Debt can drag churches down

I recently visited a small church in a tiny Georgia town. It would be tempting to say nothing much goes on in the little parish of St. Luke the Evangelist in Dahlonega, but in fact, big things are happening there.

Part of it was the liturgy, solemn and beautiful with a lovely presence of truly sacred hymns. Part of it was the community, friendly and kind folks who were willing to stand outside and chat rather than rush away to some appointment.

My admiration for St. Luke’s tripled when I discovered that the fundraising presentation following Mass wasn’t about adding some new fancy building — and digging the community deeper into debt.

Rather, a parishioner explained that the parish is working hard to clear the books and become entirely debt-free.

Wow.

Wouldn’t this be an awe-inspiring goal for churches and synagogues in sprawling cities and tiny towns? What if we stopped adding bigger and better buildings — and started appreciating and enjoying what we already have?

Because, let’s face it, whether it’s an individual family or an entire parish, debt is a big millstone around our necks. It can make it tough to put into practice that commandment about loving our neighbors.

When you consider that in many Third World countries, people are worshipping in broken-down huts that lack clean water and electricity — well, it puts a new spin on the notion that folks in the “First World” can’t get by without adding expensive embellishments to our already manicured grounds.

Sometimes it seems like everywhere you go, churches are making improvements, adding buildings — and generally spending big bucks. Of course, sometimes repairs are necessary, but often it is a kind of keep-up-with-the-Joneses mentality that sparks the projects.

What if a community nixed new fundraising drives and concentrated instead on wiping old debt off the books? They could then “adopt” a poor church overseas — or across town — and help it get the essentials.

Some folks are already doing this, of course. There are adopt-a-church programs that pair parishes in the U.S. with really poor countries such as Haiti, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2010 — and is still struggling to rebuild.

There are also synagogues that provide financial support, as well as prayers, for families in Israel who have been the victims of terrorism. And none of this entails going into debt.

Debt — often totaling in the millions with huge amounts going just to pay the interest each month — can be a significant drain on a church, spiritually as well as economically.

Too often, it takes decades to pay for structures that were once touted as the be-all and end-all — and once that goal is achieved, someone comes up with an idea for another hugely expensive project, and the whole cycle starts again.

Problem is, debt tethers us to the things of this earth. And the danger is we may lose sight of heaven.

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Columnist Lorraine V. Murray’s most recent books include “The Abbess of Andalusia,” a spiritual biography of Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, and “Death of a Liturgist,” a wild and wacky mystery set at a fictional parish in Georgia. Her email is lorrainevmurray@yahoo.com.

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