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Faith and finance: Empowering faith leaders to care for congregants in financial crisis

 

Christopher Sneed, M.S.
Extension Agent
The University of Tennessee Extension

Dena Wise, Ph.D.
Professor and Extension Specialist
The University of Tennessee Extension

Ann A. Berry, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Extension Specialist
The University of Tennessee Extension

Jane Gault, M.S.
Extension Agent
The University of Tennessee Extension

Abstract

Pastors and lay faith leaders play a critical role as caregivers to their congregations and communities. These caregiving responsibilities include assisting families in financial crisis. Because many people turn to faith leaders for support during financial crisis, faith leaders must know how to guide individuals and families through assessment of their financial situations and toward productive action. A group of religious leaders were engaged in Spring 2010 to assist in the development of an online needs assessment survey to be e-mailed to ministers and lay leaders of faith-based organizations across the state. The survey contained questions that help investigate attitudes of ministers and lay leaders and assess their need for financial education/counseling training and support in dealing with congregants in financial crisis. Based on results of the survey, the State Extension Family Economics Leadership Team developed a three-series workshop to equip faith leaders with basic financial education information and skills. Training included information on credit, budgeting, community resources, and how to triage bills during a financial crisis. Participants completing the three-series workshop reported an increase in their financial management skills. Additionally, participants expressed interest in the development of a Faith and Finance coalition for ongoing dialogue, resource development, and dissemination.

Keywords

faith, finance, clergy

Background

When families and individuals face economic hardship, stress paralysis can keep them from being proactive. Along with managing their stress, there are important and practical steps that families facing financial crisis need to take to reduce spending, manage credit, and make lifestyle adjustments to new economic realities. Because many people turn to faith-based organizations for support during financial crisis, pastors and lay leaders must know how to care for and guide individuals through assessment of their financial situations and toward productive action.

Larger, urban faith-based organizations often have the resources to offer professional financial counseling to their congregants. In rural areas, however, resources for financial counseling are scarce. Leaders of smaller congregations often bear the entire responsibility of personal counseling and ministry themselves, with limited experience in financial education. This study was undertaken to help program developers learn how they might better prepare pastors and lay leaders to provide effective support to congregants facing financial issues.

Review of literature

Faith communities and Extension have a long-term relationship working together to build communities and improve social capital (Prins and Ewert 2002). Faith communities have been used with success in the implementation of educational programs including those focused on nutrition and health (Resnicow, Jackson, Braithwaite, Dilorio, Blisst, Rahotep, and Periasamy 2002) and mental health (Taylor, Ellison, Chatters, Levin, and Lincoln 2000). Despite the logical and successful nature of partnering with faith communities in the delivery of educational efforts, and the immense and immediate need for financial information in the current economic downturn, very little is known about how faith communities are addressing the financial concerns of their congregants.

The second annual State of the Plate Survey did find an increasing number of congregations integrating financial education messages into worship services and educational classes. According to this study, 75 percent of ministers integrated messages of financial management into sermons with 48 percent of congregations making financial counselors available to their congregants (Kluth 2010).

While the annual State of the Plate Survey provides encouraging numbers concerning the integration of financial management in the life of the faith community, it fails to provide insight into the specific needs of pastors and lay leaders who work with congregants on their financial concerns. The present study seeks to fill this gap by providing a better understanding of the specific resources faith leaders want and might effectively use in dealing with congregants facing financial issues.

Methodology

In spring 2010, the State Family Economics Leadership Team interviewed a focus group of ministers about how they deal with requests for financial counseling and assistance. Information from the interview was used to develop a 27-question online needs assessment survey for ministers and lay leaders of faith-based organizations across the state. The survey contained questions regarding attitudes of respondents toward financial education and their need for training and support in dealing with congregants in financial crisis. Respondents were also asked to provide demographic information about themselves and religious organizations.

The survey was e-mailed to a statewide, comprehensive list of ministers who represented a variety of faiths. In addition to the initial request for participation that introduced the study and provided a link to the online survey, a follow-up reminder e-mail was sent three weeks later. A total of 184 useable surveys were returned, resulting in a response rate of 6 percent.

Results

Respondents to the survey represented a cross-spectrum of mostly Christian churches and organizations including Catholic, Southern Baptist, independent Baptist, United Methodist, African Methodist Episcopal, Church of Christ, United Church of Christ, Christian, Church of God, Disciples of Christ, Church of the Nazarene, Episcopal, Seventh-day Adventist, Assembly of God, Pentecostal and Lutheran. Respondents of faiths other than or not exclusively Christian included Jewish and Unitarian Universalist. Forty-five percent of respondents categorized their congregants as mostly suburban; 18 percent as mostly rural or small town; 15 percent as about equal urban and suburban; 13 percent as about equal suburban/rural and small town; and 9 percent as mostly urban. Thirty-five percent of respondents reported membership of more than 1,000; 23 percent had membership of 200–499; 20 percent had membership of 50–199; 17 percent had membership of 500–999; and 6 percent had fewer than 50 members.

Respondents reported that a total of 27,846 individuals sought assistance from their organizations over the past two years — an average of 226 per organization. Of the respondents, 44 percent of respondents indicated there had been a significant increase among their congregants requesting financial assistance over the past two years. Respondents reported that, separate and apart from actual requests for assistance, 3,191 individuals had come in for counseling about their financial situations — an average of 30 per organization. Forty-four percent of respondents reported that requests for financial assistance had increased significantly over two years ago; 37 percent said requests had slightly increased; and 16 percent said they had stayed about the same. Less than 1 percent said requests had decreased from two years ago.

Regarding the individuals making requests, 46 percent requesting financial assistance were non-members referred by another individual or agency; 37 percent were homeless or indigent individuals who walked in off the street, and 24 percent were congregants or regular church attendees. Respondents reported counseling most with single or divorced parents (74.8 percent) and couples with young children (71.8 percent). The next highest group of counselees were middle-aged individuals or couples (57.3 percent), followed by elderly individuals/couples or family members on their behalf (28.2 percent), young single adults (23.3 percent), and active retired individuals or couples (12.6 percent).

When asked about the life events most often contributing to the problems of counselees (three answers allowed), 94.2 percent of respondents indicated unemployment or layoff; 65.4 percent mentioned medical issues; and 58.7 percent indicated divorce. Natural or man-made disaster was indicated by 21.2 percent, followed by death of a wage-earner (13.5 percent). Other issues mentioned were mismanagement, drug abuse and financial drains from adult children.

When asked how comfortable they were counseling someone about their finances, just over 30 percent reported being either slightly or very uncomfortable. About half reported being relatively comfortable, but only 21 percent said they were very comfortable. More than half of respondents indicated that they would be very interested or interested in face-to-face training in financial counseling or in financial education workshops for their congregants. More than 70 percent reported interest in online resources that could be accessed in real time and camera-ready financial lessons for distribution to their congregants. Just under half were interested in training in how to assess the financial well-being of congregants who requested assistance.

Implication and application

Survey results clearly indicated the need for resources, training, and skill-building among pastors and faith leaders dealing with individuals in financial crisis. In response to the needs assessment, the State Family Economics Leadership Team developed a workshop to equip faith leaders with basic financial education, information, and skills. Training included information on credit, budgeting, community resources, and how to triage bills during a financial crisis.

Materials used in the trainings included peer-reviewed Extension publications, Money Habitude Cards, and The Shepherd's Guide through the Valley of Debt and Financial Change: A Comprehensive Manual for Financial Management, Counseling,and Spiritual Guidance (Williams 2009). Most of the training materials needed for this workshop were already in use by Extension professionals in the state. These materials including Extension publications related to budgeting, credit, expense tracking sheets, debt triage, and creditor re-payment were repackaged into the “Faith and Finance Toolkit.” A new publication, “Assessing the Financial Needs of Congregants,” was designed specifically for the trainings. This form and subsequent instruction on its use were incorporated into the workshop.

On two different occasions, training was implemented with 55 participants (total). Training times ranged from 4 to 8 hours. At the conclusion of the trainings, participants were asked to complete a written evaluation. Workshop participants indicated an increase in their financial management skills as a result of the trainings. Additionally a majority of participants (88 percent) indicated increased confidence in their ability to provide basic financial education. A number of participants expressed interest in the development of a Faith and Finance coalition for ongoing dialogue, resource development, and dissemination.

Conclusions

As a source of unbiased, research-based information, Extension is readily positioned to partner with faith leaders in developing skills and competencies needed for dealing with the complex financial issues facing congregants. This partnership between Extension and faith communities represents a win-win situation with benefits to both faith leaders as well as Extension professionals. Faith leaders receive the needed information, tools, and copy-ready resources to assist their congregants, and Extension professionals are able to broaden their scope and reach in the community. By working together and building on the resources each has to offer, Extension and faith leaders can fully assist congregants as they navigate from financial crisis to productive action.

References

Kluth, Brian. 2010. "State of the Plate results: Collections decrease for many, especially in December, new survey shows. "Your Church 56(1):4. http://www.christianitytoday.com/cbg/2010/spring/stateplateresults.html

Prins, Esther, and D. Merill Ewert. 2002. “Cooperative Extension and faith-based organizations: Building social capital.” Journal of Extension 40(3):Article 3COM2. http://www.joe.org/joe/2002june/comm2.php

Resnicow, Ken, Alice Jackson, Ronald Braithwaite, Colleen Dilorio, Dhana Blisset, SimoneRahotep, and Santhi Periasamy. 2002. Healthy body/ healthy spirit: A church-basednutrition and physical activity intervention. Health Education Research 17(5):562-573.

Taylor, Robert Joseph, Christopher G. Ellison, Linda M. Chatters, Jeffrey S. Levin, and Karen D. Lincoln. 2000. Mental health services in faith communities: The role of clergy in blackchurches. Social Work 45(1):73-87.

Williams, Flora L. 1999. The Shepherd's Guide Through the Valley of Debt and Financial Change: A Comprehensive Manual for Financial Management, Counseling, and Spiritual Guidance. Bloomington, Indiana: Author House.

http://ncsu.edu/ffci/publications/2011/v16-n2-2011-winter/TableofContents-December2011.php

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