You Asked: Should a Church Invest?

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Today we’re excited to invite you to participate in a new feature called “You Asked.” Send us your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions, and we’ll select some to pass along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share in this space. Please limit your questions to one paragraph. Questions whose answers will serve others in similar situations are more likely to be chosen for a response. So when you think of a question, send it to [email protected] along with your full name, city, and state.

In this first installment, a reader in Texas writes:

I would like something that gives biblical direction as to how much money a church should keep and how it should be invested. I am on the finance committee of my church. They saved up a considerable sum of money and recently invested in long term debt instruments and stocks in hopes of gaining a greater return. I think this money was given for ministry, and my mother suggested, “If they have that much money and can play the stock market, then I will give my tithe to someone else with a greater need.” Any good ideas on how we should proceed? Thanks for your help.

We posed today’s question to several experts active in the local church with experience working in the finance industry and writing about business.

Wayne Grudem, research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary; author of numerous books, including Business for the Glory of God: The Bible’s Teaching on the Moral Goodness of Business and Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture, answers:

A large endowment fund can be dangerous for a church, because it loses regular accountability to God’s people. When a church has a large endowment, it can stray into liberal unbelief and still keep going for decades even though the majority of God’s people would no longer give to it. This is how many large liberal churches stay physically alive even though they are spiritually dead, and the few remaining members shuffle past rows of empty pews. But churches that depend on yearly contributions from their members retain a greater sense of accountability to God’s people.

When a church “invests” excess money in the (uncertain) hope of getting a large financial return later, no direct kingdom ministry is being done by that money for year after year. Many opportunities to spread the gospel and build up the church (and also collect more funds for ministry from the resulting new members) are simply missed. I cannot see that that is wise.

On the other hand, I do think it’s good for churches to save some money to protect against sudden unforeseen expenses, a “rainy day fund,” just as it is wise for families to do so. But not more than a few months’ worth of expenses.

There is also an important difference between a church and a family. When families save for retirement, they do so because they know that there will come a time when they are old and weak and unable to earn much. So they are rightly preparing for such a time in order that they still “may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess. 4:11). But churches have no need to prepare for such a future time or build a “retirement fund.” If they are no longer receiving contributions, they should close their doors and quit.

Bob Doll, chief equity strategist for fundamental equities at BlackRock; former president and chief investment officer at Merrill Lynch Investment Managers; and choir director at Westerly Road Church in Princeton, New Jersey, answers:

My view is that it is okay to invest a church’s money in risk assets (stocks and bonds) if it is an endowment of the church. Conversely if it is the operating reserve of the church, I question how prudent it is to put the money at risk.  Purchase of treasury bonds seems acceptable if it is known that the money won’t be needed until maturity. Otherwise, cash or near-cash seems appropriate for operating funds.

Jamie Dunlop, elder and associate pastor focusing on administration at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., with 10 years of business experience, most recently managing a line of business for a large management consultancy, answers:

Several years ago, an Anglican diocese borrowed money to increase returns on its investment portfolio. As the market hit bottom, it was forced to unwind many of these investments at a staggering cost of approximately $100 million. Hoped-for gains proved illusory, yet the costs—to ministry, to pastors, to employees, to relationships—have been all too real as annual expenditures have been cut nearly in half [1].

Was the archdiocese unwise? Immoral? Or were they simply victims of bad advice in a laudable effort to do more for the kingdom of God? The parallels between their situation and that of our own churches are not exact, but we do have similar questions to answer. How should we regard the wisdom and morality of investing church funds in financial markets?

Wisdom would dictate a case-by-case approach. Is the money in question part of a fund the church isn’t counting on—like a building fund? Or money needed for your budget? Why are you interested in spending more than is being given to the church? What type of investment do you have in mind? Absent clear rules of engagement, here are a few questions that should prove useful:

What commitments will you default on if your investments return substantially less than you expect? The wise are humble in their outlook on the future (Pr. 27:1); it is the foolish who presume (James 4:13-17). Defaulting on commitments to those who depend on you (like staff and missionaries) is much more serious than losing money for a future goal (like a new building). But even in the later case, will you have compromised the trust of those who gave money toward the project in the first place?

What example are you setting for your church members? If they made the same investment choices as their church, would we describe them as living within their means and content with what they have (Heb. 13:5)? Or as speculators driven by a love of money?

Does your desire to invest reflect a desire to hoard because you don’t trust God for the future? Hoarding provokes God’s judgment (James 5:3), and church endowments have a bad track record of often keeping churches solvent who long ago gave up the gospel.

Will disagreement over how the money is invested prove to be divisive for your church? Some Christians believe the stock market to be no better than gambling. Others believe Jesus condemned interest-bearing investments when he called them “reaping where you haven’t sown” (Luke 19:22-23). Unity in the flock under our care is far more important than maximizing financial efficiency.

The apostle Paul held up regular, faithful giving as the standard for investing our money in the kingdom (1 Cor. 16:2). Applying this principle to your church, the ordinary provision of God through the regular contributions of your members is the money God has placed in your stewardship as a church. On the last day, you will be give account for that money—no less, and no more. Does God sometimes provide in extraordinary ways? Certainly. Might this sometimes include provision through financial investments? Possibly, and I trust the questions above will prove helpful. But our focus should always be on contentment with his ordinary means of provision.

[1] “Anglicans Warned Church Is on Its Knees,” Sydney Morning Herald, October 13, 2010.