Profits are tithed; no bargain loans, though.

The well-known saying, “There’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come,” expresses the enthusiasm that has greeted this country’s first Christian bank, located just east of Portland, Oregon.

Stewardship Bank of Oregon, a state-chartered, full-service commercial bank whose stockholders all confess Jesus Christ as Lord, is nearing its first anniversary. It opened Friday, March 13, 1981, with a capitalization of $1.6 million. Although banks take up to three years to break even and start making a profit, Stewardship Bank is breaking even now, according to its president, Richard Wells.

What separates this bank from the rest of the crowd is that it gives 10 percent of its profits to Christian schools and organizations. Furthermore, its 350 stockholders tithe their dividends, sending more money into Christian work. The idea has caught on, say bank officials, and not only has the bank attracted depositors from around the world, it has received a shower of press coverage from the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine to the Sidney (Australia) Morning Herald.

When the bank organized, the first $10 share of stock was set aside in the name of Jesus Christ. It took some time for the bank to grow from an idea among Christian businessmen to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) member with one thousand accounts. “A lot of groups think we just got together, formed a bank and away we went,” says Wells, “but there were a lot of organizing necessities.”

The incentive for the bank began in August 1977. Bob Laughlin, the owner of Western Food Equipment Company in Portland, was in serious trouble when a major Portland bank that had extended $300,000 in credit to his company told him to find another bank in 30 days. Western eventually picked up financing elsewhere, but Laughlin saw the need for a bank more sympathetic to smaller businesses.

At the same time, Laughlin, a member of the development committee for Judson Baptist College, an evangelical school in The Dalles, Oregon, was aware of the problems the school was having in raising money without the cooperation of a commercial bank. A Western employee asked him why Christian banks did not exist, and Laughlin had no answer.

With the help of like-minded businessmen, Laughlin and a group of Christians, many of them small business owners, began working toward developing a bank operated by Christian principles. His wife, Milli, who now handles new accounts, did most of the research and writing needed to obtain a charter and zoning clearances, and the interior decorating for the new, $500,000, 9,400-square-foot building. The bank, with its tastefully decorated, glassed-in, blue-and-red Colonial-style interior is situated next door to Western’s offices.

Stewardship Bank’s name is derived from Webster’s dictionary definition of stewardship as business management. Scripture exhorts believers to be good stewards or managers of what God has given them, and according to bank officials, to give away 10 percent of the bank’s profits is good management. The bank’s symbol, a sheaf of wheat, is carved on the door bars. Its motto is “In God We Trust.”

The bank’s last major hurdle before opening was obtaining FDIC approval. This came after weeks of delay over controversy surrounding the bank’s requirement that stockholders sign a covenant confessing Christ as Lord and agreeing with the bank’s purpose “to further the work of Jesus Christ.” FDIC directors refused to approve such a covenant until they were shown the range of religious inclinations of the prospective stockholders, and state banking commission officials said the covenant was legal.

The stockholders come from 20 different denominations and 200 churches, including Catholic and Seventh-day Adventist. Five pastors are stockholders, one of whom serves on the 11-member board of directors. As for the clients, they do not have to be Christians to bank there.

“The question is never asked,” says Wells. Yet, the message of Christ comes across. Customers have been known to confide personal problems to the tellers, who sometimes pass out religious tracts; there are copies of a Christian newspaper in a news rack in the lobby; and the staff meets before office hours once a week to pray for 15 to 20 minutes.

“A lot of people come in and just want to talk,” says Wells, a Baptist and former chief lending officer of the Bank of California in Portland. “As for some individuals with financial problems, we can spend more time with them than at a usual bank—not meaning that we’ll be an easy mark, but we can offer some advice.”

As the bank was being formed, the question of Old Testament prohibitions against usury came up. “We have no plans for low-income financing,” says Wells. “We need a proper yield for our loans. We’ve been very competitive, but usually our rates have been lower than our competition.”

“During our organization, we questioned whether Christians should be involved in banking at all,” says Laughlin. “Unlike secular banks, we funnel profits to Christian organizations. We don’t see any problem with the Old Testament usury law, as long as we are sharing profits with Christian schools.”

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One of those schools is Judson Baptist College, which will get the largest share of the bank’s tithed profits. A number of bank stockholders graduated from Judson; Laughlin is on the college’s finance committee and a retired Judson vice-president manages Stewardship’s marketing.

Other recipients of Stewardship’s bounty include Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Campus Crusade for Christ, a local television ministry, Young Life, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, the National Association of Evangelicals, and three private Christian schools in Oregon.

The idea does appear to be catching. Similiar banks are organizing in Wheaton, Illinois; Billings, Montana; and in the Los Angeles area. While traveling on behalf of Western Foods, Laughlin spends his free time meeting with contacts across the country who want to see a stewardship bank in their city.

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