Reverend M. Catherine Volland spent most of her life spent the first part of her professional life as a teacher, then as a senior executive at a software company. She lived in Denver, Colorado, generally enjoying her work until one day, as she puts it, she realized that she “was giving the best hours of the best years of my life to yet one more entrepreneur, and the leftovers to the church.”
She felt that was backwards. “I wanted to give the best hours to the church,” she said. So she got an M. Div from Iliff School of Theology, became a priest and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she joined St. Bede’s Episcopal Church and devoted her life to ministry.
“I walked into a great church with a lot of committed people, faithful people,” she said. “And so there was plenty to build on.”
She enjoyed the work and was also impressed with the church’s commitment to not just meeting Santa Fe’s spiritual needs, but also its material ones. “The social safety net is about zero,” she says of her community. “I mean, I get calls from the hospital, from the police department, any number of people. There’s no agency as such to go to.”
The church sets aside ten percent of all the money it gets into a fund called “Outreach,” which is dedicated to meeting community needs. The church hosts a few ministries out of its own building, but the leadership largely prefers to give money to organizations in town that are already doing the work. Volland was looking for creative ways to use those funds, and heard about another church that had partnered with an organization called RIP Medical Debt.
“It intrigued me, really caught my attention,” she says. “And so I looked into it a little further, looked into RIP as an organization and decided that I wanted our church to get involved.”
She’s not alone. In fact, RIP Medical Debt has become an extraordinarily popular partner for churches over the last few years. Its mission is unique, and self-explanatory: to eradicate the medical debt for all Americans. That’s a big job, but it’s found a very creative way to make it feasible — and many churches have been key to making it happen. It’s a trend that has seen a surprising amount of growth in recent years, and the positive impact may already be incalculable.
RIP Medical Debt
To understand how all this works, we need to understand a little bit about how medical debt works in America.
Around 50 percent of Americans have at least some medical debt, according to the most recent figures. About half of that is owned by collection agencies, who buy up medical debt for pennies on the dollar and then turn collecting it for a profit. Officially, debt collectors own around $140 billion in medical debt, but that figure doesn’t include things like credit card balances and unpaid medical bills that have yet to hit consumer reports. With that, Americans owe a vastly greater sum — possibly as much as a trillion dollars.
That adds up to a crippling amount of consumer debt, and millions of Americans’ lives are made miserable by collection agencies hounding them to pay up or face the consequences. Obviously, with medical debt, these expenses weren’t planned for. The people suffering under the burden of medical debt were beset by an emergency, and now they’re stuck with a bill they couldn’t have anticipated.
That’s where RIP Medical Debt comes in. The organization was started by two former debt collection executives who, having seen the seedy side of their industry, decided to use their expertise for good.
Like a collection agency, RIP Medical Debt can buy up debt from hospitals or aggregators for cheap. Unlike those agencies, they forgive it. If RIP Medical Debt buys your medical debt, you’re simply informed that your payment has been taken care of and never hear about it again. Moreover, RIP Medical Debt will contact credit bureaus to get any flags erased from the record — flags that can sometimes stand in the way of things like renting an apartment, buying a house or starting a business. It is, very literally, a new lease on life.
In 2016, the blight of medical debt and RIP Medical Debt’s work received an enormous boost from an unlikely source: John Oliver. The host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight aired a segment on debt buying that featured his usual mix of quippy barbs, data dumps and investigative journalism that explained in fairly bleak detail just how bad debt collection had gotten in the U.S. To drive the point home, the show’s team had actually started their own debt collection agency and purchased nearly $15 million in medical debt in Mississippi. The Last Week Tonight team got in touch with RIP Medical Debt and erased it all, touting it as the largest giveaway in television history.
Last Week Tonight isn’t known for its Christian audience, but at least a few pastors were paying attention and got an idea. If HBO could buy up copious amounts of debt and forgive it, why couldn’t churches?
The Loaves and Fishes
As it just so happened, Reverend Volland told her church about RIP Medical Debt the same week that the story of Jesus multiplying loaves and fishes came up in the lectionary.
“The loaves and fishes were multiplied, but somebody thought ahead enough to bring a lunch and the good Lord was able to multiply that,” she says. “And we were kind of in the same boat. We had our lunch bucket prepared. And when we saw the opportunity, we were able to put it in the Lord’s hands.”
The congregation was excited by the idea. “It was not a hard sell,” Volland chuckles. “People were very supportive. Very supportive. The fundamental commitment of giving a portion of our proceeds to somebody else was already well established.”
St. Bede’s collected $15,000 to send to RIP Medical Debt, which amounted to $1.5 million in medical debt — erasing all the available medical debt not just in Santa Fe, but in the entire state of New Mexico and even some parts of Arizona. That’s a lot of loaves and fishes for a relatively small lunch basket.
And St. Bede’s isn’t alone.
In fact, working with RIP Medical Debt is becoming something of a church trend. In 2018, Covenant Church in Carrollton, Texas, worked with the organization to forgive the medical debt of over 4,000 families in the area.
Stetson Baptist Church in Florida partnered with the group to forgive the medical debt of 6,500 families in Florida.
Pathway Church in Wichita, Kansas, decided to take the money they usually spent on promoting their Easter service and gave it to RIP Medical Debt instead. The result: 1,600 families had their medical debt wiped out.
VIVE Chicago was able to pay off around $19 million in medical debt for families in the Chicago area.
And Crossroads Church in Ohio worked with the organization to forgive a whopping $46 million in the state — changing the lives of over 45,000 families.
These stories and many more add up to an unbelievable amount of life change for hundreds of thousands of people who not only find themselves unburdened of debt, not because of anything they did but because of the charity of strangers. And doesn’t that sound like something Jesus would do?
Forgive Us Our Debts
Some might argue that as nice as all this sounds, it doesn’t do a whole lot for people’s souls. How does paying back people’s debt square with the mission of a church?
“Wouldn’t it be swell if we could just put on a beautiful worship service once a week and call it done? That would be a lot of fun,” Volland laughs. “But I just don’t see that as the gospel story.”
“I see Jesus getting pretty nitty gritty with people,” she continues. “Including their material needs. I’m sure he knew he wasn’t changing the fundamental system of poverty and corrupt taxation and all that he encountered. He didn’t wipe out all prejudice. But he confronted it where he saw it, when he saw it and used the opportunities he was given to respond to that. I think we have an obligation to do the same thing.”
And, although she hastens to say the church didn’t do any of this to boost their own numbers, St. Bede’s has seen growth — even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their congregation now has a reputation for making people’s lives better.
She tells a story of a man who did not attend their church – or any church, as far as she knows — who had reached out a few days before our conversation, asking for the church’s account information so that he could send them a check. He’d been moved by the story of RIP Medical Debt, and wanted to donate.
“And I said, ‘Well, that’s lovely, but why don’t you contact RIP directly? Here’s their contact information.’ And he said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I want to give you some money because you are a church who’s doing the right thing and I trust that you will use it in a wise way.’”
“Santa Fe’s not a big city,” she says. “There’s about 80,000 people who live here. But, when I go in the drive-through window at McDonald’s, the guy on the other side says, ‘Hey, you’re from that church, aren’t you?’ That’s the kind of thing that happens.”
Volland has also heard the charge that the church shouldn’t have to partner with outside organizations, instead relying on its own resources and structure to make a difference. She doesn’t buy that idea either. “I don’t know anything about running a collection agency, but RIP does,” she says. “They just know stuff that I don’t know. I don’t want to take however long to learn. There’s somebody doing it and doing it well. So what’s not to love? What they need is funding. And we were able to provide that.”
Survive and Thrive
“A church that’s just a club for like-minded people to come visit each other once a week is not a church that’s going to survive and thrive,” Volland says.
Volland knows many churches are strapped tight, especially in the wake of the pandemic. She understands that giving large sums to RIP Medical Debt isn’t necessarily possible for struggling congregations. She says the important thing is, like the boy who gave Jesus his loaves and fish, start with what you have.
“If you had been doing a stewardship campaign and were asking your parishioners to tithe, and somebody said, ‘I can’t do 10 percent, what would you say to them?’” she asks. “You’d say, ‘Well, then start with 2 percent.’”
Not every church will be able to wipe out medical debt in their state. But a few might be able to wipe it out in their city, their neighborhood or even just their block. And if every church in America did even that much, the impact would be felt for generations. ”By stretching a little bit on our end, we were able to stretch really far for a lot of people’s lives,” she says. “And I absolutely advocate for parishes to think bigger than maybe they did before.”
Thinking bigger — outside of just Sunday morning service and to partnerships that will make a difference — could be part of changing what people in this country think about when they think “church.” And in Volland’s eyes, that’d be a good thing.
“I heard years ago at a conference: Who would notice if your church closed its doors? I think it’s a question every church has to ask regularly,” she says. “And now I know that all of Santa Fe would notice if we closed our door.”