April 29, 2007
Of debt and deities
America’s churches do battle with what Ambrose Bierce* once called “the god of the world's leading religion:”
Doug Sweeney, a police officer, watched his credit card balance grow to $13,000, thinking he would never be able to pay it off. Renée Santiago had $40,000 in student loans. Susan Hancock owed $14,000 in credit card debt and could not point to anything in her home to show for it.
“I saw it going up,” Ms. Hancock said, “but I was numb. I thought, that’s just the way of life.”
When the debt got to be too much for them, instead of going to family members or financial professionals for help, they did what many Americans are doing: they turned to their church.
“You need a little help with motivation,” said Mr. Sweeney, 47, who blamed years of impulsive spending for his debt. Recently, he joined two dozen others at Southeast Christian Church for Week 9 of a 13-week debt-
reduction program called Financial Peace University. Since joining, he had disposed of his credit cards.
“A big part of it is that it has a faith component,” he said. “God wants you to be good stewards of your money. The money’s all his.”
In our house, it’s all Wells Fargo’s.
As Americans have run up nonmortgage debt of more than $2.4 trillion, churches and Christian radio stations are supplementing their spiritual counseling with financial counseling, often using programs developed by other Christian organizations and marketed in church circles or over the Internet. They offer a mix of basic budget planning, household cost-cutting and debt management, bolstered by Scripture and with tithing as a goal.
I’m guessing the key clause here is “with tithing as a goal.” After all, how can a bankrupt Christian help keep her pastor’s Porsche on the road?
More than 39,000 churches have used debt reduction programs created by Crown Financial Ministries, a group in Gainesville, Ga. About 3,000 churches have bought a $250 Good Sense program developed by Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Ill. Both are nonprofit organizations.
“Nothing in the Bible says you can’t borrow,” said Mike Graham, who provides free financial counseling at Southeast Christian Church, in a position he created 10 years ago after stepping down as the church’s financial manager. “What you’re not allowed to do is borrow and not pay it back.”
The programs resemble secular plans, with two exceptions, said Dave Briggs, director of the Good Sense Stewardship Ministry at Willow Creek. “A secular adviser might say, it’s O.K. to stiff your creditors through bankruptcy,” Mr. Briggs said. “Biblically, bankruptcy is only an option if you need time and space to pay back what you owe.”
“The other conflict is in the area of giving,” he said. “We get a sense of devotion to God by being generous. Secular advice says, don’t give until you can afford it.”
Which of course makes a lot more sense, but hey, the money’s all God’s. And the quality of advice churches provide is beyond reproach… isn’t it?
… At Southeast Christian Church, a video presentation featuring [Christian radio host, Dave] Ramsey was followed by an hour of discussion, mixing quotations from Proverbs with advice on buying used cars, time shares and generic drugs. The discussion was led by a retired police officer, Rusty Bittle, 43, who has no financial background but who paid $2,000 to take a 50-hour course to become a certified counselor for Mr. Ramsey’s program.
“If you really start listening to the Scriptures we read each class,” Mr. Bittle told the group, “you’ll see that this isn’t just a finance class, it’s about how to live your life. And if you read the Scriptures you’ll get a blessing out of it.”
Mr. Sweeney said the program’s use of Scripture helped with his overspending. “I realized that I blow a lot of money,” he said. “It takes discipline to manage it, and prayer helps you have discipline. If you think you need something, before you buy it, go home and pray about it.”
… When she went to see Mr. Graham, said [Mrs. Broster], he prayed with her and said he would help her draw up a household budget, which she said she wanted to include tithes to the church. “We don’t give every week now, and I feel kind of guilty about it,” she said.
Mr. Graham said, “We believe there’s a mandate in Scripture that calls for people to give 10 percent to the church. Until they can get to a tithe, we encourage a sliding scale so they can get their blessing from God.”
In the Financial Peace classroom, Mr. Bittle was finishing the lesson. “Remember,” he told the group, “there’s only one way to attain financial peace, and that’s to walk with the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.”
And stop tithing.
[*Look up “Mammon” in The Devil’s Dictionary.]
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