Calif. — Trina Bradley, a medical secretary and single
mom of two kids, showed up because she was "tired
of living in (financial) crisis." Maureen McEvilly,
a widow and retired nurse, wants to get better at
budgeting so she won’t be tempted to dip into her
savings each month. Chris Buckman, a New Folsom Prison
nurse whose oldest daughter heads off to college this
fall, says, "I make too much to not be on top of my
for Shelley Scott, 57, a state worker adjusting to a
single income after her 25-year marriage ended,
"This was an answer to my prayers."
a recent Thursday night, they were among 30 or so
parishioners gathered in pews and at tables in the
sanctuary of Impact Community Church in Elk Grove, one
of about 45 Sacramento-area congregations that use a
church-based curriculum to preach financial well-being.
as Financial Peace University, it’s one of the biggest
financial self-help-at-church programs, a nine-week,
video-and-workbook program created by Nashville,
Tenn.-based personal-finance expert Dave Ramsey.
Appearing on giant video screens at hosting churches,
Ramsey peppers his weekly lessons with motivational
lines like "Learn to manage money or it will always
armed with books and worksheets that come with their
$109 fee, participants break into small groups, with a
church facilitator at each table, to discuss the details
of creating a spending plan and working their way out of
have always been about more than saving souls. Many
offer group classes or counseling for singles, new
parents, those dealing with divorce or those struggling
with alcohol and other addictions. Personal finances —
how to better manage your money — is yet another
addition to that list.
approaches are as varied as the ministries.
First United Methodist, St. John’s Lutheran and
Westminster Presbyterian in downtown Sacramento,
parishioners volunteer to teach personal-finance skills
to homeless women and families. Among the Mormon
faithful, money-management lessons start as young as age
3, when kids are shown how to count out 10 pennies, then
set aside the first penny for the church. Churches like
Elk Grove’s Impact Community offer Financial Peace
lessons to their congregations, but also to anyone who’s
not a church member.
his own financial turnaround as a motivational pep talk,
Ramsey’s curriculum sprinkles biblical verses into his
overall get-out-of-debt message. He encourages using
cash, "so you feel your money." He also
advocates the "envelope system," where you set
aside cash each month in separate envelopes marked
"Utilities" and for what he calls
"blow" money, which can be spent on anything
it’s not about is asking God to shower you with
financial blessings. In one of his video talks, Ramsey
jokingly tells his audience: "Don’t be prayin’:
‘Send me more money, Lord.’ He’s going, ‘Uh, uh,’
because he knows how you’ll spend it."
recommends starting with a pencil-and-paper budget
("the dreaded B-word"), which he considers
liberating, not punitive. "It’s empowering. You
get to choose where you spend, what you can charge, how
you attack your debt."
— giving at least 10 percent of your gross income to
the church — is understood. At the top of Financial
Peace’s sample budgets, the first spending category is
"Charity," with tithes and offerings already
filled in. In one example, the tithe was $410 for the
pay period, about 13 percent of the $3,188 in income.
Elk Grove’s Impact church, pastor Mike Vander Dussen,
46, said the classes are not about plumping up the
church’s coffers. "It’s our hope to help
people. Debt can control us … and rob us of hope. This
gets you out of your bad habits."
Dussen himself went through the program with his wife
several years ago in Southern California. At the time,
the young couple had racked up about $8,000 in credit
card debt. "It changed our way of thinking. We
chopped up our credit cards. … Within two years, we
had completely paid it off."
did so using a basic method: attacking the smallest and
easiest-to-pay-off debt first. In Ramsey’s world, it’s
called the "debt snowball": If you have four
credit cards, make the minimum payments on three, but
hit the fourth with every extra dollar you have. When it’s
paid off, start on the next-largest debt until the
snowball momentum rolls them all down to zero.
53, whose goateed face appears on billboards advertising
his syndicated weekday radio show, has built his
religion-based empire of books, podcasts and nationwide
radio show based on a compelling story of his personal
money downfall. He reportedly amassed — and lost — a
multimillion-dollar real estate fortune while still in
his 20s. After digging his way out of bankruptcy, he
launched a new career teaching a debt-free lifestyle.
he’s certainly not the sole preacher of church-based
personal-finance coursework. Others — like Crown
Financial Ministries, based in Knoxville, Tenn. — are
also used by churches nationwide.
do churches have any more impact than all the websites,
credit counseling centers and other sources of
are receptive to getting this message at church. They
are looking for tools, for inspiration and practical
(advice) … and they want it from a trusted
source," said Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, a New
Jersey-based personal-finance author and speaker who
runs AskTheMoneyCoach.com. In 2010, she hosted a series
of free debt-management workshops at churches in
Atlanta, Los Angeles, New Jersey and New York.
the wake of the recent housing meltdown, there’s a lot
of distrust of Wall Street and traditional financial
firms, she said, whereas churches are often viewed as a
safer source of financial information. "There’s
the halo effect, no pun intended."
coming out of the recession, as Khalfani-Cox noted,
churches have a self-interest in helping their members
get back on their financial feet, given the drop-off in
tithes and offerings by cash-strapped parishioners.
behooves the church to help impart practical
money-management lessons," she said, so their
members can continue to support the church’s missions,
whether it’s helping the homeless, overseas missionary
work or other causes.
all church congregations are in rapture over the concept
of teaching personal money management. "We don’t
promote that sort of thing at all. … Our way of
looking at an investment is what can it contribute to
the common good, not whether it contributes to me,"
said Elizabeth Sholes, director of public policy for the
California Council of Churches, which represents about
5,500 churches in 20 Protestant denominations.
financial self-sufficiency is certainly worthwhile,
Sholes noted, it must be linked with investments that
promote bigger social issues: securing economic justice,
alleviating poverty, expanding microloans here and
Impact, pastor Vander Dussen says his church does not
believe in "prosperity gospel," the teaching
popularized in the 1990s that God rewards those who
donate to Christian causes by showering them with
material riches. Instead, Vander Dussen said, the goal
is to become financially stable so you can give more
generously to those around you, including your church.
"Generous living increases your joyful
living," the pastor said.
a single mom, Bradley, 44, said she’s tried other
get-out-of-debt books and classes, but "none of it
clicked for me. This does."
a full-time job and raising two kids, the Sacramentan
said it’s always been too easy to lose track of her
spending when "swiping a card" or picking up
fast-food meals on the go.
a month into the Financial Peace program, Bradley said
she’s already seeing progress in a "God-centered
approach." She doles out cash for groceries,
clothes and entertainment each month, which has helped
teach her 8- and 9-year-olds to think twice about
whether they "need" potato chips and ice cream
on shopping trips. And hopefully, after whittling down
her debt, beefing up her savings and setting aside an
emergency fund, Bradley foresees a reward: a family trip
excited to make these changes. I see the end result:
financial wellness. … It feels good."