Church’s business savvy extends financial ministry: New Life helps members become self-sufficient

Ondalere Helm has struggled to stay on solid financial footing since being laid off about four years ago.

The 32-year-old mom got behind on her bills and was living in a governmentassisted apartment building with her 7-year-old daughter.

“I had been praying for a home for my daughter,” Helm said. “I tried to buy a house, but my credit wasn’t good enough.”

Then about two months ago, the pastor at New Life Worship Center-where Helm and her daughter attend religious services-called and told her the church was offering her a house on a rent-to-own arrangement.

The church paid $100,000 for Helm’s three-bedroom Pike Township house, and Pastor John Ramsey hopes to do the same for another member of its 3,200-person congregation in 2006.

Church leaders bought the house as part of a new program called New Life Business Development, which aims to provide families with affordable housing in middle-class neighborhoods while also helping to make them financially self-sufficient.

“We have a financial ministry here,” Ramsey said. “We want to do positive things for families and work people through debt.”

New Life isn’t alone. Churches are offering increasingly business-savvy programs.

“Certain large congregations are becoming more entrepreneurial about both how they serve the community and how they serve their members,” said Tim Shapiro, president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations.

The 4-year-old New Life operates debtfree, Ramsey said, using donations and revenue from the multiday educational seminars it hosts throughout the year to operate its two locations-at 2740 Kessler Blvd. North Drive and 7860 Lafayette Road-and fund outreach efforts. New Life also asks members for extra “seed money” about four times a year; it collected $30,000 the last time it did so in December.

The church paid cash for Helm’s house, the pastor said.

Church officials declined to provide additional financial details about the church, which, as a religious institution, doesn’t have to file the informational tax returns the Internal Revenue Service requires of other not-for-profits.

But clearly the church takes its outreach work seriously. The financial ministry is run by Willie Messer, president of locally based NorthPark Community Credit Union. The church’s deacon serves as vice president of business development. New Life retains locally based Katz Sapper and Miller LLP as its accounting firm and Baker & Daniels as its law firm.

The size of a church determines how far its outreach programs can extend, the Center for Congregations’ Shapiro said, so New Life’s ability to buy houses and rent them to members is indicative of its strength in numbers and its savvy business decisions.

“Every church has the capacity to touch its community,” said Kevin Armstrong, pastor of North United Methodist Church at 38th and Meridian streets, which has 1,000 members. “But not every church has as large a capacity as New Life.”

North United Methodist employs one fulltime staff person dedicated to community and outreach.

“Many congregations that want to be involved in these kinds of projects have either to rely on volunteer power or have some dedicated staff time. There are not a lot of congregations that can afford a fulltime outreach staff,” Armstrong said.

Half of the 1,800 churches in the ninecounty central Indiana region have fewer than 100 members, Armstrong said. Only a very small percentage has more than 2,000.

“Most outreach is more specific in dealing with individuals, often an emergency need,” Armstrong said. “New Life’s is a wonderful ministry that focuses on the person’s entire life, not just one aspect of it.”

New Life rents the west-side house to Helm for the same amount she was paying for her apartment. The church is helping her re-establish her credit by negotiating with creditors for lower interest rates and teaching her money management. When she’s ready, the church will sell her the house for the same amount it paid for it, less what she’s paid in rent.

The church also may loan Helm the money to buy the house at an interest rate as low as 4.5 percent, if she’s not able to get a favorable rate from a bank.

“The Bible talks about becoming the lender, not the borrower,” Ramsey said. “Our objective is not money making.”

Ondalere Helm and her 7-year-old daughter, Naudica, at their northwest-side home. Their church is providing the house through a rent-to-own arrangement.

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