The Only Thing that Can Kill a Church: Interview with J. Clif Christopher – Part 1

The Only Thing that Can Kill a Church:
Interview with J. Clif Christopher – Part 1

                                    J. Clif Christopher

Like many of you who read this kind of literature – and go ahead, be proud – for me, one of the classics in the stewardship field is Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate (henceforth NYPOP) by J. Clif Christopher (2008). Seriously, it’s easily still one of the best books written on church financial stewardship. If you haven’t read it, you should. Now.
In search of this summer’s beach reading, I stumbled across Christopher’s 2012 book, Rich Church, Poor Church: Keys to Effective Financial Ministry. Some of you may read Danielle Steele or Stephen King at the beach, I read Clif Christopher. Simple in structure and easy to digest, it’s easily as important as his better-known NYPOP. I thought I’d see if Christopher would be willing to talk to me about Rich Church, Poor Church. Lucky for me (and hopefully for you, dear readers) he was willing to give me an interview. Woo hoo! I was talking to a rock star in the stewardship world!

J. Clif Christopher, how did you find your calling? Clif (as I will so casually call him) spent 20 years as a local United Methodist pastor. He quickly discovered that he was good at renewing churches and working with capital campaigns. As his reputation spread Clif was often asked to, in addition to pastoring his own church, help other churches become more financially stable.
To no one’s surprise, his skills were not gained in a seminary class. A stint in Emory University’s Development Office, where he met with donors and potential donors, gave him a good foundation. Clif went on to serve as an Army Reserve Chaplain in the Gulf War and, upon his return, realized that his new calling was to work with congregations, helping them to become financially healthy. In 1992, he founded Horizons Stewardship in Arkansas. Once he began working in the field, Clif “became more aware of mistakes churches were making. Mistakes that were lasting for generations.” As he said, “Financial stewardship done right can make a positive difference. Done wrong…”
Where was your first “aha” moment?   “In my very first appointment!” His new church had decided to physically relocate and build a new parsonage. “Immediately I had to find a way to raise money. I naively thought it would be easy. The process stunned me. Individuals were saying that they could not give any money. They gave one excuse after the other and always pointed to the one person they deemed rich: ‘Mr. Jones could write one check and pay for everything. You should talk to him.’ Very few said, ‘Here I am Lord, send me.’ That was my ‘aha’ moment.”

Why write Rich Church/Poor Church? While acknowledging that many of the same principles from NYPOP resonate throughout Rich Church/Poor Church,  Clif wanted to frame the issues and questions in another way. Looking at churches from a “before” and “after” lens  – in other words – “poor church” to “rich church” – allowed him to pull from his work with over 2,000 congregations.
As Clif says so powerfully in his intro to Rich Church/Poor Church:
This book was written because we do not give as Christ taught us to give, and that is because Jesus is not yet Lord of our lives [Cesie here: Ouch!]. The church finds itself in serious trouble financially, not so much because of lack of money, but because of a lack of passion and commitment to One other than ourselves [again, ouch and amen].

What’s the only thing that can kill a church? “Debt is the only thing, that I am aware of, that can kill a church,” Clif said. “If a wrong decision is made in a church vote, many a church has been strangled because of a bad decision. I have worked with too many churches that have been heartbroken.”
As he says in the chapter, “Principal not Payments”:
“Bad decisions regarding debt will cripple a church faster than just about anything. If you pick a bad pastor, it will hurt, but you can quickly move to get another one, which fixes that problem. A bad decision on a new ministry can be rectified after a few months, and with its elimination, the church can move on. But debt can be forever, and it is unforgiving. You just can’t have a do over and have the same old church back once you have signed those papers” (emphasis added).
For many of you, this chapter in Rich Church/Poor Church may be the single most important reason to read this book. It helps the non-financially-minded person understand why managing debt principal versus managing debt payments may be the key to the life and ministry of a congregation.
So there’s part one of a two-part conversation with J. Clif Christopher about his book, Rich Church/Poor Church. Next week we’ll cover: “What is the one thing you can do to help your congregation become more financially generous?” Stay tuned.
Cesie Delve Scheuermann (pronounced “CC Delv Sherman,” yes, really) is a consultant in stewardship, development, and grant writing. Over the past fifteen years, while working as a volunteer and part-time consultant, she helped raise over three million dollars for numerous non-profit organizations. She’s bummed that she forgot to ask what the “J.” in “J. Clif Christopher” stands for. Or, why only one “f” in “Clif”? She was the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference Lay Leader from 2008-2012. Her position with the Conference is funded through a generous grant from the Collins Foundation. She is available to consult with churches. You can reach her at inspiringgenerosity@gmail.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/inspiringgenerosity.
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Cesie Delve Scheuermann
Cesie Delve Scheuermann is consultant in grant writing and stewardship/development working with the Conference. From 2008-12 she was the Conference Lay Leader for the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference.