way to look at it first?”

      For example, the average American family spends about $150 per month for gasoline. From what I can tell, families of that Capital-Campaign-Church pay only about $100 per month (maybe less) toward their mortgage. So, is their mortgage really worth a huge investment of time, money, effort, attention, and distraction from their main mission? I think not.

      I don’t exactly remember the numbers from your husband’s non-profit, but my recollection is this. At one time, they received about 80% of their funding from various government agencies. They decided that they didn’t want to be beholden, so they thought outside the box and now receive only about 20% from government agencies.

      Most people would say, “the government is paying 80%…Great!” Your husband (and the board) took a different approach–not worldly wisdom–and I like that.

      Thanks

    • Your husband Nathan is a wise man!

      I sometimes wonder if all of American Christianity wouldn’t do better if we all lost our buildings.

      It would shake us up, and force us to re-approach our missions more organically and less mechanically, more like a true body and less like a badly-run business.

      Sam

  7. Only thing I can say is that I am convicted. That being said, I am going to up my giving to be the biggest line item on my budget and still pay off my home early. My congregation has been debt free for ten years and has built three different times. Wonder why? Something doesn’t add up with real life economics and the way this article portrays “Good Stewardship” of the Lords money.

    • Ok. After reading some other comments I agree with large buildings. If your congregation gets that big you need to plant another church.

      • Hi Benny,

        Thanks again for your comments.

        I’m inclined to agree. I prefer smaller churches where we actually can become a body and know everyone.

        Having said that, again I don’t any of us to be dogmatic on this kind of preference. There are good reasons for large sizes and good reasons for small congregations. We should each prayerfully consider God’s desires for us.

        Thanks,

        Sam

    • Hi Benny,

      Thanks for your thoughts, and thanks for taking the time to share them.

      I’m not firmly fixed on my idea of church debt, and I hope those who believe in debt-freedom also aren’t dogmatic. There is value in considering both approaches.

      I simply hope we at least think of the value of simply asking God to cover our daily (or monthly) needs.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Sam

  8. My church is at the moment going thru renovations. After many years of thinking, praying, dreaming for a bigger building, the leadership has finally settled into just renovating what is there. They have painted walls, changed tiles and floors. New cabinets have been added to the nursery, the bathrooms have been remodeled somewhat. Pastor is now asking for money to pay for the new carpet that will cover the sanctuary.

    Like you, I shudder at the thought of spending that kind of money into stuff. I shudder when they spend money into junk food to feed people on their outreach “ministries” at church. We are tithers but I would rather see the money be used to feed a child, provide an education, support a pastor who is preaching the gospel and delivering people from evil, than use that money for stuff like church decoration. Then again, I have heard people say that wood floors and decorations will cause a person to stay and hear the Word of God. Who knows???!!!

    PS I have no clue if our church is paid off or not. Will definitely ask and find out this weekend.

    PS1. My home mortgage bothers me a lot too. I wish I didn’t have the debt. I wish I didn’t have the liability. Is it an asset when there is constant worry about it’s condition and value? Sometimes it feels like a burden.

    • Hi Tereza,

      Great personal comments.

      Let me comment on you PS1. I completely understand the burden that a personal home mortgage debt can have.

      I think different people have different tolerances, and we should simply understand ourselves, and pray about the issue.

      Some financial counselors suggest we all pay off mortgages as soon as we can. Some financial counselors say that if our home interest rate is low, it would be better to invest that money than pay off a low interest loan.

      I think there is wisdom in both approaches, and we need to understand our own tolerance for risk, and we need to seek God.

      Thanks for your comments,

      Sam

  9. “Financial Freedom and Missional Freedom” are not as strongly linked as their motto assumes. Before I finished reading your post, I kept thinking the same thing as you, Sam: “I’ll give generously to others once I finish paying off my mortgage early.” That’s called self-deception. And we’re ALL good at it!

    The truth of the matter (as the pastor of a 500-person church) is that if the church is NOT currently moving towards a missional orientation (before their mortgage is paid off), it NEVER will!

    In addition, financial “freedom” does not necessarily mean “no debt” (going against St. Dave Ramsey here), though it can mean that. Biblical freedom means integrity, obedience, and faithful stewardship. We still have a mortgage on our house, but we sense a financial freedom that many do not because, by God’s grace, we spend with self-control, give generously, and save appropriately.

    The second term: “Missional freedom” is a complete misnomer. We ALREADY have that freedom! It’s really a matter of obedience or disobedience. And that has nothing to do with the size or length of my mortgage!

    However, to be fair, whether or not you agree with what this particular church has decided for their congregation, I also believe that (1) God will lead different congregations to hold different financial priorities (just like different families) and ultimately they must stand before God for the stewardship of their “talents” (Matt. 25) – which includes financial stewardship and missional obedience, and (2) it’s always touchy with blogs because we have freedom of expression (on one hand), but it can also be easy to objectify things and say things that can be perceived as a personal attack (you were gracious, so this doesn’t apply to this post necessarily but a truth in general).

    • Hi Berkeley Pastor,

      Thank you for your great thoughts and for taking time to offer them to us.

      I especially appreciate your challenge (and warning) to me to be careful in my blogging. I want my focus to be on issues, but you rightly point out that my examples can be perceived as personal attacks, and so I must work extra hard to be careful.

      I will take that to heart; and you please feel free to point out to me when I go over the line. (I just gave you a hunting license to my heart!!)

      I also appreciate your “one size does NOT fit all” approach to this issue. Thank you. I don’t want to be dogmatic about my perspective. There are tons of good reason for a church to pay off their mortgage, and I wish to respect that.

      Lastly, the church in this article is really a good church, and they already are involved in much mission. I believe they will use the freed up money for missions. So they do missions already, and they will continue to do so.

      Thanks.

      Sam

  10. Sam,
    You bring up a good point about how we see ourselves and interpret reality based of what is most likely flawed analysis. I’ve just finished 2 books that challenged faulty thinking in very different ways: HOW NOW SHALL WE LIVE? by Charles Colson [of Watergate notoriety and Prison Fellowship fame] and Nancy Pearcey; and SOUL SURVIVOR: HOW THIRTEEN UNLIKELY MENTORS HELPED MY FAITH SURVIVE THE CHURCH by Philip Yancey, a noted Christian author.
    Yancey’s examination of this type of thinking (not your particular application, but several similar) by looking at people who lived the gospel in some radically different ways is refreshing, but challenging. Many of the names in there you’d recognize–Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Paul Brand, Dr. C. Everet Koop, Henri Nouwen, G.K. Chesterton, John Donne, Tolstoy/Dostoyevsky (as one chapter/mentor), Pulitzer winner Annie Dillard and nominee Frederick Buechner, and even a non-Christian who “lived” the gospel more radically than most Christians, Mahatma Gandhi. There is also one totally unknown (to me). Shusaku Endo, whose analysis of Japanese culture and the resistance to the gospel there is fascinating (they need to know the Mother-heart of God–consider the Japanese axiom stating the four most awful things on earth: “fires, earthquakes, thunderbolts, and fathers”–interesting to me in light of the father-wounds of our culture, and the teachings of Eldredge, Barkalow, and others in that vein). I found the book challenged me in a myriad of ways in relation to how I understand my faith.
    Colson & Pearcey are more challenging directly–they address how we need to be in meaningful dialog with our culture based on ideas and the worldviews behind. Essentially there are only two worldviews, Christianity (God/Christ-centered) and humanism (revealed as atheism, agnositicism, scientism, evolution, mechanistic systems, etc.). The deep roots of the thinking are revealed, they believe, in 3 key questions: Where did we come from? (Creation) What has gone wrong? (The Fall) and How do we fix it? (Redemption) Out of seeking to understand our presuppositions and interpretation of these concepts, we then ask the question revealed in the title: How do we respond? How do we live our lives transformationally in relation to that?
    I think to some extent the question you’ve addressed is related to these kinds of faulty thinking. I don’t have the answer, and I find I identify more with speakers who say things like, “God/the Holy Spirit has left the Church” and “The Church has left the building,” and think in concepts of marketplace ministry, church outside the walls, etc. Still, I’m not comfortable with “no church”–which is actually where I find myself–still struggling to put an incarnational meaning to it.
    I do find some solace in reading Buechner (as quoted by Yancey): “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it becse in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
    I just have to keep coming back to that grace, for me, and for all those I encounter.
    Thanks for bringing up these kinds of issues and challenges. We need that.

  11. Sam,
    I’m compelled to ask what your purpose in writing this particular piece might be.
    It’s certainly fine to have an opinion, but a blog does not seem the proper venue for this type of thing; especially where personal relationships are involved.
    To be fair, I should mention that I’ve read some of your articles (on other sites), and have found them thought-provoking and helpful. Some of your blog posts, however, have me asking, “Why?”
    Honestly, I don’t think the biggest issue here is whether churches should have buildings, buildings with mortgages, or whether or not they should attempt to pay off mortgages early.
    Of greater importance is the body of Christ and what we are doing to bring about the unity Jesus himself prayed for. However, I’m certainly not saying Christians have to agree about everything, or that they shouldn’t engage in discussion about controversial matters.
    In this particular case, it seems meddlesome and potentially divisive to publicly criticize this church’s plan or judge their motives and intentions — especially if one is not personally involved in the issue. Each member of this church’s congregation is going to have to prayerfully consider what the Lord is asking of them in this matter, and each of them will be responsible for following His direction, whatever it may be — and He may ask for a different response from some than He asks from others.
    For the church as a whole, the truth is there are different ways to express faith in action: In some situations, the greater step of faith is in not planning too far ahead, while in others the greater faith response may be to have a long range goal and trust the Lord to provide for the daily needs which will help that goal be realized. Either way, faith and trust in God are essential.
    If this church is engaging with the broader community, (being salt and light), being faithful in their support of missions, and being generous with the property God has provided for them (i.e. they’re not just using it for themselves), then it would seem they are keeping the right perspective on this ‘earthly possession,’ and they are investing their talents in order for the Lord to both use and multiply them.
    In any case, they are the ones responsible for seeking the Lord’s direction for this issue.