Area churches seek to follow will of Bible, avoid owing lenders

May 21, 2011 

According to the Bible, the rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender. A few local churches have taken that verse to heart and tried their best to escape the chains of debt.

Pastor Roy Graves of Grace Community Church on Hilton Head Island said his church decided early on it would remain debt-free. Founded in 1976, the congregation met for many years in a small building it owned on Mathews Drive before moving into its roughly 14,000-square-foot building on Spanish Wells Road. The church now has 250 member families.

Graves said the cost of the new building was about $1.2 million, and the land was about $500,000. He said many people gave generously so the church would not have to borrow money.

"We knew as long as we had a loan, there was somebody else dictating a lot of what we did," Graves said. "We wanted to be heavily involved in missions so we knew one of the best ways ... was not to have a mortgage."

Graves said he thinks more churches are saving up money rather than borrowing now because of the economic downturn.

"It's even more key for us to have our building paid off," he said. "When things get difficult in the economy ... you don't want to lose your building, and you don't want to cut back everything else because you have a mortgage."

Pastor Jeff Cranston of LowCountry Community Church in Bluffton said not having a mortgage payment allows his church to keep its focus on the ministry and the people.

"It's a wonderful worry not to have," Cranston said.

After renting space at various locations for about a decade, LowCountry Community decided in 2004 it was time to build. The church, which attracts about 1,200 people every Sunday, had already paid for the land on Buckwalter Parkway and had $36,000 in a building fund. Cranston said church leadership made the decision not to borrow money. They held a "faithraising" campaign, collected the money they needed and moved into the 28,000-square-foot building in 2006. He said the cost of the new facility, including the land, was about $3.8 million.

Because LowCountry Community has grown so much and several members live on Hilton Head, the church rents a space on Office Park Road for additional services. Cranston said the congregation is looking forward to eventually owning another debt-free building and moving into it in early 2012.

But Cranston was quick to say he does not think it's wrong for churches to borrow money.

"It's just what God has called us to do -- to be a debt-free ministry," he said. "Scripture never forbids borrowing, but it does discourage it."

While some churches are avoiding loans altogether, others are saving up and borrowing less or paying off their mortgages early.

Beaufort Seventh-day Adventist Church decided to save money by purchasing an old property and renovating it, Pastor Jason Belyeu said. The church, which rents space at Second Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Beaufort, recently bought the former Salem Village shopping center in Beaufort.

Since the church already had $300,000 in a building fund, it needed to borrow another $300,000 to purchase the facility, Belyeu said. He said the church will spend about $400,000 for renovations, but it already has that covered.

About a year ago, Belyeu won $10,000 in a contest on financial guru Dave Ramsey's nationally syndicated radio show. He gave all the money to the church for its new building. Since then, that amount was matched by an old friend of Belyeu's. The rest will come from charitable giving.

"We're taking in a little bit of debt, but we're keeping it very minimal," he said.

Belyeu said the church's goal is to have a mortgage payment that is no more than a quarter of the amount the church collects annually in offerings.

"We didn't want to become a church that's house poor and have the building compromise the purpose of the church," Belyeu said.

Another church celebrating victory over debt is Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton, which boasts 385 members. After about 11 years in its building on Simmonsville Road, the church recently paid off its $1.8 million mortgage, the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kramer said.

More than 150 people celebrated that accomplishment May 9 at a mortgage-burning ceremony at the church. Everyone got their own copy of the church mortgage and threw it into a fire pit.

Kramer said the mortgage was taken out in 1999, and although the church didn't have a specific payoff goal, it did pay it off earlier than expected. He said capital campaigns and mortgage- reduction programs helped the church to its speedy payoff.

Kramer, who is giving his last sermon Sunday, said the church was paying about $12,000 a month on the mortgage and interest -- something that inhibited them from doing more important things in the community.

"It's quite a significant development for this church," Kramer said about paying off the mortgage. "I like to think that the church is really positioned now in a way in which it has never been. ... We're not constricted by this heavy mortgage that we've always had here before."

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