In name of God, Christians pay off bills

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Forget about sex and rock 'n' roll. In the financially strapped '90s, debt has hit the sin list as one of the top no-nos for some Christians.

It's your Christian duty to get out of debt and stay that way, a number of theologically conservative churches have started teaching parishioners.

Religious bookstores have stocked their shelves with tomes extolling the Christian virtue of debt-free living, and churches are bringing in financial analysts to help parishioners straighten out their finances.

"We can be freer and happier if we live by sound economic principles," says Janie Gaskins, program coordinator of the Heritage Church of God in Severn, which this month sponsored a seminar on debt reduction.

Timonium Presbyterian Church, which has held similar seminars for its members, focuses on the idea that "God really owns everything, and we're accountable to him for how we spend it," says administrator Larry Russell.

Bethel AME church in Druid Hill tries to help debtors change their habits by keeping a financial counselor on staff and offering new members financial advice when they join.

"The temptation to spend more than one makes is extremely high," says the pastor, the Rev. Frank Reid. "We try to educate people to the fact that the reason many of us are in debt over our heads is because we put what we want first, instead of putting God first.

"Unless we can begin to teach our members how to be disciplined, how to be financially free, how not to believe the TV hype, then the debt, especially of African-Americans, is going to get worse and worse."

Proponents of financial freedom differ on whether that means never borrowing money at all.

While a few hard-liners say owing money to anyone is morally wrong, most Christian groups simply emphasize living within your means -- making a budget and sticking to it.

"The Bible gives many warnings about being in debt," explains Ronald Blue, an Atlanta-based Christian financial analyst. "If you borrow money, you have no alternative but to repay all the amounts borrowed. If you don't, by definition, you're what the Bible calls wicked."

Books such as "Obedience in Finances" by Christian money guru Larry Burkett teach basic financial principles of getting organized, creating a master plan to manage your money and staying out of debt permanently.

The emphasis is on disciplined spending. If you have an old car that runs and you can't afford to pay cash for a new one, don't buy one, Mr. Burkett suggests. Running up credit card bills you don't immediately pay is considered both bad money-management and bad Christian living.

The economic principles espoused by Christian financial analysts are sound advice, though not uniquely religious, say secular counselors.

Henry Bahne, assistant executive director of the Consumer Credit Counseling Agency in Baltimore, a nonprofit financial counseling group, says Mr. Burkett is considered an expert in the field of money management and provides "state of the art" budgeting materials.

Moral imperative

What makes the Christian groups unique is their insistence that it's a moral duty to manage your money well, that it's a sin to run up a credit card bill you can't pay.

Because a Christian's money actually belongs to God, believers ought not waste money or lose money through interest payments incurred through unnecessary debt, says Mr. Burkett, who has a national radio talk show called "Money Matters."

"Huge sums of God's peoples' money go to meet interest payments. That money could otherwise be used to further God's kingdom rather than Satan's," Mr. Burkett writes in another of his books, "Using Your Money Wisely."

"Many major denominations spend more on interest payments than on foreign missions," he writes.

Mr. Burkett teaches that borrowing always is presented as a negative in the Bible.

"The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender's slave," he quotes from the book of Proverbs.

Interest in Christian money management is growing.

Mr. Burkett's organization, Christian Financial Concepts, last year held seminars for 18,600 people around the country, nearly a 10 percent increase over the previous year, says CFC seminar manager Kathy Anderson. More than 900 people a month buy materials from the organization, and dozens of Maryland churches are using financial freedom programs by Mr. Burkett and other Christian analysts, such as Mr. Blue.

Ron Blue & Co. has grown in 14 years from a one-man operation in Atlanta to a large organization with six offices from Florida to California.

Cynthia Knudsen, a marketing specialist with the company, says the Bible-based financial principles Mr. Blue espouses have been around for a long time, but the growth of financial planners -- both secular and sacred -- is recent.

"A lot of our planning is common-sense principles that are found in the Bible, such as that it's important to diversify when you invest," Ms. Knudsen says. "But the development of financial planners as a whole, especially those who use a Christian perspective, is fairly new and growing fast."

The Christian trend likely reflects the larger concern with the economy, both Christian and secular analysts say.

The Consumer Credit Counseling Agency provides free financial advice to people around the country. In Mr. Bahne's Baltimore office alone, 14,636 people have come for financial counseling so far this year, an increase over the 12,000 who came for counseling in 1991.

Some are Christians, motivated by fundamentalist concerns about the world ending.

"A lot of these groups see Armageddon just over the horizon, and they're heavily into the Book of Revelation. They want to get their [financial] house in order," Mr. Bahne says.

But others are just worried about job lay-offs and high taxes.

"With the economy what it's been since the late '89 period, it's not a bad idea to become debt free, regardless of what motivates you," Mr. Bahne notes.

Church contributions

Not all ministers embrace the debt-free approach, however, and some balk if it means putting a crimp in their church's coffers.

Mr. Bahne says some of his clients say they are expected to continue to give 10 percent of their income -- or more -- to their churches, even though it may hurt their chances of getting out of debt.

"As a secular organization, we can't make a judgment call on things involving religious commitment," Mr. Bahne says. "But some individuals who have run aground with creditors are reluctant to modify their financial commitment to their church.

"In some cases that is so unrealistic they have shot themselves in the foot. They must do without other basic necessities to pay their creditors."

In a random survey of ministers from a number of Christian denominations, most either refused to discuss church finances or denied that they would demand money from financially strapped parishioners.

"The whole point is to manage what money you've been given in a responsible way that honors God," says Terry Minchow-Proffitt, pastor of Broadneck Baptist Church in Anne Arundel County's Cape St. Claire.

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