ive an example of the impact of the Church Loan Fund.
In September 2016 I was in the Philippines, and Pastor Anthony Velasco invited me to his church. I went on a Sunday morning, and there were people everywhere. The police were directing traffic.
The Dasmariñas Church of God is a huge operation. They have eight services on Sunday, plus they now have three other congregations beside the main campus.
He shows us new construction under way next to their sanctuary. Then he takes us into a Starbucks inside the church. People are pouring in, and church is going on. Pastor Velasco tells me, “We wouldn’t have this building if it weren’t for the Church of God Benefits Board and your loan program.”
He continues, “I started this church on a pig farm. The pig sty was right across the fence from where we had our first service. Harold McLeod, a Church of God field representative, convinced me I needed to be in the Church of God. He wanted me to go to the 2004 General Assembly. The only person I knew in the Church of God was him, but I went to San Antonio.
“One day I was just walking around and praying, and went to the exhibit area. There were all these booths. I saw this guy in a suit and tie standing by a sign that said, ‘Church Loans.’ I walked up to this man, [the Benefit Board’s] J. T. Jones, and told him I would like to have one of those church loans.”
J. T. learned Brother Velasco lived outside the U.S.—that’s always a challenge. He advised him to talk to his overseer, but Brother Velasco didn’t even know who his overseer was. J. T. said, “How are you here?” He said, “I’m here with Brother McLeod.” J. T. said, “You need to talk with him and go through the World Missions process.”
The Dasmariñas congregation had grown to around 200 people at that time, and he wanted to borrow $200,000. World Missions approved it, guaranteeing the loan.
The church paid us back in short order. It was a 20-year loan, and I think they paid us back in less than five years. Pastor Anthony said, “We literally went from having no place to meet to this main sanctuary.” They borrowed $200,000 and raised the rest in cash to pay for it.
I asked, “How many people do you have now?”
He said, “Around 12,000.” His executive pastor said, “No, Pastor, it’s 14,000.”
With three other campuses, they are reaching more than 20,000 people each Sunday. Now they are building another sanctuary on the main campus, and they are doing it debt-free. They are paying for it as they build.
How is the loan fund helping congregations in the U.S.?
We had a church that was struggling, at the point of foreclosure. They had a $2.8 million loan. We got in a conversation with the bank, telling them we were trying to work with this church to get them in a place where they could pay. The bank said, “We have to have a solution.” They finally agreed to sell us that note for $1.5 million. We’re holding that note today, and immediately passed the savings on to the church. They are still struggling, but their numbers are coming up.
Another church had a large mortgage they had paid down to $50,000. The note was coming due, maturing. The bank wanted to re-up the note, which meant having a new appraisal, re-documentation of the loan, etcetera. This would cost about $25,000.
As consultants, we talked with the bank. I said, “Would you just sell us the note?” They said, “Yes, we’re not going to discount it to you, but we’ll sell it to you.” We stepped into the place of the bank and extended the payments three months. In three months the church had paid us off. That was basically a $25,000 gift to the church.
Part of our church loan fund is not only making loans but also serving as a consultant on real-estate matters to churches and state offices.
A few years ago, a state office was trying to plant a new church. In hindsight they spent too much money on a piece of property that was not ideal. It cost $575,000, and for five or six years they had paid interest only, and couldn’t afford to go forward with it. We were asked by the denomination to meet with the bank and work something out.
In late December 2016, the bank’s head of special assets came to meet with us. He wanted to foreclose. He said they had a guarantee and were going to make the denomination pay the loan. He said very forcefully, “We want this off our books now and get the Church of God out of our lives.”
I said, “I can solve your problem right here, right now. The Church Loan Fund will buy the loan. I’ll give you $75,000 today, and you can write it off your books.” I knew they had charged this thing off years before.
He said, “I’m insulted.” I said, “Since it’s Christmastime, I’m going to be overly generous and offer you $100,000, and we’ll call it a done deal.”
He huffed and puffed, walked out, and slammed the door. About three minutes later, he came back and said, “We’ll take it.”
The state office was then able to sell that property quickly. They were able to pay us off, they were out from under this burden, and they had money left over.
I am surprised sometimes at how God works out these situations. I have walked out of meetings before when one of my colleagues would ask, “Why in the world did you say that?” I would answer, “I don’t know.” I would make an offer before I realized what I was saying. Sometimes God just has a plan. I understand banks have to make money. I’m good with that, but I don’t want them ripping off church folks.
Too many churches are worried about paying the light bill and water bill instead of what they need to be worried about. If I can take that financial burden off of a pastor and get a church through that crisis, then they can be free to go out winning souls.
I understand you have been appointed chairperson of the denomination’s new Church Planting Loan Bank.
The exciting part about this money is it will not be used to buy property; it’s money to do ministry. It’s money to get church launches up and going.
With this church-planting initiative, leaders are talking about what God can do. You hear Sean O’Neal say, “We’ve got seven new churches starting right now. We could have 10 more if we had the money.” That’s in Arizona [where O’Neal is the state administrative bishop], not South Georgia or Alabama.
In this new church-planting thrust, there’s an emphasis on two types of churches: (1) large launch—a church that starts with 250-plus people on its first Sunday; (2) organic launch—that’s our heritage. Those churches start small. They are a good-size fit for their community.
The commitment by the Church of God Executive Council and Executive Committee to fund the Church Planting Bank is huge. We’ve got $1.5 million in the Church Planting Bank in our first year! Think about what God can do through that. That money is going to be paid back into the fund. We’re going to be needing new funds coming in to make it work, but we see that as a start.
The church-planting money gets new churches going and helps them build a foundation. That first three to five years allows them to build some human capital, which is what they need.
What is your top financial advice for churches?
As a lawyer by profession, I tell pastors, “You need two good friends—an accountant and a lawyer. Because if they’re your good friends, they’re not going to charge you as much.”
The bottom line is, be transparent. Preachers and state overseers get in trouble when they are not transparent. Surveys have proven if a church sends a charitable-receipt contribution list to folks, their giving goes up. People give more. I generally suggest that instead of one time a year, a local church send out one every three or six months. Most people think they’ve given more than they have actually given. This is a way to trigger their memory.
If your church is struggling, don’t get up every Sunday and beg, “We’re going to have to take up another offering.” Get up there and say, “This month we’ve taken in $10,000. Our normal bills every month are $14,000. If you want us to reach this community, you need to help us do that. This is not your church or my church; this is God’s church. God’s going to take care of us, but He needs you to do your part.”
I don’t think you need to preach on tithing every week, but I do think you need to tell people it’s a mandate. A lot of times we are letting our people miss out on a blessing because we’re not telling them how to get a blessing. You’re not going to get a blessing if you’re holding God’s money. God wants our firstfruits.
Also, churches need to develop a spending plan—a budget. When God gives us the money, we have to spend it wisely. It’s His money.
Art Rhodes is president and CEO of the Church of God Benefits Board, Inc., and the Church Loan Fund, Inc., which provide a variety of financial services to ministers and churches (benefitsboard.com).