By Warren Bird
WoodsEdge Community Church Senior Pastor Jeff Wells knows there is only one thing that could have moved his church from a massive debt load to being debt free and giving away 50% of its income—all in less than a year.
“We believe the reason we got out of debt so quickly was because God answered prayer,” Jeff says.
You can almost hear the skeptics now, probing Jeff for the real secret behind the Houston congregation eliminating $7 million of debt in eight months when it had previously been paying down the debt by $2 million annually.
However, Jeff remains steadfast.
“I seldom mentioned this goal or plan to the congregation,” he adds. “Nor did we do a special campaign to eliminate debt. We prayed.”
Time to Repent
The story began for WoodsEdge in December 2008 when the fast-growing church moved to its new 67-acre campus in the middle of the global recession. There may not have been a worse time to take on $18 million of debt.
Ten months later, Jeff preached a “repentance sermon.”
“I needed to take responsibility before the congregation for allowing us to get into so much debt and to have such a small margin,” he recounts. “I think people appreciated the vulnerability and the apology.”
“Not that people seemed angry before, but it was just something I felt I should do.”
Jeff and his elders began talking and praying about taking two significant steps:
- Get out of debt and stay out of debt as a matter of policy
- Give away 50% of its income to local and international missions after getting debt free
“To clarify, I do not think that being debt free is a biblical imperative for all churches,” Jeff says. “We certainly don’t look down on churches that do things differently. But we felt this was what God wanted for us. This is what God was putting on our hearts.”
“It wasn’t a matter of reasoning. It was a matter of God’s leading.”
For four years, WoodsEdge maintained an annual budget of about $4 million, and put another $2 million a year toward its debt. Then in 2013, Jeff read Mark Batterson’s The Circle Maker about asking God for impossible things.
“That resonated with me,” Jeff says. “I had often talked with our congregation and encouraged them to ask for God-sized things.”
Jeff began praying that the church would pay off its debt by the end of that year—a feat that would have taken 3.5 years at its current pace—and asked other leaders and staff to pray the same.
Eight months later, the last payment was made on the church’s debt.
“That was one exciting day! Our people were thrilled,” Jeff says. “We felt relieved. God had answered a huge prayer.”
Church leaders kept their promise and immediately began setting aside 50% of its regular income to share outside the church walls. WoodsEdge now works with about 60 ministry partners in the Houston area and around the world. The 5,000 member church, with 3,000 in attendance weekly, also has 25 people from WoodsEdge serving as international missionaries, some fully supported and some partially supported.
“Overwhelmingly, our people love the fact that we are out of debt and we stay debt-free,” Jeff says. “And they love the fact that we give 50% of regular giving outside the church. I would say that our larger donor especially like these policies. They love it.”
Jeff also gives a nod to Leadership Network adding that “The influence of Chris Willard, Director of Generosity Initiatives, and Leadership Network has been so helpful in our journey”.
Generosity and Prayer Heat Up
Jeff says there have been many residual impacts of God’s movement at WoodsEdge—one of the most pronounced being the temperature of the church’s generosity.
“Generosity breeds generosity. It just adds to a generosity culture,” Jeff explains. “When we paid off our debt and started giving more money outside the church, the generosity from our people went up. It encourages people that their church focuses outside the walls and not inside the walls.”
Jeff says perhaps the biggest impact has become the church’s reliance on prayer.
“God has put on our heart that we want to do church differently,” Jeff says. “We want to be more like the church in Jerusalem, which was clearly devoted to prayer. So we lead from prayer.”
We are in great shape financially, but we intend to remain dependent upon God for financial provision. I pray daily that God would pour out a spirit of generosity at WoodsEdge, and I ask our elders and pastors to do the same. Because prayer is the real work of ministry.”
Andy Williams contributed to the writing of this report.