“Debt Free in Three!” – So teaches Newark, N.J.’s St. James AME Church

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St. James AME ChurchSt. James AME Church in Newark, N.J., is making itself an example in promoting financial independence. The church is working to eliminate its own debt while encouraging members to do the same for themselves. To that end, says the Rev. Garvey Ince, the church’s CEO and minister of finance, members of the congregation have been charged with eliminating all debt that does not result in equity within three years. Ince, who has an M.B.A. from Rutgers University, argues that the financial strength of most people is built through debt, which may result in an abundance of assets but limited equity.

Since its introduction in the spring, the “Debt Free in Three!” initiative has become a rallying cry throughout the parish.

The initiative is the vision of the Rev. William D. Watley, Ph.D., the church’s pastor, who wanted to see members grow spiritually as well as economically. The concept stemmed from his realization that while church members have tremendous earning potential, few are savvy when it comes to financial management. Most are good at saving but not at building wealth.

Watley recognized that it was difficult for his parishioners to attend worship services when they were struggling with debt and other financial challenges that hindered their spiritual growth. The church subsequently began to offer classes in financially literacy, later adding workshops on home ownership and entrepreneurship. It was during these classes, says Ince, a 20-year veteran of the financial industry, that Watley and his staff realized the extent to which church members were concerned about debt.

“It became evident to us that in the midst of financial management, one of the underpinnings is the elimination of debt which does not result in equity,” Ince says. “We concluded that the church has the responsibility not only to teach but to be the example and lead the way.”

Church officials soon developed a plan to identify the debt the church had incurred. They found a $1.7 million balance from renovations to the historical 154-year-old Gothic cathedral, which included roof and ceiling repairs, the re-leading of the exquisite floor-to-ceiling Tiffany rose window, as well as work on six other Tiffany windows that depict biblical history in relief and nine other windows with floral patterns.

The church also built a school. Now in its eighth year, the St. James Prepar-atory School was built at a cost of $5.1 million, bringing the church’s total debt to $6.8 million, of which $5.9 million has been paid. Phase two of the school’s construction, already under way, will add a gymnasium, auditorium and more classrooms at an approximate cost of $5 million.

The renovated church building and school are assets that build equity, Ince declares. More, they are the church’s legacy to the community to which it is responsible, he says. “As good stewards, we are responsible for not only protecting and maintaining the church, but also expanding it. [Part of the idea behind the debt-free] initiative is for our generation to leave more than what we inherited,” he says.

To help pay off the debt, each church member has been asked to contribute an amount above $1,500 for three years. Church members also are being asked to identify ways to eliminate their own debt and to set financial goals.

“It is important for us as a people to build equity, which means having to reduce liabilities and increase your assets,” Ince says. For the individual, owning a home or taking the steps to start a business are steps in that direction, he says.

By no means should “Debt Free in Three!” be seen as a get-rich-quick scheme, Ince says. “We have an understanding of the barriers that hinder us as a people from reaching the full potential that God has for us and one of the last barriers continues to be economic enrichment,” he says. “Until we deal with some of the fundamentals that keep us from reaching our potential, we are not going to see the growth in the community that we need.”   
St. James AME church