Written by Daniel Hazard
Pension Boards urge '360 Degrees to Financial Wellness'
When church members struggle with debt, what's a pastor to do?
In response to the current mortgage crisis, rising costs in living expenses like food and fuel, and the cloud of debt looming over the credit card generation, the church is weighing in on the matter of money.
And we're not talking about stewardship, necessarily — even though that's a part of it. But churches are now recognizing that before the conversation of stewardship and generosity begins, we need to have our house in order. We have to get out of debt.
The UCC's Pension Boards has recommended "360 Degrees to Financial Literacy," a comprehensive, user-friendly website that addresses financial wellness from all angles. Tracy Carnes, associate minister for stewardship resources, says, "In stewardship, the emphasis is on growing generous givers. But if church members are struggling with debt, then how do the pastors help?"
"360 Degrees to Financial Literacy" was developed by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. The website offers "Ask the Money Dr.," where users can receive free answers to their financial questions from volunteer CPAs. Another section is devoted solely to women and finance, and another "in your state" tool allows users to search financial education events going on locally.
"We are pointing our pastors and stewardship leaders to a more neutral resource," says Carnes. "This way they can offer some assistance [when a financial crisis arises] without having to get directly involved."
Carnes and the Rev. Jane McBride, associate pastor of Falcon Heights (Minn.) UCC, agree that dealing with financial crises can be largely a pastoral issue. "People are looking for wholeness and health in their lives," says McBride. "That includes the way we handle our money. People are just struggling so much with that issue and the temptation to overconsume, or get themselves into crazy debt. When we as a church ask for money, but don't help care for people in their relationship with money, then we're practicing the kind of fragmentation that's part of the problem."
Carnes agrees. "A parish nurse can answer questions about improving health, but where do you go about improving financial wellness?"
Carnes hopes that "360 Degrees to Financial Literacy" will be one step closer to easing the financial burdens felt by church members and give Conferences, Associations and local church pastors the tools needed to get individuals and families on the road to financial wellness.
In Oregon: Pastor teaches financial seminar
The Rev. David Akers, a recently ordained UCC pastor, is a fan of the nationally syndicated Dave Ramsey Show, a radio broadcast by the author of "A Total Money Makeover," "Financial Peace Revisited" and "More Than Enough." "I like what he preaches, financially," smiles Akers, who says he tunes in whenever he can. Ramsey's 13-week course, Financial Peace University, is being taught at local sites nationwide, many of them churches.
Knowing that financial times are difficult, and drawing on his own experience from 30 years in the insurance business, Akers, interim pastor of Smyrna UCC in Canby, Ore., gave a free, four-week seminar on finances at the church. He also distributed copies of "The Hartford's Playbook For Life," a student's guide to planning a financial future published by The Hartford Life Insurance.
Throughout the seminar, the participants had a lively discussion of finances with topics ranging from saving for college, saving for retirement, allowance for kids, buying versus leasing, investing and tithing.
Akers says that reactions from the participants varied. "Some of the younger families said it was nice to get information from somebody who wasn't trying to sell them something. And there were some who said, 'I wish I'd heard this 30 years ago!'"
"We live in a society where we spend more than we make; we borrow, and we have to have everything now," says Akers. To drive home the point, Akers and the participants of his financial seminar compiled a list of the things people pay for now that they didn't have 25 years ago, like cell phones, cable and Direct TV. "It adds up to a fair amount of money," says Akers. "We have to look at what the church can do for people during these times."
In Minnesota: Youth learn stewardship skills through dialog, action
The topic of financial wellness is on the mind of the Rev. Jane McBride, associate pastor of Falcon Heights UCC. Months ago, she attended a stewardship training event called "Let's Talk About Money" at the Church House in Cleveland. About the same time, McBride was reading a book entitled "Growing Up Generous: Engaging Youth in Giving and Serving." Since McBride's ministry focuses mainly on children and youth at her church, she felt the urge to broach the subject with them.
"It made me realize that we rarely talk with young people about money and giving. We tend to encourage them to give their time and be in service, but we don't talk about how they think about their financial resources," she says.
"There's that cultural anxiety [concerning talking about finances] — in our broader culture, but in our church culture, as well," says McBride. "It filters on down to our young people, too."
In the summer, McBride attended a Poverty Immersion Week with her youth group in Louisville, Ky. During the week, the participants lived and experienced a simulation of daily life living in poverty. Intense and sometimes stressful, the experience had a huge impact, says McBride, on how the youth see the world. "I sense a new openness about this conversation that might not have been there as much before," she says. She continues to reflect on how to continue the conversation about handling money along with deeper reflections on values.
"I used to be resistant to conversations about money," says McBride. "I thought it was a private thing between me and God. Now I'm in a different place. I think we need to find ways to respectfully and gently challenge each other. I long for a place to sit down and say, 'I'm struggling with something in my financial life and I'm not sure how to be faithful with regard to it. Can you think about it with me?' I wish our churches could be like that for our members."
In Ohio: Premarital counseling includes financial component
'I do' — and the checkbook too, a marriage of faith and finance
"We recognize that a lot of marriages are under stress because of financial issues," says the Rev. Ron Dauphin of Olmsted Community UCC in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. The church, constructed of striking red brick framed by crisp white columns and a steeple — located near a wooded park — is a popular place for brides and grooms to take their vows. More than just a pretty place, the church provides couples with the tools they need to keep their marriage strong and financially stable after they say their vows.
As part of the premarital counseling package, Dauphin refers each wedding couple to several online resources to get the conversation started about money, whether it's about getting out of debt, making a budget, or even ways to save money and simplify the wedding. Dauphin says these resources are available to anyone on the internet. "We've just compiled them [on our church website] and said, 'Maybe this is something you should be thinking about as you're planning your wedding.' "
When Dauphin brings up the finance topic, he gets a variety of reactions. "Some will say, 'Thanks, but we have this pretty much under control,' and others will say, 'Yeah, we should really look at this,'" he says. But they're always grateful that it's there.
"Jesus said, 'Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also.' He talked about money more than almost any other subject," says Dauphin, "specifically that how we use our material resources is an indication of where we are in faith."
Admittedly, some are a bit skeptical. Dauphin says many feel that finance and faith are, and should be, separate. "We try to convey the message that faith and finance are very much intertwined," he says. "They need to know that there are resources available, and that the church cares."