Forgive Us Our Debts Gary D. Robinson May 1, 2007 “A fool and his money are soon parted.” But what if the fool happens to be a preacher, a person charged to declare the whole counsel of God? As we know, that counsel includes talking about money, i.e., financial stewardship. But what if the preacher’s budget is so out of whack, his personal debt so great, that he can’t give, much less tithe? What can he tell his church about giving then? The following is one preacher’s journey through the darkness of debt, the joy of deliverance, and the homiletical lessons he learned along the way. An old joke has the church praying, “Lord, we want our preacher to be poor and humble. You keep him humble. We’ll do the rest!” For years, my wife and I struggled financially. Yet we don’t blame the church for our financial problems. Though we weren’t paid a lot in the beginning, subsequent ministries increased our means. No elder, deacon, or treasurer ever tried to draw our purse strings tighter. They didn’t need to! We did it to ourselves. Through a combination of poor stewardship and, we must admit, greed, we eventually succeeded in tumbling head over heels into debt. It started with buying gasoline on credit. Later, we bought furniture “90 days same as cash.” Invariably, we’d miss the deadline and wind up paying through the nose. (We paid for years on a single kitchen table!) Then followed a string of credit cards-a pretty necklace that soon became a millstone around our necks. We chased the American dream, including buying a house we couldn’t afford. At last, we scaled the summit of folly-a double-mortgage. Though my wife was working full-time and I, in addition to preaching, was working part-time, there was too much month left at the end of money. By the time our oldest child entered college, we were in one deep hole. At this point, giving, to say nothing of tithing, seemed out of the question. At least, that’s how we saw it at the time. Yet I was dogged by guilt. Apart from the issue of faith, apart from the soul-eating dangers of greed, as a preacher I struggled with the practical needs of my church. The church needs money to operate same as every other institution. I knew that people have a tendency to forget, e.g., to take their money with them on vacation and fail to put a make-up amount in the plate on their return. I knew that people need to be reminded to give. Unfortunately, I also knew that I neither practiced nor preached good stewardship. The solution I hit on at the time was as practical as it was pitiful. Once a year or so, I preached a short series on giving. As I preached these two or three messages, I somehow managed to scrape together-either out of my own pocket or (after drawn-out discussion with my wife) our checkbook-a minimal amount to put in the plate. (I’ll never forget my shame when the treasurer reported that a check had bounced. He didn’t tell the board who’d written it.) Once the series was done, I’d sigh with relief-I’d “fixed” the trouble for another year-and fall back into old habits. Perhaps some of you have used the same rationalizations I did: “It costs a lot more to raise a family than it used to.” “They don’t pay me much.” “I’m giving my time to the Lord; why should I give Him money as well? And the piece de resistance: “Tithing is so Old Testament!” Some of you might know about reaching for the car radio knob to dial safely away from a sermon on money. Truly, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing! I have a good friend who encouraged me to give, to step out in faith and find God’s blessing. But not only did I doubt God’s goodness, I doubted I’d find much patience and understanding in the churches I served. I dared not open up. So the years dragged on, the bill collectors continued to harass, and the sheep remained lacking a vital part of their diet. In the spring of 2001, we were drowning in red ink. The church we’d planted was small and struggling. Our outside support had been cut off. We felt we had no choice but to find a larger congregation, if such would have us. Perhaps then we could make a serious attempt to reduce our debt. We were in position, humbled and serious. God had us right where He wanted us. Time now to show us He didn’t mean to rob, but to bless. The instrument He used was a member of the search committee of the church that hired us. The man knew about debt from hard experience. He had a big heart and an even greater will to keep us on track and accountable. Many a Saturday morning we sat in his office and went over the budget. Not only did he help us regain control of our finances, not only did he mediate between anxious spouses; he also helped us see that all we had belonged to the God of all grace. At last, the cloud was removed, the fog chased from our eyes: We had to give. But what was there to give? We were plowing every extra cent into debt reduction. So we didn’t begin with a full tithe. We put ten dollars in the plate. And guess what? God more than matched our gift. We did it again. So did He. We began to get excited. Was it really true after all that you can’t out-give God? The offering changed to a tithe-on the gross, not the net. And still God continued to bless us. Fortified with trusted counsel and accountability, we stuck to our plan. In December of 2005, we mailed our last interest payment to our last creditor. By January, 2006, we were free at last! During the early stages of our turnaround, I felt a strong desire to preach on giving. At the same time, my wife Barb felt a similar desire to share our financial testimony. We thought long and hard before speaking publicly. We consulted with trusted counselors in the body. While they cautioned us against stating specific dollar-amounts, they thought that a brief and humble telling of our financial tale could produce two benefits: 1) for us, it would be a reminder, a sort of “memorial stone” of a corner turned. 2) It might encourage some fearful soul to step out in faith. In late summer, 2003, we took the plunge: I preached. Barb testified. I don’t recall the reaction of the church at the time. I do remember the Robinsons felt great relief and release. It’s going on four years since then, and we’ve never looked back. We have no desire to return to the bondage of debt. We buy only what we can pay cash for. If it means driving older cars and renting a house, so be it. What’s more, we’ve discovered our tithing has begun to sprout arteries of compassion. My wife was always the generous one. Now I’m pleased to report that God is opening my hand as well. I feel freer to give than ever. Sadly, though we didn’t know it at the time, not everybody was happy to hear our testimony. Ironically, we didn’t learn this until three years later. The last year of our last ministry was a harrowing time for us. We passed through a firestorm of criticism. Among the many logs tossed onto that fire, one we considered most unreasonable was criticism of our financial confession. I got most of the complaints about it second-hand (as most preachers get most complaints). One bold soul did come to my office and, in the course of his diatribe, mentioned the shame he felt that a man of God (or his wife) should say such things from the pulpit. I can’t recall which upset that brother more-our not tithing or our confessing it. In any event, Barb and I were struck by what we considered a great irony: Some people had apparently paid no attention to the fact that, as we’d stated, God had taught us a great lesson. They celebrated neither our freedom from debt nor our newfound commitment to giving. Like the elder brother in Jesus’ parable, all they could see was their siblings’ undeserving past. Naturally, the incident raises the question of whether preachers ought to hang any “dirty laundry” from the pulpit. Here’s what I think about that, as well as a few other homiletical lessons this experience taught me. Keep it real. I’ve had my detractors. But I’ve also heard again and again from those who appreciated my consistent attempts to be honest from the pulpit. In William Hendricks’ book Exit Interviews, he talks with people who’ve left churches. A major reason for leaving was the absence of grace: “At every turn, they staggered under massive expectations that they could never quite fulfill….” The truth is we are sinful beings who need grace not only to be saved but also to live out the Christian life. It isn’t easy. The preacher who publicly acknowledges the challenges he faces in this regard is doing his congregation no dishonor. The preacher who never shares his struggles does his church no favor. Still, he must be careful to… Weigh the sin. If my problem had been serial adultery or chronic lying, a public testimony would’ve had disastrous results. Some sins have a more debilitating effect on human personality, and thus on a pastor’s ability to lead, than others (Cf. 1 Cor. 6:18). Some sins are more socially acceptable than others (witness the common sight of an obvious glutton in the pulpit). It doesn’t make the sin less sinful. But that social acceptance might decrease the shock of the preacher’s confession while increasing its impact. In our debt-ridden culture, many might respond positively to a preacher’s confession of poor financial stewardship. Of course, its positive impact can be still greater if he’s determined to… Keep it true. I once heard Dr. Laura Schlessinger say that “Do as I say not as I do,” does not preclude, “Do as I say, not as I used to do.” As I’ve mentioned, some folks thought we had no business confessing. In our view, however, we weren’t simply ’fessing up but proclaiming the power of God. Our desire to confess was no greater than our desire to share what God had taught us. It’s one thing to confess a sin. It’s another to stretch the truth. We didn’t spout wishful thinking about our finances. Though we were working hard to become debt-free, freedom was still in the future. As simply and briefly as we could, we told them what we’d been doing wrong and what we were now doing right. Keep it short. I’ve heard preachers go on and on about their sins and shortcomings. The result is usually painful and embarrassing. Though our hearers want to know we too are men, they’ve no wish to smell our dirty socks. Speak “in” before speaking out. Talk with trusted counselors first. Blessed is the preacher who has such within his congregation. They know the body. They know what the body can bear to hear. They can make helpful suggestions on wording and editing. Don’t let the negative reaction of a few discourage you. If you’ve been honest with yourself and with God; if your aim has been to please Him and help people, God will bless the word you bring. One last thing emerging from the desert of debt taught me. I’d heard it before, but I hadn’t realized the power of this simple truth: Leaders can’t take people farther than they’ve been. How many of us really know, and thus can confidently preach, that God can be trusted? How many speak with joy? May God lead us to preach like Job: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). _______________ Gary Robinson is Senior Minister with North Side Christian Church, Xenia, Ohio. 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