As we near the end of Advent with anticipation for another year of hearing Mary’s powerful testimony in the Magnificat (Luke 1:39-55), I’m struck by the emphasis on money in our Christmas story. In Mary’s short song, she mentions the poor and hungry, the rich and powerful, and the blessings of God. When at its best, the church can be a place for holy conversations about money and its power — as Angela Reed addresses in our post today. How might we make a place for holy storytelling in the season to come?
Next week, we’ll pause the newsletter to celebrate Christmas. On Jan 1, our piece will highlight our most popular posts from 2018.
Adam Copeland, Center for Stewardship Leaders
Telling our Stories about God and Money
Two decades ago, sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote a book called, The Crisis in the Churches: Spiritual Malaise, Fiscal Woe. He suggests that the financial crisis facing the church has to do with our inability to talk about our relationship with money. Ministers are “silent shepherds” who are reluctant to be forthright on financial matters.
I suspect not much has changed since Wuthnow first mapped this issue. Is it any surprise that ministers hesitate to speak about money when their livelihoods often depend on the generosity of church members? Any talk about money also brings to mind mundane matters like budgets, taxes, and retirement planning. These concerns hardly seem to inspire joyful worship and prayer. Preaching and teaching about money can also be fraught with theological issues related to popular ideas about the gospel and prosperity. After all, doesn’t God promise to give when we ask?
Personal Means Private
Perhaps the biggest reason we do not talk about money is a cultural notion that personal finances are private concerns. Wuthnow points out, at the time of the book, that fewer than one in four Americans talk with close friends about personal finances. Only four percent have discussed their use of money with a clergyperson.
Unfortunately, this gap causes us to assume that discussions about money have no place in corporate spiritual practices, as if we cannot look to one another to address our worries (and even shame) regarding money and debt. Especially debt. But people seek practical answers alongside fellowship and spiritual wisdom. Perhaps this is why Dave Ramsey’s bible-inspired course Financial Peace University has gained a following in many congregations.
Spiritual Guidance and Money
One of the more surprising places I have encountered conversations about money has been in my role as a professor teaching spiritual guidance and direction. In our classes, we gather in small groups to listen to one another’s stories about our sense of God’s presence and activity in everyday life.
Some time ago, an experienced minister and part-time student courageously volunteered to serve as an example directee in front of class. She stunned us all with the depth of her self-understanding and vulnerability when she described her family’s ongoing financial struggles, including the challenges of paying significant medical expenses.*
The student described a recent shopping trip when she bought something moderately expensive just for the fun of it, even though she knew it was outside of the family budget. When her spouse noticed the purchase the next day, he sent her a text message, and she felt the need to apologize for the unnecessary expense.
Questions about Money and Formation
While this moment may seem relatively insignificant at first glance, the student believed it revealed an opportunity for spiritual growth and self-assessment. With the class looking on, we explored the reasons she chose to make the purchase. She raised several questions about her own spiritual journey….
- Did she buy the item out of resistance to their tight financial situation? Why?
- Is she grateful to God for all that her family does possess? How does she understand God’s role in her life as the One who calls and provides?
- What does she desire from God, in relation to finances? Is there an invitation from God for growth in character and prayer as she uses money on a daily basis?
We paused briefly for silent prayer and reflection several times. Toward the end, we explored spiritual practices that support a posture of gratitude and peace about money, and the student described a sense of God’s grace and comfort.
Exploring Attitudes about Money in Congregations
What we discovered in the spiritual guidance session extends to congregational life. We need to create safe and encouraging spaces where we explore our attitudes toward money and the implications for our spiritual lives. Addressing our life with God and our use of money in worship, small groups, pastoral care, and other ministry settings is a fruitful way forward.
*Some details were changed for the purpose of anonymity.
For More Information
Angela Reed is the Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Spiritual Formation at Truett Seminary, Baylor University in Waco, Texas.