The Invisible Scandal: How Bad Debt and Poor Stewardship Are Killing the Church

Dreams cancelledThere’s a scandal going on in the church today.

It is one of the biggest scandals in church history, yet it remains invisible to most of us.

No, it’s not the sexual sins of some of our leaders. It’s not the physical, emotional and spiritual abuse of church members, or the cover-up of those sins. It’s not the self-righteous legalism on one side, or the moral compromise on the other. It’s not even our tendency to quarrel and back-stab each other.

Those scandals are horrifying, for sure. Many of them have been well-documented and need to be exposed to the light of day even more.

The scandal I’m talking about has flown under the radar for a long time – centuries, actually. It’s so common we seldom think of it as the sin it is, or how badly it hurts people and tarnishes the reputation of the church in the eyes of those affected by it.

The most widespread sin of the modern-day church is poor stewardship.

Too many churches are mishandling the money that has been entrusted to us. Many churches are enslaved by unsustainable debt. More churches close their doors every year because they are unable to pay their bills than for any other reason – maybe more than all other reasons combined.

No, this is not just a giving problem. Or a bookkeeping issue. It’s sin. And it is a scandal.

But it remains a virtually unknown and invisible scandal.

Here’s one small example of it.

Today’s post is part of an ongoing series on Money & the Small Church. Click here to read other posts in the series.


Bad Stewardship Hurts Real People – And Our Testimony

“They won’t rent to you because you’re a church.”

With those words, the whispered voice on the other end of the phone confirmed what I had suspected. For months I’d been trying to rent a property for our church to meet in on Sundays, only to be turned down each time by the company that owned the building we wanted. But I never got a valid explanation. So I kept at it.

The voice whispering the truth to me on the phone was the receptionist who I had talked to on multiple occasions. She knew I was frustrated and she wanted to help. After hearing what she said, I got angry. I was about to give her a piece of my mind about religious non-discrimination, but she kept talking. Her next words shocked and embarrassed me.

“I’m a Christian, too,” she told me, “so I’m ashamed to say this. But the reason they won’t rent to churches is because the last four churches we rented to never paid on time and all of them walked away owing us thousands of dollars. Some of them apologized for it. They had rented beyond their means, believing that if they took this step of faith the money would come in. But it didn’t and we were stuck with the bill.

“Everyone else we rent to has a proper budget and pays on time. And if they didn’t, we’d sue them. But what can we do when a church doesn’t pay? My boss isn’t a Christian, but he doesn’t think it’s right to sue a church, so the only answer is not to rent to churches any more.”

I apologized to her on behalf of the body of Christ for how her business had been hurt financially. Then I thanked her for her honesty and we said goodbye. I hung up, saddened again by the behavior of people who sully the name of Jesus because we’re not keeping our financial house in order. 


Bad Stewardship Hinders Generosity

Churches regularly complain that people don’t give as much to their church as they used to. That is true. But one of the primary reasons people don’t give is when they see a ministry that’s not treating their gifts with good stewardship.

No one wants to give to a church just to help us pay off our debts. Debts that we probably should never have incurred in the first place.

A church that is struggling to pay off its debts is not free to do what God is calling us to do.

The bible couldn’t be more clear on this subject. According to Proverbs 22:7, ‘”the borrower is servant (slave) to the lender.” 

When a church is struggling to pay their debts, they can’t do the ministry they’re supposed to be doing. When we default on our loans, we are stealing from the people who supplied goods and services to us. When a once-vibrant church has to disband and sell its building to condo developers, the church as a whole becomes just a little more irrelevant and a lot less trusted to everyone who sees it happen.

But a church that honors its obligations and works within its financial means is free to do ministry for others. Including the ministry of being a good example of financial stewardship for others to learn and gain freedom from.

People want to give. God wants to provide. Our churches need to be places worthy of those gifts and that provision.


It’s About Integrity, Not Money

Do a Google search for church giving trends and you’ll find thousands of articles about how people are giving less and how to get them to give more. Then do a Google search for trends in church debt and you’ll find… the same thing. Thousands of articles about how people are giving less and how to get them to give more. But almost nothing on how many churches close every year due to overwhelming debt – not to mention those that are falling behind on paying their mortgages, rent and salaries.

We place almost all the blame on the shoulders of tithers and givers (or non-tithers and non-givers), but we pay almost no attention to how well (or how poorly) most churches are managing the funds that are given to them.

This may sound terribly unspiritual to many of you, but we can’t pray our way out of problems like this.

Bad stewardship undercuts the impact of our prayers.

Jesus said it best in the Parable of the Talents when he told us we have to be faithful in the lesser things (like money) before he will entrust us with greater things (like an expanded ministry). Monetary stewardship is a test. A test of our integrity. A test that too many of us are failing.

We have to manage our money with more integrity. 

The ministry of your church depends on it. The effectiveness of your church depends on it. The reputation of your church depends on it. The very survival of your church depends on it.


So what do you think? What ideas do you have for churches to be better financial stewards?

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(Dreams Cancelled photo from Chris Devers • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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6 thoughts on “The Invisible Scandal: How Bad Debt and Poor Stewardship Are Killing the Church”

  1. Another great post and as someone who is new to working through some financial issues as a pastor to a church I find this and many other articles very helpful. Actually had this discussion at my previous church and considered it a strength that my present church did not have any debt, nor have had any for a long while, when I was interviewing. Thanks!

  2. Hudson Taylor (i think) made the comment that “The Lords work done the Lords way won’t lack the Lords provision.”
    I know that is not scripture, but is sums up very well what the scriptures teach.
    It seems dying to what we want and waiting on the Lord to know what He wants isn’t any easier for us than it was for Israel.
    I know local churches have to be incorporated by state law, keep records, minutes, ect, ect. But we don’t have to manage our finances using worldly principles. God rewards faithful ministry, not necessarily successful ministry.
    Watchman Nee, after visiting the US and observing her churches had this comment 80 years ago, “it is amazing what the American church has accomplished with out the aid of the Holy Spirit.” I don’t think that was a compliment.
    Enjoy reading your blogs, keep us the good work,

  3. Karl, I don’t have access to data that you may have access to, and I know I have a small sample size, but in my 61 years of life, all of it in conservative evangelical/charismatic/Pentecostal churches, I personally know of only one church that struggled to pay their bills because they took on too much debt. The only other church that I personally know of that came close to bankruptcy, did so after a church split that took 40% of the congregation. They weathered the storm and seem to be doing fine now. On the other hand, I know of many churches that pay their mortgage debt on-time, support missions heavily and underpay their pastor and other staff because that seems to be the easiest place to cut when funds are short. Having been a church treasurer, board member, and for the last fifteen years, a pastor, I can say that giving trends are going the wrong way and it isn’t related to poor stewardship. It’s related to a sense of entitlement, consumerism and good old selfishness. I thank God for the faithful minority who are carrying the financial burden for the majority.

    1. No doubt people are giving less now, Ken. And there are definitely those with a sense of entitlement. But if our churches are filled with people like that, then leadership has to ask what part we may have played in that. I’d rather write about how we can fix our faults than get mad at something we have little, if any, control over.

      I don’t have stats for how many churches are defaulting due to bad stewardship and mounting debt because, as I said in the title and the post, this scandal is mostly invisible – for now, anyway. But in my travels and my conversations with leaders of many denominations, I’m hearing about a lot more churches being lost due to poor stewardship and mounting debt. In fact, I’m convinced that our poor stewardship may be one of the big reasons people are giving less now.

      I talked about this issue in another post. Here’s a link to it, if you’re interested.

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