News Articles

Louisiana church burns 15-year note, learns ministry doesn’t depend on money

KENNER, La. (BP)–For the first time in a long time — maybe the first time in history, for that matter– a Southern Baptist pastor had to ask his congregation to stop giving.
“I received $1,200 today for the debt retirement fund,” said Joe McKeever, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kenner, La. “I told them, ‘Don’t do that anymore! We’re out of debt!'”
McKeever, also widely known in Southern Baptist circles as a religious editorial cartoonist, added, “I’m sure that’s the first time a pastor ever had to ask people to stop giving, and this church wouldn’t quit giving.”
After roughly 15 years under an enormous $3 million debt that drained 52.8 percent ($400,000) from the church’s total budget each year, First Baptist paid off and promptly burned the bank note on its church building on Oct. 18.
It didn’t take but a few seconds for the piece of paper to be consumed by a small flame, but according to McKeever and other members of the church, the lessons that carved a path to that moment were long and oftentimes difficult.
Bill Murfin, former associate pastor at the church, was on staff in early 1980 when the church first decided to pursue expansion. After consideration, he said the church decided to acquire the land, as well as the residences situated on it, across the street from its location at the time and then build a $3 million structure to house their ever-growing congregation, which boasted roughly 1,200 in Sunday school at the time.
By 1983, the deed had been accomplished and, for the next 15 years, the church would depend on its members to service the enormous debt. They were starting almost from scratch, since most of the fundraising monies went into acquiring the land. However, as the decade wore on, the church could never have anticipated the hardships the times would bring.
“You assume everything is going to stay the way it is,” Murfin said, “but we found out that the bottom could very well drop out next week.”
Almost as soon as the church was celebrating its first service in its beautiful new edifice, the Oil Crunch of the mid-1980s hit Louisiana, leaving thousands jobless and some wondering where they would get their next meal. Murfin said the laity kept giving through much of the crisis, but other problems kept coming.
By the arrival of the late 1980s, the church also had gone through a tremendous split and experienced a downturn in the economy that sent their interest rates through the roof.
On at least one occasion, Murfin said, the church was only 30 days away from closing its doors forever.
“The debt was just crushing us,” he said. “It kept a cloud over the people all the time early on. It just really got tight and stayed that way.”
Not only were things tight, but doubt also began to creep into members of the congregation. Murfin said the church almost could not find three members to serve as trustees in the church because many did not want to incur any responsibility over the debt. He said during some of the time, the church secretaries were buying their own paperclips and Kleenex.
“We were just struggling to keep the doors open,” said Glynn Rhinehart, one of the early members of the building and finance committee. “It was a matter of survival.”
Although they could not find trustees at times, in 1990 they did find McKeever, an alumnus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and extended a call for him to be their new pastor.
Despite his knowledge of the problems the church had incurred, McKeever accepted and arrived in Kenner with enthusiasm. He said he realized the congregation was not entirely hopeless during the tough times.
“It’s just kind of like a fellow who buys a sports car but can’t afford the gas,” McKeever said. “The attitude of the people was good. Many were very optimistic and others were saying we couldn’t do anything until we got the debt paid off.”
With the debt service taking up the majority of the budget, inevitably ministry programs would suffer somewhat.
For instance, the music budget was not only tight, it was non-existent for at least two years, according to Ken Gabrielse, part-time minister of music at First Baptist and music professor at New Orleans Seminary. During that time, Gabrielse said he learned how to do much with little.
“It’s taught me that you can get by with a lot less,” he said. “We would revisit quality pieces from the music library. That’s what taught me that there’s value in quality things being repeated. If it adds to worship one Sunday, why not six months down the line?”
Many educational programs, outreach programs and the like worked through the same situation. The youth budget for the entire year stayed at about $450, with other programs not exceeding by much.
Through it all, however, McKeever and others said some things — important things — were getting accomplished. For one thing, the church had a benevolence fund for local residents, and, though they could not give the full 10 percent they used to, they were still faithfully giving five percent of their budget to the SBC’s Cooperative Program.
“It was like they were always looking forward to the future when they could do more, but they never let that stop them,” Gabrielse said. “It didn’t keep us from doing ministry.”
The Oct. 18 worship service was cloaked in thanksgiving to God. The service consisted mainly of worship songs, visits from former pastors, staff and other friends, and testimonies to God’s goodness throughout the ordeal.
McKeever, whose cartoons appear weekly in many of the state Baptist newspapers, drew a special worship bulletin for the children that morning, proclaiming, “This is my church! It’s bought and paid for!”
After the worship service, the entire congregation gathered outside the building for the actual combustion ceremony. When the note was nothing more than ashes, McKeever smiled, looked at the congregation and said exultantly, “Let’s give Jesus a big cheer!”
McKeever said after all is said and done, the debt experience has been both a burden and a blessing. When he looks back on everything he and his congregation have been through in the past eight years of his tenure, he says God’s instruction through it all was worth every minute.
“I wouldn’t take a million dollars for this experience, but I wouldn’t give a dime for another day of it,” he said. “I’ve learned that God is faithful and that a church can be a church without a dime.”
In fact, “Most of the stuff that makes a church what it is doesn’t require money,” McKeever affirmed.
As far as the future is concerned, First Baptist is still taking its own baby steps. McKeever, who grew up on a farm in Winston County, Ala., said the immediate availability of funds in the budget will not send this church into a spending frenzy: they have learned too much in the last 15 years.
“We’ll finally be able to do what a church is supposed to do,” he said. “We’re not going to buy Cadillacs or steaks for the deacons meeting.”
First things must come first. The Oct. 18 service included a thankful increase in their church budget to again include 10 percent giving to the SBC’s Cooperative Program.

    About the Author

  • Doy Cave