Written by Teresa Goodnight

Named a “Top Performing Community Bank” in the United States in 2018 by S&P Global Market Intelligence, (#2 out of 4383 to be exact), First Bank of Owasso continues to push beyond their city limits to lead the banking industry in more ways than one. They are also a top bank supporting churches and ministries, where they do about 60% of their business financing for entities in Oklahoma and around the country.

It’s not by accident. In fact, their vision statement is very specific to make their mission both known to all and on their hearts and minds:

“To help build the Kingdom by providing financial services and expertise in a responsive and God honoring manner.”

First Bank follows this vision statement through “Integrity. Caring. Excellence.” These values are even etched in stone above the entrance to their building. It isn’t every day you find a business so bold in their statement and mission for God.

As my curiosity led me to study their business model, I couldn’t help but think “People need to know what they are doing. Wouldn’t other Christians want their funds sitting where they could be used to support the Kingdom?” It frankly blew me away. Finding a group with such a mission, felt like discovering a nice little pot of gold under a rainbow. So, I called and asked Dee Sokolosky, President of First Bank, to let me come sit down for a few minutes to understand their story better. I wanted to see if it was REAL. Fortunately, Mr. Sokolosky did not disappoint!

Dee dove right in. He said, “It starts with the basic premise of the banking industry–bankers should lend money to clients whose business they understand, so they can add value to the client’s business.” Dee followed, “We really don’t do oil and gas lending or aircraft financing—we just don’t know anything about those businesses and don’t add anything to the equation. You aren’t adding anything really except cash if all you do is write somebody a check. Other than money, you really haven’t done a lot to make their business better.”

Dee said of First Bank, “We like to partner with clients to do just that–make the business better. So that’s how the mission to assist churches started. Not only do we have a Board of Directors who are very active in their churches, but we have five of our employees who are ordained or licensed ministers. We also have a number of pastors’ wives on staff, as well as dozens of regular church attendees. So, most of the people who work here have a very good knowledge of churches.

They are passionate about being followers of Christ. So, it’s what we believe we’re called to do–assist the Kingdom by doing what we know how to do.”

The bank started in 1962, as Owasso’s first financial institution. The two biggest things needed to have a vibrant community are a good school, of course, and a local financial institution for businesses to deposit and borrow money. Dee said, “In the 1990’s when things in Owasso really took off, there was a conscious decision by our board to focus on the faith-based community. All our board members are believers. All have been very active in church from Sunday school teachers to treasurers, elders, trustees, pianists and so forth. Three of our seven board members have even started a church. It’s just who we are.”

As most of us know, the banking industry has consolidated quite a bit over the last decade. Dee said, “When I got into banking 20 years ago, there were 365 banks in Oklahoma now there are 199 and the consolidation continues. So, the banking industry has become more and more corporate. Doing business with churches is difficult for some banks because churches often do not have audited financial statements. So, there’s a narrowing number of financial institutions serving this community. In fact, a lot of the big banks nationwide have gotten out of the church business altogether for this reason.” Dee went on, “As the shift happened, First Bank of Owasso stepped up to fill the gap. It allowed us to expand beyond Oklahoma, where we now serve about 225 churches in 28 states. With the word-of-mouth and building relationships with denominational leaders, in less than 20 years, First Bank has gone from lending $3 million to churches to over $185 million. Plus, it’s now 60% of our business.”

First Bank of Owasso is also different in how they hire. They don’t spend a lot of time looking for someone with any banking experience. In fact, Dee said that it’s not even on the checklist. “What’s on the checklist,” according to Dee, “is having a servant’s heart.” Dee stated, “We tell employees we work in the second most emotional profession. Healthcare is number one, but finances is number two. People have issues. They have challenges. Everything from the enormous length of a home mortgage application to people losing their debit card or having difficulties balancing their checkbook. So, if you get frustrated helping people in that arena, you’re simply not the right employee for us. You need to want to remove obstacles and make people’s lives a little easier in this one area that we know something about.”

One thing Dee mentioned that CAN be tougher for First Bank is getting enough deposits in the bank for all the opportunities out there to help churches. Dee said, “When you are a community bank in a community of about 36,000 residents, getting funds is key.” Dee went on, “To be a national church lender when you’re raising deposits from a small group requires like-minded partners from other locations, more than just Owasso. So, the First Bank team started deposit gathering efforts to fund our purpose. People just assume banks have a supply of money, but we’re not the federal government. We obviously can’t go print money.” Then he added, “We can only loan money that somebody puts in the bank. So, we’ve really been reaching out to the nonprofit community and other Christian business people with savings accounts or cash reserves they aren’t currently using. Those deposits can help us have greater reach to help churches.”

Dee gave a great example, “There might be a church in a building campaign, but they haven’t started using the money yet. They are still gathering funds and making plans. So, we can be the bank to hold those funds until that client needs them for their own use. That’s been a real focus–developing a quality deposit product and paying a really good rate of interest.” he said. Dee added,

“Other strong candidates for the bank are Christian Universities and private Christian schools wanting to further increase their impact with their reserves.”

One of the critical enablers for First Bank of Owasso has been electronic account management. Dee said, “With current technology, you now don’t need to live across the street from your bank. The number of people walking in to cash a check is reduced. The number of people that need to come to your drive-in is also reduced. When you can have your account here electronically and you can use your debit card it’s just a much easier way to join us in our mission.” Dee also shared “First Bank is also part of the Transfund ATM network, so any of the Transfund ATM’s in Tulsa allow banking with First Bank. It’s just taking the time to open an account and transfer funds.” Dee added, “We even have some nonprofits in places like Kansas City sending their money here to be part of what we do. We have other clients closer, in Oklahoma City, with money here as well. The whole face of banking has really changed; thus, making our mission part of your own mission is pretty simple to do.”

“It’s an interesting element to banking. It’s relatively simple. It just takes time to meet people and tell your story. Once they understand what we’re doing with their money, they get excited.” said Dee.

“A lot of us have never been on a mission trip or don’t have the opportunity to go to challenging parts of the country,” he said, “but they can be a part of reaching all kinds of places right from their homes.”

Dee added, “We have probably 25 loans in North Tulsa to different churches, but we also have loans to churches in East Cleveland, Ohio, Baltimore, MD, Grand Rapids, MI and the outskirts of Chicago, IL. Those are places many of us would not visit to go on a mission trip to help the kingdom in that area. However, for our customers to know their deposited money is on a missions trip, because we’re loaning it to minority churches in Chicago is a big deal.” Dee said, “A third of all of our loans to churches are to a minority congregation–to Hispanic churches, Korean churches, Slavic churches, and African-American churches, to name a few. We’re spreading our help beyond our city walls.”

Dee laughed, as I ended my interview with such a baffled look. I have no poker face. I just wondered if Christian businesses knew First Bank of Owasso’s mission, why everyone wouldn’t want to move their money there. Where else can money you need to have sitting safely in a bank earning interest be put to so much good for the Kingdom of God? Then my mind started thinking about the tithes from the payroll local churches must get. I knew right then it was a story that needed told!