Changing the Culture Around Money
For freedom Christ has set you free. (Galatians 5:1)
What do people say about the attitude of New Englanders towards money? What are the first
words that come to your mind?
Do you want to know what’s astonishing? When I get together with my colleagues who lead the other 36 conferences of the United Church of Christ and I ask them the same question – what sort of attitude do Minnesotans have toward money? Or Arizonans? Or Floridians?... – Guess what: they all report just about the same thing!!
So there’s a common story out there – which each region of the country weaves into its regional humor – that reinforces the fundamental, rock-solid notion that issues around money, financial security, net worth, spending habits, philanthropy, debt, bankruptcy, pledging, savings and so forth.... THESE are the most private issues of our lives.
And whether we like it or not, acknowledge it or not, deal with it or not – every time we gather as a people of God, every time we enter the holy space of our sanctuary or meeting house – we gather as people whose lives are immersed in the reality that money, and everything that has to with financial decisions and worth – is a private issue.
- If your pastor and lay leaders have been listening to Paul Nickerson (our Associate Conference Minister for Evangelism and Church Vitality), the people in your congregation may have made some progress on sharing their faith with others in the pew or in your neighborhood. (Thanks be to God!)
- If your pastor and lay leaders have been listening to Peter Wells (our Associate Conference Minister for Mission and Justice), you may be able to speak candidly with one another about your strong feelings regarding the homeless, or health care, or nuclear disarmament.
- If your pastor has been listening to Susan Dickerman (our Associate Conference Minister for Leadership Development), your congregation may have a safe-church policy and you may encourage your pastor to participate in a community of practice.
But the truth is that when it comes to talking about money, the attitudes and perspectives that dominate our culture pretty much carry over into our pews. Here are just a few of the things I’ve heard, over and over again, as I meet with church leaders and pastor:
- Money is a private matter; it’s between you and God.
- Talking about money would be crass! It would be uncouth!
- We gather on Sunday morning to reflect on spiritual things, not to delve into people’s private
Anyone who tries to violate the taboo against talking about money is quickly reminded in these or other ways that this is a matter un-fit for discussion in our congregation.
Let me illustrate this by sharing a personal experience. Six weeks after arriving at my new church in Shaker Heights Ohio, I was sitting with the Finance Committee. We had just completed a review of the needs of the building. I had to combine 3 or 4 different financial reports to realize that the year before I arrived, the congregation had spent an amount equal to about 35% of its budget on the building, and much of this expense did not show up in the budget because it came from the endowment. (Let’s just say that their accounting was anything but transparent!) So I suggested ... now let me remind you, I was only six weeks into my ministry there.... I suggested that we begin to prepare to undertake a capital campaign, and that it seemed to me that its goal would have to be at least one or two million dollars. There was a look of disbelief around the table... and finally someone said, “Jim, the people in this congregation don’t have that kind of money!” (did I mention this was Shaker Heights, Ohio?!)
You see: this was a defining moment for leadership.... an opportunity that may never come again in my ministry. The expectation was, of course, that as the new kid on the block, I would defer to this venerable observation, which garnered nods from around the table. But this was a test.... and of course an opportunity. I replied, “Oh really? Of course, I’m so new here, so how would I know. But I’m curious, how can you be so sure of what you’re saying?”
Oh geeze!! You could have cut the tension in the room with a knife! Was I suggesting that the Finance Committee – right there and then – share with one another their net worth, or their philanthropic activity, or some other way of indicating whether they would have that kind of money?
Hoping to ease the tension, I invited others to simply respond to what had been said. Slowly.... VERY slowly.... one or another member on the committee revealed that there had never been a capital campaign in that 80 year old congregation. Whenever there was a capital need, a person of means would quietly come forward.
Do you see how all of this is expressive of the un-written creed of this avowedly NON-creedal congregation? In my imagination I can hear them saying in unison: while we are an open minded congregation, interested in a wide variety of theological and moral topics, the one topic we won’t
discuss is money.
Well, as you can imagine, over the course of my 10 years there, things changed!
I’m guessing that most of you could tell a story about how your congregation avoids talking about money. Often, this taboo is so strong that it’s hardly noticed. Newcomers don’t notice that you don’t talk about money because – coming from the secular world – they fit right in! In fact, if your congregation were to begin to talk openly and candidly about money, this would become the most distinctive, stand-out-quality that any newcomer would notice.... more than the quality of preaching, the depth of prayer, the length of time passing the peace, the number of children in the pews, and so on.
So I’ve now set the stage for my first point: Why should we change the culture of our congregation? Why should we talk about money?
And the answer – known to every person here as well as every person in the pews of every church – is simple. We need to change the culture around money so that we can experience the freedom Christ promises. You know how the Apostle Paul puts it: “For freedom Christ has set you free.” (Galatians 5:1)
- The freedom Christ wants for us in this area of our lives is:
- freedom from anxiety,
- freedom from worry and
- freedom from insecurity.
- The freedom Christ wants for us in relation to money is that we might be freed from the enslavement that our relation to money so often brings.
- The freedom Christ wants for us is:
- freedom to be generous,
- freedom to listen for and then follow God’s call,
- freedom to be responsive to the needs of God’s children, including those we know and those we will never meet.
This freedom cannot be gained on our own. This is my second point. The freedom Christ wants for us is only available to us in community. Furthermore, the taboo – the prohibition – against talking about money is so strong in our culture that it can be overcome only in a
community which has been gathered in God’s name.
Let me say this another way – and this is my third point: I believe one of greatest gifts any church has to offer is the gift of a safe and trusting community where people can come and lay their burdens down, knowing that they will be supported, loved, accepted and challenged to
become the person God is calling them to be.
The reason safety and trust are perhaps the greatest gifts the church can offer is because we live in fearful world devoid of safety; a cynical world in which trust is perceived as unwise. Church can and must be an oasis where fear and cynicism are unwelcome, and safety and trust prevail. And as we create such a culture of safety and trust, in community, as children of God, we can engage the most challenging issues. And among these issues is, of course, money.
My fourth point is that the pastor has a critical role to play if a congregation is to change its culture around money. Any time a community seeks to shift its values, leadership is essential. In a few moments, my break-out session will focus in more detail on the pastor’s role in stewardship
and changing the culture around money.
My fifth point is that just as the best posture towards God is to pray with an open heart (recognizing that God already fully knows and accepts us).... just as that is the best posture towards God, the best way to represent church finances is to make our church finances transparent. One of the key ways churches assure that their culture around money will NOT change is that they make it impossible to understand their congregation’s financial statements.
Believe it or not, your congregation can create a comprehensive report of its finances that any member can understand. Many of our churches already do this, and several of them have accomplished this by inviting Rev. Karen McArthur to work with them. Karen has a ministry focused on transparent financial communication.
So lets review: After describing the cultural context in which we live – one that avoids at all cost talking about money – I said that one of the greatest gifts the church can offer is to change the culture around money. And then I made five points:
- First: We need to change the culture around money so that we can experience the freedom Christ promises.
- Second: The freedom Christ wants for us is only available to us in community.
- Third, an atmosphere of trust and safety is perhaps the greatest gift a church community can create, nurture and offer.
- Fourth, leadership from the pastor is essential.
- And fifth: an early and essential step in the process of changing the culture around money involves making our church finances transparent.
Let me conclude with a story that illustrates all of these points and more. As the economy plummeted a year ago, while many churches hunkered down, others stepped up to the challenge. In one of those churches, the pastor learned privately that a parishioner would be facing foreclosure in a matter of a few months.
After considerable prayer, the next Sunday the pastor declared that no one in their congregation would lose their home to foreclosure. If the promise of abundant life is true, then they, as a community, must make it true. Now mind you, the pastor had no idea how this would work out. Several weeks later during the time for celebrations and concerns, an elderly widow who was known to have only her social security paycheck to live on raised her hand. She said that it took her a few weeks to make sure, but she wanted the congregation to know that she would cover the person’s mortgage payment for January. (You can feel the goose bumps and imagine the tears!) Two weeks later another person raised their hand and said that they had the February payment covered.
Freedom, community, trust, safety, leadership, transparency....
My prayer is that our time together today will help move you and your congregation to take the next step on this journey of freedom.
Jim Antal is a denominational leader, activist and public theologian. He led the 360 churches of the Massachusetts Conference United Church of Christ from 2006 to his retirement in 2018. An environmental activist from the first Earth Day in 1970, ...