I like to help pastors get out of debt. It’s a hobby turned career, and I love to see how lives are changed when clergy become financially healthy. In early spring, I was on a mission to get pastors connected to financial advisors. Too many pastors were going it alone and consequently found themselves in precarious financial situations. It was while I was on this mission that I got one of the most important questions I’ve ever been asked while doing this work.
I was on the phone with a pastor, and he was clearly interested in utilizing a financial planner. Even better, I was able to connect him with a planner that was familiar with clergy taxes and the beneficial but ever-confusing housing allowance. Then we started to go over the fees.
A year with this financial planner, going over everything from budgeting, taxes, estate planning, retirement, giving, etc. would cost $1,500. I knew for most pastors that this fee would be out of reach, so I was able to utilize funds from a Lilly Endowment grant to cover half the cost. That reduced cost of $750 was in reach, but it was still high for this pastor. So I made a recommendation that I’ve made to others. I know that in my denomination, the Reformed Church in America, most ministers have a professional development expense account in their church budget. I suggested that he use $375 from his professional development funds to defray the cost further.
His response? “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. I mean, I see how this helps me, but how does this help my congregation?”
There it was. The question that helped me to articulate the power of this work. I proceeded to describe how his experience with a financial planner would equip him to help every member of his congregation on their discipleship journey.
Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler
The books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have an account of Jesus interacting with a man who wants to inherit the life that Jesus speaks of. He knows the rules, and he’s pretty sure he has all of them down. What more could he possibly need to do? (I’m sure this guy didn’t have any ego issues.) But, as always, Jesus sees the barrier. Jesus saw that the rich young ruler had much wealth and many possessions and that his tight grip on those things would prevent him from fully being able to follow Jesus.
The connection is clear. Our relationship with money impacts our ability to fully follow Christ. And this is not an isolated incident. Jesus takes many opportunities throughout the Gospels to help people align their faith with their finances. Our relationship with money is a key component of our discipleship journey.
Reconciling with Dave Ramsey
I used to avoid Dave Ramsey with a ten-foot pole. I had a sense that we viewed the world through a different theological lens, and if I’m going to be blatantly honest, I like my credit cards.
There came a moment, though, where I realized there were not a lot of good tools out there for personal finance from a faith perspective. Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University was clearly the most popular, and if I wasn’t going to advocate for it, I better actually learn about it and understand it. So, every day for six months, I put my headphones in while I walked my dog and listened to the show.
Two things quickly happened. First, I realized we weren’t as different as I thought. Sure, we had some theological and political differences, but we had a whole lot in common. (It’s funny how that happens when you take time to actually listen to others.) Second, I realized that I actually liked his financial program. It was easy to follow, the numbers worked, and I even changed some of my own financial strategies as a result. (Sorry, Dave, but I kept my credit cards.)
But here’s what I was most surprised by: At least once every episode, someone would call in having the absolute worst year of their life. Their financial troubles mingled and mixed into their relationship problems and work problems and rattled their faith. Their finances were a mess, and it was making a mess out of a lot of other things. And the way that Dave Ramsey talked to them was pastoral. He was consistently a calming voice saying, “It’s okay. You aren’t alone; in fact, you’re normal. I’ve been where you are, and I know the way out.” Day in and day out, I saw the pastoral power of speaking into someone’s financial life and equipping them to become stable, healthy, and someday generous.
Chris Williard, a consultant to help churches with generosity and stewardship, said it best: Everybody wants to be generous, but they can’t if they don’t have any money! Teaching people stewardship is critical for the church.
And this is where we come back to our pastor who asked me that profound question. I’m a pastor myself, and we care for people in so many ways. Addiction, abuse, family crisis, job concerns, and the list goes on. There are so many unique ways that we care for people, but there is one thing that everybody has to deal with: money. I haven’t encountered a person yet who hasn’t had to make significant financial decisions. For me, that moves personal stewardship from a secondary discipleship issue to a primary discipleship issue. We all have to deal with it.
My hope is this: that the pastor I spoke to, and many that follow, will seriously consider their own financial health, their skills to be good stewards, and their ability to be generous as professional development. As learned skills, that will bless every single person they care for.
When we as pastors can become good stewards, we can pass those skills on to our congregations. Likewise, when we begin to stand on firm financial ground, we can be generous in ways beyond what we thought possible.
What if pastors become financially literate and healthy? What if that development positively impacted the entire church? What if that step removed a barrier to following in the way of Jesus?
If you’re a pastor and would like to be connected to a financial advisor who knows clergy finances, contact Billy Norden, retirement and financial education coordinator for the Reformed Church in America.
Billy Norden serves as retirement and financial education coordinator for the Reformed Church in America’s Board of Benefits Services. You can connect with Billy at firstname.lastname@example.org.