Spanish Fort UMC, located in the Baypines District of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, recently celebrated being debt free! The Office of Communications (OOC) spoke with Rev. Angie Long, associate pastor, about this process and what it took to achieve this goal.
OOC: Sunday, August 30, 2015, marked a moment in history for Spanish Fort UMC. Tell us about this incredible milestone.
What an exciting time in the life of Spanish Fort United Methodist Church! Yes, August 30th marked the celebration of the church having paid off the mortgage in full. The church is now debt free! We rejoiced as a community as we came together in one worship service to sing, pray, and give thanks to God for His faithfulness throughout the life of this congregation. We read Scriptures, heard the word proclaimed, and dedicated our buildings and all of our ministries to God.
The path to this day had been long. There were difficult conversations that took place to reach important decisions about the debt and how to spend, or not spend, money. There were plans that fell through and left disappointment. The journey took turns that we did not expect but ultimately God led us to this place. It is a profound and exciting accomplishment for the people of Spanish Fort UMC!
OOC: How long has the church been working to meet this goal?
: Several years ago, the church went through a visioning process where they identified the large debt as a significant barrier in developing new ministries. From that process, the church formed a debt relief committee who spent time studying the best ways to alleviate the debt. That was in 2010. The outstanding debt at that time was approximately $2.2 million. The team determined the best way to accomplish this goal was to sell the shopping center from which we operated many of our ministries.
OOC: Why was being debt free so important to lay and clergy leadership?
: SFUMC’s leadership realized that the debt inhibited the ministries of the church. Obviously, given the significant size of the debt, the mortgage payment used funds that could be put towards other ministries of the church. Even more than that, the weight of seeing that kind of debt on your books, the church knowing that it owed over a million dollars, hinders us in other ways. It inhibits vision. It prevents us from imagining something new. That kind of weight can stifle a church's growth and the work of the kingdom if we allow it.
OOC: What kind of support did you have in church leadership and the congregation?
: The people of SFUMC knew the debt was creating boundaries, literally and psychologically. To become debt free, the leaders of our finance committee, trustees committee, and church council must also be committed to the plan. Once the decision was made to sell the shopping center where some of our ministries are run, the congregation and church leadership were on board. What eventually came out of that was something different. After years of thinking the entire shopping center would sell, there came an offer to purchase part of it. That was truly a blessing in that it allowed us to keep space that we desperately needed and still have significant proceeds to pay the debt. While it was not the original plan that was developed, the people of SFUMC were open to something else God had in store for them. They voted unanimously at a church conference to sell the portion of the building. According to our then DS, Dr. Cory Smith
, he had never seen a unanimous vote! It was clear that God had made a way and we needed to follow it.
OOC: As in our personal lives, debt can completely become the focus of our existence at times. What advice would you give other AWF churches who can’t reach this goal but need to make headway in this area?
: There are ways to continue to thrive in spite of debt. Our leaders, our people, our churches must remained Christ centered. They must continue to seek to follow the Holy Spirit and live faithfully into being the church. Our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world happens when we study God's word, pray, partake in Holy Communion, and when we grow in our discipleship. It happens when we come together as God's people and recognize our deep need for God's redeeming work. It happens as we go out into the world and share with others our own experience of how Jesus has changed our lives. This can and does happen with or without debt. The church is not a building...the church is people. God's people worshipping, studying, and serving one another. We continue to be that even in the midst of difficult times. To accomplish this we must continue to be diligent stewards of what we have been given, continue to seek our triune God in all things, and live faithfully; knowing that God will provide what is needed to ensure God's kingdom work.
OOC: Sometimes becoming debt free means you “do without” other things. Has that been the case at Spanish Fort UMC?
Yes. This is part of what it means to be good stewards, to live within our means. Trying to pay down debt, paying staff, keep the lights on...all of these things require us to plan and set a budget. Then we must live within that budget. We have had cut backs over the years. Areas of ministry have had to spend and do less. We have cut back on staff. That means we ask fewer people to do the same amount of work. That's not unusual in today's world. The church is much more than a business, but there is a business aspect to running a church. We must have strong leaders, clergy and laity alike, who are committed to the financial goals, but are also equally strong in their knowledge that God will provide. That can be a hard place to live. As a CPA and as a pastor, I have seen my share of people who live with a sense of scarcity. They fear not having enough. That is a real fear and one that the church faces when it has debt. Money and our faith are intricately connected. Jesus had a lot to say about money and about our relationship to it. We have to plan, live faithfully into that plan, and continue to be open for ways in which God is at work among us. That is really how Spanish Fort UMC was able to be debt free. They lived faithfully, listened faithfully, planned faithfully, and acted faithfully.
OOC: How will this achievement reveal ministry opportunities?
: The opportunities are endless! As I mentioned earlier, debt can certainly weigh down a congregation when it comes to imagining something new. We are free to explore a new vision. We are free to find new ways to serve the community.
OOC: What is next on the horizon at Spanish Fort UMC?
: We are currently developing a visioning team to help us discern who God is calling us to be in the community. We recognize needs for more space but there is time for us to plan that according to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We hope to continue to be a presence among the community as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
OOC: Sunday had to have been an exciting day in the life of the church. What was the feeling like?
: It was unlike anything I had experienced at SFUMC. There was a sense of unity among the congregation. When we pray the prayer of confession and pardon in our communion liturgy, there is a line that says, "free us for joyful obedience." You could feel that sentiment among God's people. They had been obedient. They have been freed from the weight of debt. It is truly a joyful time!
OOC: You have many years of ministry ahead of you. What will you remember most about this wonderful accomplishment?
: There are two things that will certainly stick with me throughout my ministry. First is the commitment and dedication of this congregation to being open to God’s work. They had a plan to eliminate debt that did not come to fruition. Yet they remained opened to what God could do and another way was revealed. They listened to the Holy Spirit and realized this new way was, in fact, a better way.
The second memory that I will hold in my heart is the sense of the Holy Spirit among us during the celebration service. It warms a pastor’s heart (some may say strangely warms our hearts) when the sanctuary is filled with God’s people, when there is singing and rejoicing among us. In my mind it is a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom while on earth. Our debt-free celebration service brought our congregation together and you could feel the joy and thanksgiving as we gathered. We were all centered in and on God, giving thanks and praise for the work that has been done here throughout the years. Recognizing and remembering the saints who have come before us to do God’s work in this place and anticipating what is next for Spanish Fort UMC. My prayer is that as we continue to pray and listen for those next steps that we carry that sense of joy and hope into the life of the church and the community of Spanish Fort. Thanks be to God!