Local church gets rid of over 100k in debt even during pandemic

Date Posted: 10/14/2021

By Lindsay Peyton 
There were so many reasons that eliminating debt might have seemed impossible for Woodville UMC.  First of all, there was the amount. More than $100,000 was needed. Then, add the pandemic, and a soon-to-be reassigned pastor to the equation. But not even obstacles like these could stop the congregation from reaching its goal. Now, the church is marching into a debt free future, ready to reach for new heights.
Most would advise against eliminating debt during a pandemic, the Rev. Amanda Davis said with a smile. She served as pastor of the church for seven years, before her recent appointment as associate pastor at FUMC Houston.
Still, this isn’t the first time that the faithful members of Woodville UMC moved forward against the odds. In 2008, the congregation built a Wesley Center on campus where ministry could flourish for decades to come.
The cost of the building was $1.1 million. The capital campaign raised $750,000, and since construction, the church had continued to pay down the amount.
Still, the remaining debt often seemed insurmountable, Davis explained. Members worried that it would take years to retire the amount. “They never thought it would happen in their lifetimes,” she said. “And it was holding them back.”
The debt stopped the congregation from embarking on new endeavors or hiring new members of the team. Finally, Davis started brainstorming creative ways to jumpstart fundraising.
Her ideas started churning during college football season, which is beloved by church members. “We put out jars for A&M, University of Texas, Texas Tech and a couple of others,” Davis recalled. “We thought, let’s test the waters.”
 She challenged the congregation to fill the jars in honor of their favorite team. She would don a jersey for the winning team on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
“It was a God-given idea,” Davis recalled. When she asked the congregation what they thought about it, they replied, “Well, we love football and we want to be debt free, so let’s give it a try.”
It ended up being a fun way to get the entire church family involved – and Davis ended up wearing maroon.
Her congregation became fired up to fundraise. “Everyone had fun with it,” she said. “It was just a friendly competition about our favorite football teams.”
The effort stirred up excitement and hope about paying down the debt, Davis added. Before long, there were new ideas and commitments made. “We picked up momentum,” she said.

The end is in sight
About $115,000 remained – and Davis issued a new goal in 2020. She called it “10 x 10” – for 10 months raising $10,000 each. Her hope was to raise enough by May to be debt free.
Davis presented the idea to her board. “I laid out the numbers,” she said. “They saw that it was right there, within our grasp.”
The church moved forward with its plan. The envelope system was another creative method for fundraising. Each envelope was numbered – and represented corresponding donation amount.
For instance, the first envelope would be available for $1 and the 34th for $34. This method allowed everyone to participate, Davis explained. “Even people with a limited income can do it, and those who like to write big checks, can grab the bigger numbers,” she said.
The fundraising continued to pick up steam – even when COVID-19 threatened to derail the campaign. “Some of us got nervous in the pandemic, but our giving remained steady,” Davis said.
And even when the church doors closed during the lockdown, gifts continued to pour in. The end seemed to be in sight, but Davis admitted to being nervous. “I was trying not to get too excited,” she said. “I didn’t know if this was going to work; it was so close. Are we going to make it?”
Then, she discovered that she would be appointed to a new congregation. She explained that the Moses story resonated with her.
“This is their promised land,” Davis said. “It doesn’t mean I’ll be walking into it with them. I would remind myself of that, and it became my narrative. I wanted to help them get to this point for the next chapter.”

A new chapter is born
Finally, on Sunday, June 6, Woodville UMC held a “Burning the Wesley Center Building Note” ceremony. Members of the original building committee -- Sidney Allison, Mark Bronstad, Reagan Pillack Ivey, Sam Gallier Jr., Benja McCluskey, Fred Sullivan and Dixie Jarrott – were invited to send the debt up in smoke.
Former pastors were also invited -- Rev. Bryan Harkness and Rev. Dr. Tommy Williams, who led the church when the Wesley Center was originally constructed. Rev. Doretta Remy and Diaconal Pastor Jane Webb also joined in the celebration.
The newly appointed Pastor, the Rev. Jon Thornsbury, who would succeed Davis in July, also attended. “It was so incredible to see their excitement,” he recalled. “It was a wonderful Sunday.”
Davis knew that eliminating the debt would be a boon for the future pastor at Woodville UMC. “It’s going to give birth to new possibility,” she said. “They’ll have the space and budget to do more innovative ministries with youth and children.”
Thornsbury said that since he started the Wesley Center has been a busy space for Sunday school and study groups. There are community meetings, school trainings and events in the building. The gym hosts pickleball practice and activities for the church’s day school.
“Now that the building is paid off, we have resources to do more in the community,” he said. “We are looking forward to see where the Lord will lead us to use the building and the resources in the future.”
Davis said that seeing a smaller, rural congregation pay off debt during COVID-19 gave her hope. “Even during the pandemic, it was possible,” she said. “You just have to break it down into bite size pieces. And then find fun and innovative ways to get the church behind it.”