There's no doubt personal debt has played a key role in the current financial crisis. Debt levels have been climbing for several decades. And pastor, more than likely, they're climbing in your church.
You've got people in your church who are hurting – badly. A recent survey of Southern Baptist pastors by Lifeway Research showed that only one in four thought their parishioners were struggling with debt – well below the true national average. The average American is spending $1.25 for every $1 they make. My guess is that pastors from other denominations have the same false impressions of their congregation as well. Most of us have been clueless about the mounting personal debt among our church members.
Debt isn't just impacting our church's pews though. It's impacting the pulpits as well. Many ministries are sunk because pastors are so burdened by debt they leave the ministry for more profitable work.
Debt is a problem we can't ignore any longer. But how do we get out from under it? We've got to commit to these nine steps and help our congregations do the same.
1. Commit to becoming debt free now.
Pastor, this is the most difficult step of all, but it's also the most important. You've got to make a commitment to do this, and you've got to lead your congregation to do so as well. It's absolutely crucial. Paying off debt is something God blesses. The Bible says in Psalm 37: "The wicked borrow and do not repay…" (v. 21 NIV). God does not bless the wicked.
That means you can't take the easy way out and file bankruptcy. Sure, bankruptcy is legal. But that doesn't make it moral. It's not moral to stiff somebody out of debt. God says if you have a debt, you are to pay it off. Pastor, this is tough to preach in these difficult days. You've got people in your congregation considering this. They think it's their only option. Help them make this important commitment.
Nobody just drifts out of debt. You've got to be intentional and start with a commitment. We all want to be out of debt. But we have to do what it takes to do that. It isn't easy. It takes discipline. It takes perseverance. But it's also the right thing to do.
2. Start paying God and yourself first.
If you want to get out of debt, you've got to start tithing 10 percent (paying God) and saving 10 percent (paying yourself). People in debt will balk at this. They don't understand how tithing and saving will help get them out of debt. But if you wait until you pay off all your bills, you will never save and you will never tithe.
When we're in debt, we need God's help. That means we need to do it God's way. The fact is, whatever area we want God to bless, we have to put him first in. You want God to bless your finances? You better put him first in your finances. Jesus said, "Seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be added to you."
3. List all you own, owe, and earn.
You've got to keep good records. It's the principle of accounting. You need to know where your money has gone, where it's going, and where it's coming from. The Bible says this: "By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established." You're wise when you know where you money is going.
People say money talks. It doesn't talk! It just walks away quietly. Then you get to the end of the month and ask, "Where did my money go?" If you've ever asked yourself that question, you don't have a budget and you need one. A budget is telling your money where you want it to go rather than wondering where it went.
4. Have a sale.
You need to get rid of some of your stuff. You need to convert some of the "stuff" around your house to cash. Look around your house. Even if it's paid off, you may be better off selling it. Why? You're paying to maintain it.
Nothing should be off the table. If you've got a car, ask yourself what's the purpose of the car? If it's transportation, there are a lot of ways you can get from here to there. Is there a cheaper way to do so? Be radical. Can you buy a cheaper house to cut down on your monthly payments? Do whatever it takes. By the way, if you have something that you can't imagine getting rid of, it's not a possession, it's an idol. Nothing is off the table.
5. Set up a repayment plan to get out of debt.
You're never going to get out of debt accidentally. It's got to be intentional. You've got to have a plan. The Bible says, "Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity" (Proverbs 21:5 NLT). You'll need someone objective to help you do this. That's why at Saddleback we provide trained financial counselors to help people in financial crisis.
We need somebody who'll say, "Have you thought about this? Can you really afford it?" And, most importantly, they'll help you set up a repayment plan.
You don't have to be a big church to provide these financial counselors. Just find some folks in your church who love people and aren't scared by numbers. If the person has gotten out of debt themselves, that's even better. You can find fantastic training out there for church-based financial counselors. Crown Financial Ministries (www.crown.org) has one of the best courses. Give your people a coach to help them get out of their financial woes. It's also a tremendous outreach opportunity during these tough economic times.
6. Add no new debt.
Cut out debt cold turkey. Stop going into debt right now. Cut up your credit cards. Don't get another loan. The number one reason people go in debt is that they can't live on what they make. Decide today that you will. To do that, you've got to be content with what you have. It's the only long-term antidote to debt.
7. Share the plan with your creditors.
Let the people you owe know that things are changing. Make a list of those you owe. Call each one of them and say, "I don't want to file bankruptcy. It's not good for you. It's not good for me. I can't pay you $25 a month. I just don't have it. But I could pay you $5 a month. I want to pay off my debts. Can you help me with this?"
The Bible says, "When your ways please the Lord, he will make your enemies into friends"Proverbs 16:7 GN). Those people you're in debt to will say, "Here's somebody who's not going to stiff us. They're not going to walk away from it. At least they're going to try to make the effort to pay it back. So we'll help them out."
8. Stick to it.
Getting out of debt isn't easy. It takes discipline, effort, and sacrifice. But you can do it. You've just got to stick to the plan. These principles work, but you must work them. The Bible says, "Let us not get tired of doing what is right, for after a while we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don't get discouraged and give up" (Galatians 6:9 TLB).
You'll be tempted to give up. That's when you need to keep going and stick to the plan. That's also when you need fellow believers to cheer you on.
God is interested in every detail of your life – including your financial life. He wants you to pay off your debt, and he'll help you do it. You just have to ask.