Money is an issue that affects everyone. Situations will vary, but as one factor in the functioning of society, money is a necessary aspect of daily life. Despite this ubiquity, however, personal finance can be a charged, even stressful topic that people avoid discussing.
Jonathan Eilert, a pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran in Loveland, Ohio, said one challenge of being a congregation in a suburban, fairly wealthy area is trying to break through cultural forces that make people feel as if they shouldn’t need to come in for help.
“There is this picture of a perfect suburban family that is self-sustaining, and that’s not a very biblical picture of how we are to be in community,” he said. “We are trying to break down walls in lots of areas of people’s lives. When your family is in need, that is the time to draw closer to the church and not to push away.”
Prince of Peace has maintained a discretionary fund for many years, and member Audrey Hawley has been administering it since 2013. As a trained Stephen Minister, she understands the confidentiality and sensitivity required when people request assistance. “I’m there to listen—to hear what the person has to say and listen for the need,” she said. “Generally, I’m helping people if they need help with rent or utility bills.”
Hawley believes members hesitate to open up to a fellow parishioner about financial challenges and usually speak with a pastor instead. But even among the community members she meets with, she sees how difficult a subject money can be, and it’s something she’s witnessed more acutely during the pandemic.
“We’ve had a lot of people who have come to us who have never had to ask for financial assistance in their lives,” she said. “They come with their heads down, apologetic, saying—and this breaks my heart—‘I’m not the kind of person who needs help.’ I think it’s probably a cliché for me to say it, but everybody is a person who needs help.”
Eilert said there is room for more intentional conversation, but Prince of Peace leadership has stressed to the congregation that the discretionary fund is one of its ministries and something to give thanks to God for.
“I think there is an element of shame with poverty,” he said. “It’s something I’m cognizant of, so when people come in with their head held low, I try to celebrate with them that we have the ability to give this as a gift to help in a time of need and that it’s an expression of God’s love.”
Lutheran social ministry organizations regularly work with congregations and often receive referrals from them to provide financial counseling and other social services to individuals. Lutheran Social Services of Indiana (LSSI), celebrating its 120th anniversary this year, has provided some form of financial counseling since 1926, when it began offering emergency assistance.
Over the last 10 years, LSSI has honed its Cup of Kindness financial assistance program, which focuses on helping clients move toward economic stability.
“All of our curriculum that we use is focused on debt reduction; increasing income, if they need it, or savings; and either credit repair or credit rebuilding,” said Gillian Frazier, development coordinator for LSSI. As part of the holistic care it provides, the ministry has woven its financial stability curriculum into all its programs.
Like Prince of Peace, LSSI has seen parishioners hesitate to seek out the financial assistance and education it offers, despite its strong connections with area congregations.
“The referrals we get from churches are those [from] community meals or schools or day cares,” Frazier said. “Families still by and large really struggle to go to their churches to ask for help unless they’re really in crisis mode. It’s hard—even though everyone knows everyone has struggles—to admit to others, especially those you know so deeply. It’s something we’re still trying to work on and overcome.”
How to talk about financial wellness
- Understand that someone in financial crisis may feel embarrassed, ashamed or guilty. These feelings could affect their willingness to ask for help or admit they are facing challenges.
- Be mindful of judging someone’s actions. In crisis, people may say or do things they normally wouldn’t; this is a sign of stress or desperation.
- Talk often about general financial wellness as a congregation to help normalize times of financial stress. Emphasize that it’s OK to reach out for help.
- Make members aware of what assistance the church can provide and how to get in touch if they need it.
- Approach individuals and offer support if you are aware of a major life event or crisis. Don’t wait for them to ask.
- Engage with members of the congregation who have professional expertise (financial planners, social workers, etc.) to help with financial wellness conversations.
- If someone declines financial assistance, offer alternatives for help, such as dinner or a box of diapers.