By many people’s standards, Westerville, Ohio, is an idyllic place to call home.
A suburb of Columbus, it’s repeatedly been ranked as one of America’s best places to live. It boasts an award-winning parks and rec department and school district. It balances modern amenities with historical charm. It’s safe, clean and by all appearances successful—the typical family earns well over the national average household income.
That’s why Lead Pastor Jim Zippay of Westerville’s Heritage Christian Church was surprised when it came to his members’ finances.
“It is amazing to see ‘affluent’ people who are in so much debt,” he says. “I was naïve to that. They’re double-income folks, but they’re still hurting.”
The 2,600 people who attend Heritage each weekend are making a good income on average. But before 2013, they weren’t always managing it well. Many were financing their lifestyles with debt, which affected their ability to give.
“As we are created in the image of God, we’re created to be givers,” Zippay says. “People wanted to give, but they just weren’t able to. And they felt terrible about it.”
Heritage had offered financial classes in the past, but because people had strong and differing opinions on which one worked the best, no one program ever stuck.
Then, something happened that would change the culture of the church. Pastor Zippay, Finance Director Miriam Angerer and a few others attended a workshop to learn how a program called Momentum could walk an entire congregation through the principles of biblical stewardship.
Momentum is a strategic church-wide plan that incorporates Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University (FPU), a sermon series, and lessons for children and youth to teach every person how to manage their money and their lives God’s ways.
“What Dave covers in the program you can’t cover anywhere else,” says Zippay. “It’s so detailed, so practical, so tangible. Where else do you get that level of information to people?”
Heritage called its nine-week effort Potential: To Live Like Never Before. Zippay set the stage for a September 2013 launch with a January 2013 sermon series called Surviving the Fiscal Cliff. The series addressed the sin problems surrounding debt on an individual and national level.
Over the next nine months, the Heritage staff and a core group of lay leaders began planning for Potential.
They provided scholarships for families who couldn’t afford an FPU membership and offered rebates to anyone who purchased a membership and attended seven of the nine classes. Heritage also created content-related weekly prayers and daily devotionals.
One of the team’s most meaningful decisions was to intentionally shift away from holding all FPU classes in the church building. Instead, Potential’s leadership team encouraged members to go through FPU in small groups that met in host homes. While the church did offer daily church-based classes, those opportunities weren’t announced until much closer to the launch date.
“This was a turning point,” Zippay says. “Calling our leaders ‘hosts’ opened doors. People felt inadequate to lead a group, but no one felt inadequate to host a group. We put the cookies on the bottom shelf. The hosts grew into the leadership.”
In this setting, 150 groups of eight to 16 people each met weekly to watch the video teaching in hosts’ living rooms before breaking into a deeper discussion of the week’s content. While parents were going through FPU, youth heard corresponding lessons during Sunday services, and kids were treated to a “Money Minute” in kids’ church.
“We wanted home groups because we knew retention would be better,” Zippay says. “The dynamics are so much more interpersonal, and the effect was transformational. In a bigger group you can maintain anonymity, but in homes there is more support. People felt like they were in a safe environment, and it paid off.”
It was only natural for groups to bond, and many continue to meet today.
“For us, the focus was almost more on building relationships using FPU as the conduit to start that process,” says Angerer, who oversaw Potential with Zippay and others.
And in that regard, FPU did not disappoint.
One couple whose teenage daughter was diagnosed with cancer was “providentially placed” in a small group with hosts who’d been through the exact same thing with their daughter, remembers Angerer. The host couple walked with them through that experience.
Another host mentored a young couple outside of the church whose marriage was on the brink of divorce over financial issues. They came to the group somewhat reluctantly seeking marriage support from the host, not realizing the group was about finances. Thanks to his help and guidance through FPU, their marriage was restored.
While FPU was taking place outside of church, Sundays were loosely tied to Potential. Though Zippay gave a kick-off sermon explaining the meaning behind Potential and a concluding sermon on Celebration Sunday, he chose not to give the prepared sermons linked to Momentum. Instead, he preached on the book of Titus, focusing on how people can be a force for good.
“To me, financial peace results in the ability to do good,” he says. “When it was all put together, it was really cool. This is a church that wants to make a difference. You get out of debt to be a force for good.”
Though Angerer says they haven’t yet seen a dramatic increase in giving, members did pay off $1 million in consumer debt. She and Zippay acknowledge that achieving financial peace is a process. That’s why they continue to offer FPU three or four times a year.
“I’ve been at this church for 25 years, so I don’t believe in a silver bullet,” Zippay says. “Generally it’s a slow process to see change. Now, though, the subject of money isn’t taboo. Giving isn’t taboo.”
Are you ready to create a culture of radical generosity in your church? Learn how Momentum can help your congregation.
Heritage Christian Church
Pastor Jim Zippay
Number of Locations: 1
Average Weekend Attendance: 2,600
Momentum participation: 65%
Total Consumer Debt Payoff: More than $1 million