How does a church pay off its entire debt—$4.3 million—in just 30 months? The answer: one dollar and one culture shift at a time.
What started as just a dream among staff at Sherwood Oaks Christian Church in November 2009 became a reality on March 20, 2015. That’s when the entire Bloomington, Indiana, church of about 3,000 weekly attendees celebrated its mortgage payoff. The church was finally debt-free.
But getting there was a decade in the making.
Sherwood Oaks began offering Financial Peace University (FPU) in 2005. Over the years, hundreds of people completed FPU at the church, learning how to handle money God’s way. Then leadership heard about Momentum, which takes entire churches through FPU at once, incorporating a coordinated sermon series and classes for youth and kids.
During Momentum, churches pause every other ministry so members can really focus on the task at hand. The goal is to transform the church’s culture by emphasizing biblical stewardship, healthy finances and generous giving. When people take control of their money and are out of debt, they can fully answer God’s call to serve His kingdom.
Like most of America, the congregation had its share of individual financial struggles. Because Bloomington is home to Indiana University, students make up one-third of the city’s population. That means student debt plagues many residents.
But Sherwood Oaks’ congregation is also multigenerational, so its members struggled with the same issues many Americans have: consumer debt, underwater mortgages and out-of-control spending.
Additionally, the church’s $4.3 million mortgage debt was tying it down, and monthly payments barely made a dent in the principal. Life with debt—and the resulting inability to fully answer God’s call as a church—became the norm.
But Senior Minister Tom Ellsworth, who was the face of Momentum to the church, convinced the congregation to participate.
“This isn’t going to happen in any church if the senior minister isn’t on board,” Ellsworth says. “I really think you have to plant that vision with people, and that really comes from the pulpit. If the guy who is preaching every week isn’t on board with it, it’s going to be hard to make it sound exciting and generate energy for it.”
Going through Momentum was exciting, but it was also eye-opening, says Emily Bedwell, the church’s business and communications manager.
“I think for a lot of people, Momentum was the first time they’d really looked at their finances,” she says.
In the short term, giving actually declined as people focused on cleaning up their money messes. It didn’t help that Momentum came to Sherwood Oaks at the tail end of the Great Recession. But the church began offering financial coaching to help people continue the steps they’d learned in FPU after Momentum ended. And they stayed on track.
It took a few years for individuals to climb back on solid ground and for giving to return to normal. That’s when things got interesting.
The church knew it would celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2012, and the occasion called for a renewed way of looking at the life and mission of the church.
In a sermon in late 2011, Ellsworth surprised the staff—and even himself—by dreaming out loud about what the church could do for the kingdom of Christ if it were debt-free.
Bedwell and the rest of the staff agreed.
“We could only celebrate so much that anniversary year because we were still saddled with debt,” she says. “There was so much we wanted to do. We couldn’t just keep increasing the budget every year. So to live out God’s call for us, we had to get out of debt.”
The congregation caught the vision.
“We created a mentality that being debt-free is a good thing, so I think that’s why people bought into the concept,” Ellsworth says. “The hardest thing to raise money for is debt payoff. It’s much easier to build a building than it is to pay off debt. I think that attitude is changing, and I think programs like FPU and Momentum have helped. We already had a climate of financial change. Our team had been doing FPU for a long time and we went through Momentum, which set the stage. Once people had that, they realized what debt was doing to hold the church back.”
After a year of planning, members starting making financial pledges in November 2012. That meant 2013 began with focused intensity to rid the church of its $4.3 million mortgage as fast as possible. They called their debt payoff effort Unleashed, and people began giving above and beyond their usual tithes and offerings to attack the debt.
“We had a lot of families giving a little bit,” Bedwell says. “Everybody who could give us an extra $5 or $10 did. We celebrated those little gifts just as much as the big ones because they were just as much of a sacrifice. And once people started seeing that number go down, they got more and more excited.”
About 1,800 families gave to the effort. That’s an average gift of $2,388.89 per family over 30 months—just $79.63 per family per month, or $18.38 per week. What initially seemed impossible became possible because the entire church gave just a little bit more.
“This is the result of us employing the ministry, principles and beliefs that are fostered in FPU,” Ellsworth says.
The day they celebrated debt freedom, Sherwood Oaks distributed cards to all attendees that said, “My Unleashed Dream is . . .” The responses filled eight typed pages. Ellsworth says it’s still too early to say exactly what they’ll do with the extra $400,000 a year, but they plan to use the money three ways: for the church itself, for the community, and for global causes.
“It’s almost overwhelming to be free of the debt,” Bedwell says. “There are so many options. We could never do everything on that list. There’s always more good that needs to be done than there are dollars to do it with.”
Church member Scott Wallace is just one of many with big dreams for Sherwood Oaks’ future.
“Before we started this, so much wealth was paying a bank interest, and now we’re being freed up to be able to support churches that are younger than us, churches across the world, in ways that just weren’t possible before. Now we truly can be unleashed and pour into those churches, ministries and mission partners around the world to help them do incredible things in the name of the Lord.”
Ellsworth is optimistic about Sherwood Oaks’ future as well.
“There’s a wonderful feeling of freedom knowing that the church has no ongoing debt,” Ellsworth says. “I feel like we can go into the future and financially weather some of the storms that may be ahead. And if there are no storms ahead, that just gives us more money to share with the kingdom.”
Sherwood Oaks Christian Church
Senior Minister Tom Ellsworth
Nondenominational, affiliated with Independent Christian Churches
Number of Locations: 2
Average Weekend Attendance: 2,800–3,000
Momentum participation: 600 families
Total debt paid off during Unleashed, which followed Momentum: $4.3 million in 30 months