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Drainage, Debt, and the Rain of God

For some churches, “debt” is a four-letter word. (Well, technically, it’s a four-letter word for all of us, but I hope you take the point.) Church leaders tend to avoid needed maintenance issues for fear of the challenge of raising money, or the possibility of taking on debt. Pastor Bradley Schmeling’s post reveals how one congregation became a steward of creation, their checkbook, and God’s future for them, all at the same time. Plus, it includes a great pun and a reference to a turtle!

Yours truly, Adam Copeland

Center for Stewardship Leaders

Drainage, Debt, and the Rain of God

Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Many of us struggle to balance mission and property. I left one congregation with huge building issues only to discover that my new congregation was about to dive into forty years of deferred maintenance and a three-year capital campaign. Harder than raising the money was considering the theology. Of course, taking care of what God has given us is a faithful perspective. Of course, we need a place for our mission. Of course, our property should be safe and comfortable. However, in my heart I needed the “our” to be more than just “us.”

There were two things that opened my eyes: drainage and debt.

The church had water intrusion issues since it was built. Buckets sat next to the altos in the choir room. The parking lot was a mess of cracks and repaired sinkholes. We had to change the way the water flowed over our property. Our project began by considering the minimal amount of work necessary to fix the current problems, as well as to avoid a requirement to bury huge expensive tanks under our parking lot.

The only problem was that our fix would continue to allow our storm water to flow into the sewer and eventually into the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. As the Spirit of Creation stirred within us, we began to see that it was the right thing to make decisions that were an investment in the future of the earth. What needed tending were the waters and the creatures that depend on the river to survive. We were called to see our property, as well as its care, as part of a stewardship of the earth.

We ended up with gorgeous rain gardens filled with plants that attract pollinators. We chose to have fewer parking spaces, even though the congregation is growing, and encourage people to find alternative ways to come to worship. We even discussed having curbs that were turtle-friendly and landscaping that made our corner of the world a little more green.

In order for us to do this large-scale project, we had to borrow money. Granted it was a good time to take on debt with low interest rates, and we chose a timeframe that wouldn’t burden future members. It turned out to be cheaper to solve roof, foundation, and drainage problems all at once. However, what truly carried us to risk a bolder vision was considering our grandchildren. This was a chance to invest in a church that is yet to come.

We decided to trust that God has work for us to do that transcends our time and community. Our mission will give birth to their mission. We want our grandchildren to inherit a ministry that isn’t hobbled by years of inattention to a building, making it the subject of every council meeting. We can do the work now and pay for it, so they won’t have to.

Debt is a way for our current assembly to share in the work of having a future. Of course, we carefully considered an amount that is manageable. More than anything, we want to leave the church better than we found it. Our current debt is a faithful investment in our future. It is part of the cost of faithful ministry in this time and place. It’s not a millstone around our neck. It is the sign that we have hope that God’s people will be generous now and that we have a future in Christ.

In the end, what inspired and captured us was this vision of a church at work beyond us; a church of our children and grandchildren, able to give thanks for the faithfulness and the courage of this generation; a church with a mission that is as vital as our own; a church that loves this planet as the body of Christ.

For More Information

Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling is the Senior Pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Stewardship Speaker Series: On August 18, the CSL invites you to campus for our last breakfast event of the summer. Pastor Drew G. I. Hart, author of Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, will be our speaker. For more information, and to register, visit

Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising: Luther Seminary, in partnership with the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, is hosting a four-day intensive course, October 17-20, 2016. For more information

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Turtle image by Amanda, Creative Commons Image on Flickr.

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