Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ministers and debt

Finances have long been a source of conflict in many clergy homes. Few people go into the ministry with the thought of becoming wealthy, but many are not prepared for the reality of what churches provide in the way of salary and benefit packages. Often, it is not enough to provide financially for the family so the spouse works or the pastor becomes bivocational. The alternative is that the pastor leaves the ministry to find a career that will meet the financial needs of the family.

Unfortunately, personal financial management is not a subject that is often taught in college or seminary Perhaps one reason for this lack of education in this area is that if the schools taught their students how to be financially responsible there would be a lot less student loan debt. Regardless of the reason, many enter the ministry with little to no idea of how to properly manage their finances.

According to various studies, it is not uncommon for a minister to go to his or her first church with $35,000-40,000 worth of student loan debt. I have talked with pastors who had as much as $90,000 of such debt and recently read of a pastor whose student loan debt was over $100,000! This is a huge amount of debt for someone who may be making no more than $40,000 a year in salary. It is not uncommon for such ministers to also have additional debt such as car loans, medical bills, housing costs, credit card debt, and other debt. Such ministers are fortunate to make minimum payments on their debt much less have money left over for other things.

When I meet such ministers I encourage them to focus hard on paying off their debt as quickly as they can. I always refer them to Dave Ramsey's book The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness. Ramsey provides one of the best plans for getting out of debt that you will find anywhere. It is not an easy solution, but neither is spending your entire working life making minimum payments on debt. However, the book does more than address the debt issue. He also explains how to save for retirement, the proper way to purchase automobiles and homes, and the importance of being a giver.

Scripture teaches us that the borrower is slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7). I have been in debt before when I felt like I was a slave to that debt. (Maybe that's why they call it Master Card!) Debt prevents one from being able to do things that one would otherwise do. There is a reason more people don't tithe to the church. They have to pay off their loans, and there's nothing left. It may also be why many pastors don't tithe. Debt also keeps us from being able to give to other worthwhile causes. It prevents us from being able to save properly for retirement. I know pastors who need to retire but cannot because they have nothing in savings and know they cannot live on Social Security. Debt also brings strife into the family and sometimes leads to divorce. As you can see, nothing good comes from having debt.

Debt is a symptom that one is addicted to instant gratification. Rather than save the money and paying cash for what we want we are told that for only a few dollars a month we can have it now. Like a screaming kid in Wal-Mart we want what we want and we want it now, and plastic allows that to happen. We have to be smarter than Congress and realize that we cannot continue to spend more than we have and not expect a crisis to come sooner or later.

We cannot undo the past. If you realize that you have a debt problem the first thing to do is to realize that you have a problem that needs to be cleaned up. The second thing is to stop digging your hole deeper; no more debt. The third thing is to find a plan that will help you pay off your debt as quickly as possible. Again, I point you to Ramsey's book. You may also want to have your church host his Financial Peace University. Believe me, you are not the only person in your congregation struggling with debt. This nine week program could be a huge benefit to you, to your congregation, and could even be an effective witness to people outside your congregation.

I want you to be free to minister as the Lord leads. Debt can sometimes limit that freedom. That's why it's important to clean it up as soon as possible.

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