Before discussing how best to raise the topic of wealth and economics in congregational settings, I want to summarize some wisdom concerning how to safely cross a river on foot. (Stay with me. The comparison is more apt than you might imagine.) First, when crossing a river without a boat, don’t go into water that is beyond a comfortable depth, nor should you step into a river moving at a pace that is too fast to navigate safely. Second, always face upstream as you cross the river, stepping sideways while aiming for the designated goal on the opposite side. Third, use a pole or long walking stick, as this will provide you with three points of contact with the river bottom. Then, moving carefully and confidently, you should be able to navigate the treacherous waters just fine.
Discussing finances and economics in a church setting can be a perilous undertaking. In many congregations, when it comes to talking about personal finances or America’s economic policies, the prevailing attitude is one of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Complicating this dynamic is the hesitancy many pastors feel about raising this subject (beyond the scope of the obligatory, annual Stewardship Sunday sermon), because they are frightened of muttered criticism that churches “only talk about money.” All of this unfortunately can lead to a conspiracy of silence in a congregation, rippling beyond avoiding the topic from the pulpit to enabling patterns of distrust and hidden information concerning church budgets, mission spending and skewed stewardship priorities. Invariably the solution to this challenge involves prayerful, intentional grappling with this important topic by both church leaders and congregation members. In other words – you simply need to plunge in!
This is where the prior advice comes in handy. First, discussing economics in church is like crossing a river without a boat. It is important not to get in over your head. Don’t presume to be an expert on the topic. Everyone deals with money in their personal lives, just as every church has to navigate annual budgets, financial reviews and prioritizing expenses in light of income. Find ways to raise questions about finances that are dialogical and interactive. This could happen in an adult education class or small group gathering – or perhaps as an open discussion item included in a session, deacons or committee meeting. Take a sounding of how comfortable people are with money matters; some love balancing their checkbooks while others dread the task. Ask broad questions about where people learned about finances – from their parents, a spouse or relative, at work or simply in the “school of hard knocks.” Moving the conversation into the realm of the personal minimizes the presence of undertows related to hidden agendas – such as “I never trust spreadsheets” or “I’m afraid to admit I feel overwhelmed whenever it’s time to consider budgets” – and hopefully allows for an honest grappling with any important financial decisions.
Second, face the issue head-on (or upstream). Once an initial trust around the topic has been established within your group, do not be hesitant to name both fears and hopes associated with money matters. If churches are afraid to expend limited resources in new initiatives because their deeper fear is the risk of having to close down, that concern has to be named out loud. Or if a small group of people has been designated, whether through inertia or internal power dynamics, as the sole determiners of all financial matters, that leadership imbalance needs to be openly acknowledged. Secrets and subtexts will undermine any healthy conversation about financial priorities. Budgets, by definition, are future-oriented, embodying a church’s hopes and aspirations. Therefore it is best to set your sights on your goal on the “other side” while being realistic and upfront about the turbulent waters still swirling around your legs.
If the earlier conversations (in which people shared their own experiences and feelings about money) have been honest and disclosive, it is appropriate to name the damage caused by classism in today’s world. The congregation I serve is diverse both racially and economically. From them I have learned over the years that people’s experiences with and feelings about wise money management can be quite different from one another. It is important not to assume that white-collar patterns of wealth management are the best models in every situation. Individuals make choices every day related to how they will use their money; the values of long-term planning and investment strategies (strongly emphasized within certain income brackets) should not be allowed to totally squelch instincts of generosity and the faithful sharing of resources immediately on hand (as modeled by individuals and families who prioritize taking care of present needs first). People who are in lower income brackets consistently give a higher percentage of their income to church and charities than people in the upper income brackets. Those with disposable income who are not reliant on surviving from paycheck to paycheck must be willing to learn the important lessons of faithful, generous daily living as taught by their less-affluent peers.
Finally, just as a walking stick or long pole can help you maintain your balance when crossing a river, never be hesitant to ground congregational conversations about money upon Scripture. The Bible says far more about finances than it does about sexuality – a fact too often neglected in contemporary American homiletics. There is no better time to ponder, “What would Jesus do?” than when issues of establishing financial priorities are raised within a church setting.
An important part of being guided by Scripture is the ability to be “preached to” by someone in the back pews or on the streets outside the church’s four walls. If Jesus routinely approached people with disabilities and allowed them to say what it is they desired, whether that involved healing paralytics, the deaf, mute, blind or leprous, we too need to begin any church reflection on economics by listening to the testimony of others. We need to ask how current minimum wage laws or credit card usury diminishes the lives of other children of God. We need to listen as hard choices are named whenever resources don’t stretch far enough and food is prioritized over medicine or rent payments allocated over electric bills. Then, finding a balance between Scripture, personal experience and the witness of God’s people all around us, we will be able to wade into the waters of economic justice together and all get safely to the other side.
Randy Bush is the senior pastor at East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, having also served congregations in Chinhoyi, Zimbabwe, and Racine, Wisconsin. He is the author of “The Possibility of Contemporary Prophetic Acts.” He is married to Beth, has two wonderful high-school age children, Ian and Charlotte, and a quirky Labrador named Elphie.