Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My Week in Denver-- an Urbanist's Paradise

I attended a week-long seminar on time series econometrics and forecasting hosted by the National Association of Business Economists. The seminar was at the Denver branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which is located right downtown on the 16th Street Mall. This location put me in the center of action and allowed me to enjoy how marvelous Denver was.



The Airport
The airport was nice, new, and still under construction. Best part of my experience was departing the TSA waved half of us into a line where we had to neither remove our shoes nor our laptops from our bags-- just like the old days.
Courtesy Palmalimousine.com

Transportation to/from the Airport
Denver is building a train that will run straight from the airport to downtown. Until then, SuperShuttle and other services offer flat $22 shared van ride to anywhere you want to go in Denver. This was quick and easy and dropped me off right at my lodging. 

Courtesy: www.supershuttle.com

Airbnb
This was my first experience with Airbnb. The way travel reimbursement works in my office, two different people/credit cards have to handle airline and hotel; you can't book both at once to receive a discounted rate (government inefficiency, you know). Since the up-front for the hotel was on me I was not excited about the cheapest hotel I could find close to the conference being $190.
Enter Airbnb, where I found a nice queen bed and a hostess who really cares about her guests for $60/night. One of the hens in her backyard layed me eggs for my breakfast, doesn't get much better than that! Here is where I stayed.


Transportation within the city:
Denver is a great walking city and not bad for bikes either. There are these bike rental stations all over town, for $8 you can rent a bike for the day and park it at the station that's nearest to your destination. 



The buses run regularly and are adequate; there is a non-stop stream of electric buses that run up and down 16th Street Mall, the main strip of downtown, for free.


There is also a service called Car2Go:
 "car2go vehicles can be accessed 'on-demand.' Unlike traditional carsharing programs, car2go allows its members to use the vehicle for as long as they like, without committing to a specific return time or location. They can finish the trip in any authorized parking space within the car2go Home Area. Attractive “by-the-minute” rates include costs for fuel, insurance, parking and maintenance.

These cars are allowed free parking in certain spots downtown. 

I walked everywhere and felt relatively safe. There are plenty of green spaces in Denver, it really is beautiful in the summer time. I took a jog in the main park, it was sort of like Central Park for Denver. There is a zoo, museum, and IMAX located there.

My seminars were at the Federal Reserve, which has a money museum that I didn't find all that interesting. I

Food and Drink
A wonderful vegetarian breakfast hash that included sweet potatoes and gluten-free muffin from WaterCourse.
Outside the airport, I never saw a McDonald's all week. Seriously. I saw a couple other chain restaurants including something called a Subway Cafe, and a million Starbucks, but no McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, etc. Most of the restaurants were local, and all of them served vegetarian and gluten free meals prominently. I had some unbelievably good food.

Every restaurant sells alcohol, including local beers on tap. It's a little odd to walk into a Panera-like place for breakfast and be greeted with several taps. Same things with places that advertised as coffee houses/bars. Denver folks love their beer, and there are plenty of breweries.

Marijuana
I did not try any of the legal retail marijuana, nor did I see any for sale, although the tourist centers offered info about it. I did see plenty of college-aged students walking around stoned and smelling of pot, though. Colorado's coffers are raking in more money from marijuana sales than even the highest forecast predicted.

Weather
I happened to be there when the Artic Vortex was in play, and that made temperatures wonderfully cool with highs in the 70s in mid-July. That was awesome.

Would I live here? Absolutely! "Prosperous" is the word I would use to describe the place. There are plenty of newly renovated or newly-constructed apartment buildings with fitness centers, close to groceries, etc.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review (#66 of 2014) Medicaid and Devolution (produced by the Brookings Institution)

Medicaid and Devolution: A View from the States
I read this compilation of essays compiled by the Brookings Institution for greater insight into the history of Medicaid and where it was projected to go in the late 1990s. I have a role in forecasting Medicaid expenditures for my job in state government. 

"Medicaid is truly the the colossus of intergovernmental programs in the United States. It accounts for 40 percent of all federal grant monies to the states...Between 1988 and 1995 Medicaid spending grew from about $54 billion to $157 billion, roughly $90 billion of which were federal dollars...elderly and disabled persons, who represent less than one-third of all program beneficiaries (consume) about two-thirds of all program dollars...(A)bout one-half of all program beneficiaries are low-income children..." (p. 3-4). The $157 billion represented roughly 15 percent of all U.S. health expenditures (p. 17).
 
The original Medicaid legislation passed in 1965 was ten pages long, compared to its 500 pages as of 1998. State programs are governed by more than 300 pages of instructions by the federal government, along with other directives and guidelines (p. 41).

"Devolution" means divulging more power to the states from the federal government. As some powers have been divulged and more freedoms given to the states, states have found ways to shift more of the cost onto the federal government. States want both freedom to set their own prices and policies and a free lunch of shifting the burden onto the federal government.


The book is partly a reaction to the Republican-led efforts to turn Medicaid into a Medigrant system of block grants to states, an idea that is still pushed by Rep. Paul Ryan and others. Some of the essays deal with the pros and cons of such proposals as well as some theoretical outcomes. Most authors seem to believe that if states have a lump sum that they decide how it is spent, then states will likely eliminate services and keep it as trim as possible, particularly in poorer states in the South where Medicaid programs tend to be less generous than in the more prosperous Northern states. One essay describes a theoretical "race to the bottom," where states have an incentive to provide fewer incentives than their neighbors so that the poor of the population will migrate to the other state to receive the benefits. Anecdotal evidence from Minnesota (which offered relatively large Medicaid benefits) is cited. (It will be interesting to see studies about ACA related migration in the 2014-2020 period, no?)

In the 1990s, states really started moving toward managed care programs as a cost-reduction mechanism, particularly after the recession of the early 90's when revenue shortfalls were common. The 1997 Budget Act gave states the ability to experiment with managed care on a wider basis (without a waiver from the feds). At time of publication (1998), the economy had been growing steadily and Medicaid enrollment growth was slowing while state budgets were recovering from early-90's recession shortfalls, so some authors foresaw less interest in managed care and Medicaid reform in general.

State-power advocates often argue that expanded home and community-based services managed by the states will decrease Medicaid costs relative to costly nursing home and facility treatments. The authors cite studies however that these services tend to increase Medicaid costs instead (Chapter 6). That issue has since been revisited with the ACA and Medicaid expansion, with opinion apparently leaning towards in-home care being cheaper. Consider data from a recent study, this for Kentucky:
Compare the average annual costs of caring for a frail or elderly Kentuckian, according to state data:
■ $67,525 in a private-pay nursing home.
■ $47,187 in a Medicaid-paid nursing home.
■ $15,000 for community- and home-based services.

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/06/29/3314842/kentucky-must-do-better-by-elders.html#storylink=cpy

Kentucky is facing criticism for not devoting more resources to the cheaper community and home-based treatments. But the authors argue that this pre-supposes the Medicaid patients' families being capable of providing competent care and decision-making, as well as the recipient having a home capable of supporting treatment (p. 217). With an aging population, this problem is huge.

The Disproportionate Share to Hospitals (DSH) is scrutinized. The federal government sends states additional funds to help defray the costs of treating Medicaid patients at hospitals that see a disproportionate share of those patients as a percentage of their overall patient load. Through DSH payments (and other means) states learned to game the system to get more federal dollars and share costs among providers:
"In 1987 Congress established minimum criteria for the state allocation of these funds that went into effect on July 1, 1988...a hospital became eligible (for DSH) if (1) its Medicaid utilization rate was more than one standard deviation above the average rate for all hospitals that participated in a state's Medicaid program, and (2) its rate of utilization by low income persons was at least 25 percent. States soon began to take advantage of DSH. From 1989 through 1992, DSH payments for acute and mental health hospitals grew from slightly more than $500 million to more than $17 billion. States possessed enormous discretion to determine which hospitals got DSH funds"(p. 34). 

50 different states mean 50 dramatically different systems for providing Medicaid and eligibility standards. For example, States vary widely in the rate at which they reimburse doctors for Medicaid compared to Medicare.
"The ratio of Medicaid to Medicare fees ranged from a low of .38 in New York to a high of 1.79 in Alaska" (p. 35).



The authors lean toward putting more faith in the federal government to attract the talent and expertise needed to make good Medicaid policy relative to states, where legislators and regulators may be "amateurs." While conservatives argue for a "states as laboratories" approach, these authors argue for a federal government being neutral arbitrator, maintaining the quality standards that state programs have to meet in order to benefit society as a whole.The real answer is "it depends." If the movement toward more decentralization and managed care by the states is shown to decrease costs without decreasing quality or the number of vulnerable covered, then great. If not, then more centralization of at least certain aspects seems to be the given answer. One area the authors agree could be done better is the gathering of information, the modernization of which the federal government provided matching/offsetting funds for the states, only to see outcomes vary widely between states.This problem obviously came to light when the federal government had to design a national health care exchange system that relied on accessing states' Medicaid data-- some states still had pre-1990s archaic systems.

There are a lot of helpful statistics on the growth rate of Medicaid expenditures, the overall history of the program, reform efforts in the 1980s, as well as some studies that look at the generosity of Medicaid laws relative to the wealth and political leanings of states.

I give this book 3 stars out of 5. Not a necessary read unless you are a Medicaid wonk. The references are plentiful and well-cited.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Book Review (#65 of 2014) Stress Test by Timothy Geithner

Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises
Here's what you'll not find in this book: The personal philosophies, principles, and policies Geithner used to run a major cabinet agency and the New York Federal Reserve prior to that. There is very little about the advice he gleaned from others, although Robert Rubin and Larry Summers were strong influences and possibly mentors. His economics is pretty rudimentary, mainly just referring to simple Keynesian policies in the book.

The strength of the book is the timeline of the financial crisis from the view of the NY Fed and Treasury. I have read multiple books and seen multiple documentaries of the financial crisis and I'm sure experts will one day compare the books and their sequences of the events and find contradictions, but I felt Geithner's take was pretty thorough and captured the stress on policymakers quite well. The Fed's stress test implemented, with the backing of Treasury, ended up being enormously important in shoring up confidence in U.S. banks among investors but received little press at the time due to other events. That was one policy triumph that Geithner feels was underrated.
He details the frustrations of TARP, how difficult it was to walk the center line when being attacked by the right and left. He has little positive to say about the Republican party and their response to the crisis, although Boehner comes across in the end as a sensible moderate hemmed in by the Tea Party.

I found Geithner's childhood interesting as he grew up as child of USAID worker in SE Asia. He developed a broad world view and studied in China, and later leveraged that experience to land a job in the international wing of the U.S. Treasury Department and later the IMF. This gave him invaluable working experience in the Asian financial crisis, as well as the Mexican peso crisis. It also allowed him to forge some understanding between himself and President Obama that appealed to the President-elect when selecting Geithner for Treasury.

Geithner opens the book essentially with an apology for his horrible confirmation testimony during Congressional hearings and his horrible roll-out of his plan to stress-test the banks. Behind the scenes, he tells of staffers working late nights on speech drafts, but he seems oddly detached and uninvolved in this process. There is very little info on how he managed his staff. Geithner felt a "crushing guilt" for making the President look bad and embarrassing his family. His wife is apparently a counselor and loathed Geithner's political role and the long hours he spent away from home. She opposed him accepting the nomination as Treasury Secretary, and President Obama had to personally assuage her doubts when he decided to keep him on after re-election.

In about 70% of the book, Geithner comes across as a partisan hack, simply supporting the position of the Obama administration and not lending many insights to the infighting among his economic team. He has nothing but praise for Obama from start to finish, which I find oddly contrasting to other memoirs I read where they at least find some fault in their former boss. He is often awkwardly included in Obama press conferences held for political purposes-- to denounce bonuses to CEOs, for example-- just to stand there and be seen as a silent supporter. I think he regrets those moments, but saw them as part of his job as a political appointee.

He expresses his frustration and bewilderment at watching Europe implode at the time the U.S. was finally starting to emerge from recession. Memorable one-liners from Sarkozy highlight his dealings with European leaders. 

He was very supportive of Dodd-Frank and details the political perils of passing it when the Left started overreaching. He was also broadly supportive of Elizabeth Warren and defends himself and others in the Clinton White House for their fight against Brooksley Born's crusade for more derivatives regulation (she was right on principle, but wrong on proper policy execution). Time and again, he has to explain to others that he did not come from the financial industry. He personally had a "dim" view of finance, or at least his ability to work in the Wall Street environment. He was influenced by Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker.

Besides Lewis, Geithner also cites Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise, Liaquat Ahmet's Lords of Finance, and Rogoff and Reinhart's This Time is Different. The few books he mentions are about the only insight into what he was thinking or learning, which does not appear to be deep. He includes some some general thoughts on financial regulation and dealing with a financial crisis.

I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. A must-read on the financial crisis and period of '07-12. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Sermon of the Week (7/13 - 7/19, 2014) Matt Chandler on Stewardship

I've been traveling all week and will do a post next week on the awesomeness of Denver. Podcasts are a part of my traveling, and I enjoyed hearing Matt Chandler's sermon on stewardship from his series entitled Grace Made Visible. There are some great principles about giving and the importance of financial discipline as a manifestation of spiritual discipline. I enjoyed Chandler's testimony about he handles the budget for his household weekly, checking expenses and balancing the checkbook. Not something he enjoys, but he does it for God's glory and exhorts his congregation to do likewise. He encourages everyone to live as minimally as possible and to be as content as possible, and relates it back to the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1.

Key principles regarding money:
1. Money must be obtained through honest gain.
2. Money must be cared for diligently.

There are viewing and transcript options for the sermon here.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Book Review (#64 of 2014) Wheat Belly by William Davis, M.D.

Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health
The author is a cardiologist who relies on some clinical studies but mostly anecdotal evidence from himself and his patients. "Wheat Belly" refers to the visceral fat that has developed in Americans in our obesity epidemic. Davis attributes it ultimately to wheat, which has been crossbred and genetically engineered so that it no longer represents that which our ancestors ate. This book is similar to other "carbs are bad" books, or "bad carbs are bad" books, but it focuses more on wheat-- which gets confusing because he often means "carbs" and will conclude a paragraph with "so, avoid high-fructose corn syrup and other highly processed carbs" when he has previously referred to "wheat." If he hadn't focused on wheat, this would be like the 1,000 books on carbs and the industrial food chain that have been published before it in the last 10 years. Read a Michael Pollan book instead.

High-carb foods are high-glycemic foods that make your body produce too much insulin. This makes you feel hungry faster and feeding that hunger leads to even greater caloric intake and your body stores the extra calories as fat. Davis details this process, like many authors before him. He points out that whole wheat products are higher on the glycemic index than pure sugar.But giving up wheat and gluten can lead to eating even more calories.

"Be gluten free, but don't eat gluten free." Gluten-free foods that are based on tapiocha starch, potato starch, etc. are even higher on the glycemic index than whole wheat products. That's possibly why so many people with celiac disease and eat gluten-free are overweight-- they're still getting too many carbs and calories from imbalanced insulin. 

The government's food recommendations from the 1970s encourages us to eat a low-fat diet with plenty of whole wheat products, but it's really carbs that's killing us. I recommend any of Michael Pollan's books on food, as well as a host of earlier (and thus now cheaper) books that deal with this subject; Davis doesn't add anything.

I do not have time to look up all the wheat-specific studies he cites, but other commenters (including ones who are themselves gluten free) have done fact-checking and have pointed out he either misrepresents or exaggerates some studies or flat out states conclusions they did not reach. This is common among books of this genre where junk science or studies with very small sample sizes and very little controls are hailed as "conclusive proof." One study I did look up was this one by the National Institutes of Health on wheat-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis. Some people are found to have an allergic reaction of asthma and other issues when exercising after eating a meal of whole wheat. This paper only looks at one female who ate a host of other products besides wheat. But Davis is right in that a drug is prescribed that mitigates to the effect rather than change the woman's diet.

One of the scarier studies cited is the relationship of gluten to mental health, particularly schizhophrenia. Davis cites a study done decades ago at an asylum that showed schizophrenics showed marked improvement when wheat was removed from their diet. However, as one researcher critiquing the book's myriad of scientific claims has pointed out (PDF):

"A comprehensive review looking at the connection between gluten and schizophrenia showed that gluten withdrawal resulted in a drastic reduction or full remission of symptoms—but only among a small subset of schizophrenia sufferers. Thus, in a small subset of schizophrenia patients removal of
wheat might be helpful but would not be the miracle cure described by Davis."


Some of the worst ratings for the book come from people who gave up wheat but didn't lose weight as they thought Davis was promising. That's because you're not going to lose weight by giving up wheat/gluten alone, and that message is often lost in this book. You lose weight over time by consuming fewer calories than what you burn. Calories, exercise, and sleep matter. I don't think Davis ever states that flat out, which is sad since he is a physician.


This book is poorly written in some places. Davis makes annoying statements like: "This problem rears its head in more ways than Tiger Woods has mistresses" and "this process is more tightly controlled than the Federal Reserve controls the discount rate." That gets annoying.

Other topics covered in the book include what celiac disease is and how it is often hard to diagnose. Davis also looks at the relationship between chemicals in visceral fat and joint health. He suggests gluten-free diets may help arthritis and joint pain as well as slow down the aging process. This is based mostly on the anecdotal evidence he's seen from his own patients who have heeded his advice.

I don't know why I keep reading these kinds of books; in this case my wife and son recently became gluten-free (with my encouragement) and I wanted to have a better basis on documented benefits.  They are 20% science and 80% marketing. Now Davis can attach his names to the Wheat Belly Diet Cookbook series to follow. 2 stars.

Sermon of the Week (7/6 - 7/12, 2014) Andy Stanley on Good God and R.C. Sproul on Two Worldviews

I actually doubted Andy Stanley would ever make the Sermon of the Week list since he uses the Bible less frequently than any pastor I listen to (he doesn't preach expository sermons and he intentionally avoids saying "the Bible says..." I don't think he's concerned about Dever's Marks of a Healthy Church).

Stanley is preaching through a series on simple apologetics, giving his congregation one-liners to defend their faith.There are always problems with gross simplification but there is also benefit in boiling things down to the simple reasons why we believe what we do. This sermon from 6/29 is to answer the question of "If God is good, why does he allow bad things to happen?" His comeback is, first, "Have you ever read anything about this?" which moves the impetus from the questioned to the questioner to do his homework and is a way to humbly say "I'm not an expert." Secondly, "Have you ever chosen to do something bad? By your logic shouldn't God have gotten rid of you?"

Stanley draws heavily on C.S. Lewis' thoughts on morality as evidence of God. Once someone states that something is "right" or "wrong" it raises the question of "who decides?" which necessitates an ultimate arbitrator. We all want to be the ones who decides what is "right" and "wrong," and mete out justice but, hypocritically, none of us want to give anyone else that right for fear of their wrath. Stanley argues "ought" and "ought not" comes ultimately from our sense that our world is broken, things aren't as they should be-- we've lost something. He ends up at Romans 8.


R.C. Sproul's ministry has also been broadcasting Sproul's series on apologetics recently, and I recommend listening at least to this Sproul lesson (Only Two Worldviews) from 7/6 to get a similar take on the same topic. Atheists have to answer the questions: "How did something come from nothing?" and "Where does guilt come from?" Sproul's lesson is on atheists' lack of a basis for which to judge something as moral/immoral and therefore their inability to logically claim violations of ethics or human rights. Listen to his entire series, particularly looking at the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas (Sproul is a fan) vs. Immanuel Kant (Sproul is opposed) as well as the podcast on presuppositionalism vs. classical apologetics (apparently this is a current debate among Reformed apologists).

I listened to another sermon this week on Stanley's topic from a purely biblical basis (also on Romans 8) and found it fell short of a convincing argument. Tim Keller also broached the subject in this excellent sermon on 6/29 (you guessed it-- on Romans 8) but not in an apologetic sense. 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Book Review (#63 of 2014) Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll

Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together

"The goal is progress, not perfection."

This is the most comprehensive book on marriage that I have seen; it is a combination of several books that I have read and would recommend. It is both written for pastors from a pastoral perspective as well as Christians young and old. It is helpful in developing a theology of marriage and looking at everything in marriage as something that is intended to glorify God. There are tools useful in planning and conflict resolution as well as developing friendship and intimacy. Even marital conflict can glorify God if done correctly, says Dever. It's one of the few books on marriage that also deals with working through past sexual histories and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as a couple. The chapters related to sex and intimacy are modern--they are addressed to a generation that has grown up in a sex-soaked culture and feels no shame. The book includes plenty of statistics from within and without the church. It is not really a funny, light-hearted read. If you want that, check out the book Fun Loving You (my review). 


The biographical info and testimonies of the Driscolls was helpful to me, these people are not "whitewashed tombs." One appeal of Mark Driscoll is his humility and use of others for support. He often (publicly) marches down a bad, angry road spiritually, mentally, and in regards to physical health but later listens to correction. He seeks wisdom from others ranging from biblical counseling to holistic health advice to hiring a life coach. To understand depression and addiction that he sees either in himself or his congregation, he reads books and seeks wisdom on the brain and psychology. Critics have faulted this book for he and his wife's detailing of their earlier marital struggles and dealing with her past abuse, but I find nothing off-putting about the content nor do I find it nearly as transparent and forthright as people claim. 

"Men see everything as either respect or disrespect. Women see everything as either loving or unloving."

Usually, the first book I recommend on marriage is Love and Respect by Eggerichs (my review). Real Marriage includes chapters detailing the same concept, but Mark writes the chapter exhorting men to love their wives while Grace writes the chapter on women exhorting men to respect their husbands. This may be particularly appealing to women who felt brow-beaten by Eggerichs in his book.


The Driscolls contrast Martin Luther's ultimately good marriage-- a marriage rooted in and exemplifying friendship-- with John Wesley's ultimately destructive marriage. I think it illustrated the importance of marriage/family balance for busy pastors and theologians. 

The chapter addressing pornography and sexual abuse is a difficult read, but necessary for the times. There is a chapter toward the beginning of the book where Mark pretty unflinchingly exhorts men to behave like men; there is not a lot of scripture just a lot of commentary on "immature" and "idiotic" behaviors common in American males that Driscoll is confronting. People may find that off-putting, but I probably agreed with everything he said.

One of the last chapters addresses sex in a shameless culture. This comes out of the Driscolls getting hundreds of questions on intimacy during premarital counseling as well as the conferences they speak at. They address every major question through the lens of: Is it lawful (1 Corinthians 6)?  Is it helpful?

The final chapter seemingly borrows from Steven Covey to "begin with the end in mind." What does your last day of marriage look like?  The authors lay out a list of goals to discuss with your spouse ranging from long-term like what you'll look for in churches and what types of ways you'll look to worship in your work  to daily habits like what kind of books and how many meals to eat together. The specific goals and long-term planning are something I need to work on in my own marriage.

I give this book five stars, I would recommend it to any pastor doing premarital counseling, and some specific cases of marital counseling. I recommend it to all Christians as a helpful marriage text.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Book Review (#62 of 2014) The Debt-Free Church by Jeff Berg and Jim Burgess

The Debt-Free Church: Experiencing Financial Freedom While Growing Your Ministry
At the time of publishing (1994), Berg was a "marketing communications coordinator for a financial software firm" and Burgess was pastoring Fellowship Bible Church in Dalton, GA... he now pastors Fellowship of the United Arab Emirates which I bet is a good story. They both have apparently worked with Larry Burkett of Crown Financial.

To write this book, the authors interviewed people from hundreds of churches who saw varying results in their building plans. There are a lot of horror stories from churches who fell apart or went bankrupt after taking on debt, and triumphant stories of churches who chose to raise funds before they built, or be more creative about their current resources.

The authors' main thesis is that while borrowing is not a sin, it is always cautioned against in Scripture. The biblical examples of building programs (the Tabernacle, the Temples, caring for those displaced in Jerusalem after Pentecost, funding Paul's ministry, and funding the Jersualem church after the famine) model sacrificial given by God's people until the right amount was raised-- before the work was established. Once enough was gathered, it was put to use-- and not before.

The authors attempt to address some of the counterarguments churches give in defense of borrowing. My favorite counterargument they demolish is that "borrowing is an act of faith," perhaps even greater than patiently saving up to build.  Berg and Burgess respond (p. 102, italics their own):

"It is not faith to test God's goodness with presumption...but borrowing usually does reflect presumption-- believing we know God's will in the future without proof of God's provision in the present...Some say, 'But when you wait until you have all the money in hand before you proceed, that's not walking by faith--it's walking by sight.' This argument ignores the clear teaching of the scriptural examples...Accumulating funds in advance of ministry is God's very own method! In stark contrast to the principle of trusing God to supply through His people, the concept of trusting God to help repay loans has no scriptural support whatsoever...Ministering without borrowing...neither obligates God nor presumes on an ideal future. If borrowing is truly a way of trusting God, why do churches that borrow sometimes end up in bankruptcy? Has God failed?"

The authors list some strategies for congregations who wish to become debt-free, and for members who wish to keep their church debt-free. They also exhort individual church members, and especially leadership, adopt sound financial practices and model them.

"We believe that the church of Jesus Christ will not be truly financially free until the individuals members of the church are financially free" (p. 181).

I agree with the authors that "in the final analysis, godly ministry is not a question of what 'works.' Rather, the question to ask is, 'Are we consistently conforming ourselves to biblical principles"  (p. 202). Giving by church members is an indication of their spiritual condition (p. 154). The best way to improve the spiritual condition of believers is for their pastors and elders to preach the Word and disciple them properly--which includes modeling financial discipline. You don't want your members giving to a program or something that's man-made; you want them giving sacrificially because they desire to be obedient to God in doing so.

"Unless your people are enthusiastically demonstrating sincere love for Christ by their current levels of generous giving, there is little reason to assume they will rise to the occasion in support of paying off a loan"  (p. 154)

I found myself relatively discouraged about believing any church that trumpets "God's will" for a particular growth plan. This book tells the story of too many churches who were growing rapidly and borrowed to expand, when in Year Five of a Ten Year Plan the pastor "accepts a calling" to a different church, members then leave (some following the pastor to his new church) and the financial situation devolves rapidly into crisis and bankruptcy. People claimed "God's will" every step of the way; because the attendance and financial picture seemed to be strong evidence. Until it rapidly deteriorated. I have been a part of a similar church story, the church still groans under the stress of having borrowed to build a new facility when it had double the attendance it currently has.

A weakness of the book is in not detailing what patterns, if any, could be discerned among the debt and debt-free churches in regards to budget decisions. I would have liked to have known more from their surveys of churches what churches were doing with their assets while they were accumulating. How many were keeping it in savings accounts vs. how many were investing? I would also have enjoyed reading more about some of the more creative uses of funds churches were demonstrating. But their focus is narrow and their task relatively well-accomplished. I give the book 3.5 stars out of 5.