By Patricia Hartley
Our church was in debt. Big-time debt. A big, looming debt we still owed from the $7 million loan we had taken to build an addition we called the Christian Life Center. The facility, which added a massive gym, kitchen, meeting areas, offices, and multiple Sunday School rooms, was completed in 2001 after three years of planning and four more years of construction. The congregation gave faithfully to the building fund during the next 16 years, and by 2017 the debt had dwindled down to a still-daunting $500,000.
But every church has debt, right? In addition to the monthly expenses to keep the lights on and the pastors paid, a portion of the tithes is usually dedicated to paying down a mortgage or loan. Even those inevitable annual campaigns that encourage us to give a little extra to pay for the new parking lot, revamp the sanctuary, or upgrade the worship center never seem to be enough to get a church completely out of debt.
That’s pretty much where we were — still in debt after 16 years.
One summer Sunday in 2017, the chairman of the church’s administrative board stepped up to the lectern during the 8:45 a.m. service to introduce a previously-unannounced guest speaker. Well, maybe “introduce” isn’t the right word. Our chairman never actually provided his name or even the purpose of the man’s presentation. So, as the unfamiliar man approached the altar, a palpable ripple of confusion and curiosity spread across the congregation.
The visitor’s announcement was brief and blunt. Without offering his name, he stated that he was an attorney representing an anonymous person, and this person was issuing our church a challenge. He explained his client was aware of our $500,000 building debt and was prepared to pay half of that balance. Before the gasps of shock could subside, though, he laid out the offer’s conditions.
We would only receive the $250,000 contribution if we, the congregation, raised the other $250,000 on our own within the next three months. Pledges were forbidden; only actual donations qualified. Our donations would be deposited into a designated account, but nobody — not even the pastors, board or the finance committee — was permitted to know the amount that had been raised until after the three-month deadline had passed. If we gave at least $250,000, the client would provide the other portion. If we didn’t reach that threshold, we wouldn’t get the match, but the funds we contributed would still be applied to the building fund.
We would never know the identity of the benefactor, and only the board chairman could contact our guest speaker, the attorney.
And with that, he stepped down and walked out of the church as swiftly and determinedly as he had entered, but this time, it was amid a round of raucous applause. We hardly ever reach raucous level, but it was appropriate for such an unexpected proposal.
Somehow, our stunned pastor completed the service, and by the time the 11:00 crowd began rolling in, the church’s informal communication channels were all abuzz with the news. The board chairman confirmed the authenticity of the offer and repeated it for the next service. And with that, we were in full-on, challenge-accepted mode.
Three months passed with few official updates — because we didn’t have any updates at all. Of course, we were reminded of the challenge and encouraged to dig as deep as we felt called to, but each mention of the mysterious ultimatum was followed by positive affirmations.
“We can do this!” we’d say, or “Maybe I can give just a little more.”
No member of the congregation wanted to miss out on this opportunity. Besides, the entire scenario was just too intriguing for us not to get caught up in the excitement.
On the Sunday after the deadline, the chairman once again stepped to the lectern to address our congregation — this time with the results. He reiterated the challenge and announced the benefactor’s attorney had contacted him to share that the amount of money we had raised.
It was incredible! Drum roll please: We had contributed more than $800,000!
Now when I say that eyes popped and jaws dropped, I mean that literally.
After that instant of mute shock, we erupted with applause. Not only had we met the $250,000 challenge by the deadline, we exceeded it by over half a million dollars!
Within the next few days, as promised, the attorney’s client promptly paid his pledged portion directly to the bank — anonymously, of course. A few months later, we celebrated paying off this 16-year-old debt by burning the note in the church garden and releasing balloons of thanks and praise.
We still don’t know who orchestrated this miracle or why this person chose our church. Perhaps it’s something he’s done for other congregations; who knows? Rumors swirled — it was so-and-so’s family or that billionaire from out of state who visited one time — you name it. But the genius of his gift was how he (or she?) stirred up such a frenzy of determination and exhilaration that we joined forces and somehow came up with much, much more than we were challenged to give. And we had fun doing it.
God certainly works in mysterious ways — sometimes even through a nameless lawyer!