Claudia Buck

God & Money: How and why churches are teaching their congregation about personal finance

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 money.”

And 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.”

On 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.

Known 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-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 manage you.”

Afterward, 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 debt.

Churches 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.

The approaches are as varied as the ministries.

At 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.

Using 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 “Housing,” “Groceries,” “Utilities” and for what he calls “blow” money, which can be spent on anything you want.

What’s 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.”

Ramsey 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.”

Tithing – 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.

Chopping down debt

At 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.”

Vander 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.”

They 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.

Ramsey, 53, whose goateed face appears on Sacramento-area billboards advertising his syndicated weekday radio show (locally on KSTE 650), 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.

But 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.

Why do churches have any more impact than all the websites, credit counseling centers and other sources of personal-finance advice?

“People 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 In 2010, she hosted a series of free debt-management workshops at churches in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New Jersey and New York.

In 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.”

But 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.

“It 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.

Not everyone in favor

Not 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.

While 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 overseas.

At 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.

As 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.”

Juggling 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.

But a month into the Financial Peace program, Bradley says 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 to Disneyland.

“I’m excited to make these changes. I see the end result: financial wellness It feels good.”