If your congregation is like most, you have people in different places financially. You likely have some folks who are stressed out, struggling to meet their monthly bills, and wondering how they’re going to get through the month. You probably have others who are making it from month to month but are in unrealized danger because they’re not being intentional enough with their money. And you likely have others who are blessed with relatively abundant resources but aren’t maximizing the impact of their situation.
In other areas of discipleship, you probably recognize that people at different places in their spiritual journey need different approaches and emphases. The same is true when it comes to financial discipleship. People at different places in their financial journey need different kinds of help, instruction, and accountability. The person struggling with debt gets no value out of a course on investment strategies. The person with abundant resources probably doesn’t need tips on how to execute a debt reduction plan.
How completely is your stewardship ministry serving your congregation? Are you focused on just one segment of the congregation (say, those who are struggling with debt)? Or are you addressing individuals and families in different financial places? Does your stewardship ministry produce real disciples in the area of Biblical stewardship from people in all different places financially?
In this article, we’ll address three common situations in which people find themselves financially. We’ll look at their key motivations, their most pressing needs, and the spiritual growth that each area calls for. And we’ll give you some tools to help people realize what state they are in and to help them wrestle with what good stewardship looks like in that situation.
God calls all of us to Biblical standards of stewardship. But exactly what that looks like differs in different circumstances. Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything and give to the poor, then come and follow him; but he made no such request of Zacchaeus, who nonetheless demonstrated Biblical stewardship in his own way (compare Matthew 19:16-22 with Luke 19:1-9).
Stewardship means being faithful with God’s resources in whatever situation we’re in. We can be faithful stewards (or not) in the midst of debt. We can be faithful stewards (or not) in the midst of plenty. Faithfulness in stewardship is not so much about where we are financially, but more about being obedient with God’s resources in that situation.
Under Water – Financial Crisis
Some of your congregation are “under water” financially. That is, they’re struggling with debt and wondering how to make ends meet from month to month. In fact, this is where most stewardship training programs focus. And most programs highlight that the key to surviving and eventually escaping this situation is getting out of debt. Scripture supports this as the obvious goal, reminding us that the borrower is slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7). And enslaved is exactly how people in this situation feel.
Are they Financially Free?
People who are under water are not OK financially and they know it. It’s obvious from their bills and debts – they’re in crisis mode. They’re worried over their finances and likely experiencing significant stress. They have no financial margin and are probably not able to meet current financial obligations. They may or may not be getting a form of financial assistance, but they are definitely not free financially. They’re living out the truth of Proverbs 22:7.
People in crisis mode are looking for stability. They want to get to a place where they can be confident that they can make ends meet month by month. Worry wears them down; getting free from this worry is a key aspiration for them. They’re drowning, and they need a bit of breathing room.
What are the Financial Indicators?
People in crisis mode often have negative cash flow, meaning that they’re not making enough money to cover all their expenses. They likely have a poor credit score from overuse of credit cards, which are probably maxed out or nearly there. Often, they’ve used balance transfers to open up new credit cards to get introductory low interest rates. Over time, however, they’ve ended up in more debt with this strategy.
Typically, people in this scenario have low or negative net worth – meaning they owe more than they own. They may or may not own a house, but if they do, they don’t have much equity in it – it’s fully or nearly fully mortgaged. They have little or no savings of any kind, so that any emergency (and we all face them) will put them further under water.
As a result of the above, these folks are not giving regularly. Often, they wish they could, but they just don’t see a way to make the numbers work. Their primary responses to a discussion about giving are guilt and defensiveness.
What do they need?
The key spiritual needs are faith and perseverance. Faith that God will provide, and perseverance to stick to a plan over the long run. Most people did not get into crisis mode overnight and they’re not going to get out overnight.
People in crisis mode need grace, not judgment. They may indeed be in the position they are in due to materialism or related sin and they may need to repent of that. But this conviction comes from the Holy Spirit, not from a stewardship ministry.
Finally, they need some realism. That is, they need to know how they got to where they are. If they’re overspending, they’re not going to be able to fix it if they don’t recognize the problem. On the other hand, if an emergency is at the root of their financial situation, then understanding the importance of emergency savings is going to be key.
First, people in crisis mode need to admit that their current circumstances are not sustainable. Emotionally, they already feel that – the worry and anxiety are not something they want to live with indefinitely. But they need to get beyond the emotions and realize that the numbers just don’t work. They’re going to have to change the numbers.
The key decision these folks need to make is to be willing to take some significant actions in the short term to change their circumstances. These actions – like taking a second job, selling assets, or moving to cheaper housing – don’t have to be sustainable over the long term. But crisis mode is something that calls for a decisive action. Most people will not get out of this mode with only incremental changes like spending a little less on eating out.
As we mentioned above, one of the key spiritual needs in this situation is faith. And part of faith means responding to God’s provision through giving. In crisis mode, a tithe is going to be out of the question – so far out of the question that even discussing it is likely to lead only to discouragement. The challenge here is to start giving something, then to start giving something on a more regular basis. The amount is less significant than the heart behind giving. But a key realization here is that the heart often follows where the money goes. Jesus put it this way, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mathew 6:21) Waiting to give anything is tantamount to holding our hearts back from God.
What does success look like?
The obvious goal for people in crisis mode is to get out of debt. But for many, that’s a process that will take several years and a significant amount of prayer and sacrifice. On the journey, they’ll reach several milestones.
One key to success is to clearly understand the causes of the crisis situation. Are they overspending to medicate some emotional need? Or did they simply take on too much debt in a short period of time (eg, a recent graduate with student loan debt and a new car)? Did they get here because of an emergency that they weren’t prepared for financially?
We can’t dig ourselves out of a hole – we have to climb out. As long as people are still digging the hole, they’ll never be able to escape it. So understanding and addressing the causes of financial crisis are critical to reaching stability.
Two key early victories are to get to a point of positive cash flow and to begin giving.
Getting to positive cash flow requires an informed spending plan and discipline in following it. But for those in crisis mode, it often takes more than just that. A key sacrifice, such as getting a second job or moving in with parents, is often the jump-start needed to get to positive cash flow sooner rather than later.
As we mentioned earlier, giving is a leading indicator of where our hearts are – because according to Jesus, our hearts follow our treasure. So a second early achievement is to begin giving something, allowing our hearts to move toward God and expressing trust in his provision.
A stewardship ministry that can help people in financial crisis mode achieve these early victories will set them on the path for further growth in their financial discipleship. And if your stewardship ministry is able to walk with people through financial coaching, you’ll increase their chances of staying on the path.
Treading Water – Paycheck to Paycheck
According to a Forbes article from a couple of years ago, as many as 78% of American workers live paycheck to paycheck.1 Some of these folks fit into our previous category of being in crisis mode. But many of them are actually making ends meet month to month. They’re treading water financially.
Are they Financially Free?
People in this situation are not OK financially – but they often don’t realize it. They’re paying their monthly bills, mostly on time, and they’re making minimum payments on their credit cards – maybe even a little more than minimum. They’re not financially free, but they consider their lifestyle “normal” – and in fact, they are normal compared to others around them. They’ve likely bought into the cultural myths that debt is normal and unavoidable, and that saving is irrelevant.
People in this scenario need clarity. They need to recognize the dangers of living paycheck-to-paycheck and to put in place a plan to begin making some financial progress. They need to come to grips with reasons they might be overspending. And they need to understand finances as a key area of discipleship.
What are the Financial Indicators?
These folks typically have a neutral or slightly positive cash flow, meaning that they make enough to meet all their obligations month-to-month. Often, they have significant consumer debt but they’re able to keep up with the payments. At the same time, they’re not making any real progress on paying down their debt (and may not see that as a need).
They have some net worth – meaning they own more than they owe. But it’s not what it should be at their stage of life, primarily due to taking on debt for depreciating assets (such as furniture, cars, etc.). Their credit score is probably average – they have a somewhat high revolving credit usage but they don’t miss payments and they make their payments on time.
One or two missed paychecks would put these folks under water. They have little or no emergency savings, and tend to use credit cards to cover unexpected expenses. They may have some retirement savings, but it’s not likely a high priority. In terms of giving, they may or may not be giving somewhat regularly but they are not likely tithing.
What do they need?
The key spiritual need in this situation is contentment. Most people are in this circumstance because they’ve allowed their lifestyle to creep up and up in parallel to their income over time. Raises and bonuses tend to go to lifestyle increases rather than building margin or tithing.
People who are treading water financially need accountability. Whether that’s accountability to others in their community or simply to a financial plan, they need some objective input and some regular measurement against that input to get them on track and keep them on track.
Finally, they need intentionality. Most often, they’re in their current position because they’re not paying that much attention to where their money is going. They likely could make progress financially if they were more intentional about their spending.
The key realization for these folks is that much of their spending is likely an attempt to meet an emotional need – a need to feel good about themselves, to feel that they fit in, that they’re worthy, etc. Understanding the emotions behind their spending can provide a safeguard against the impulse buying that often characterizes their finances.
The key decision here is to create financial margin by doing two things: setting aside meaningful emergency savings, and getting serious about retiring their consumer debt. Creating this margin will help keep people who are treading water from going under when an emergency hits (and it will).
The key first step is to create a Spending Plan and get intentional about planning and tracking finances. This plan should prioritize creation of a viable emergency savings fund and then accelerating debt repayment. Discretionary expenses, such as entertainment, should be brought in line with these key priorities.
A key longer-term consideration is a lifestyle cap – the lifestyle at which an individual or family is content. Coming to grips prayerfully with a lifestyle cap is a key deterrent to the lifestyle creep we mentioned earlier. Once that target lifestyle is achieved, additional income no longer goes to lifestyle spending – it’s freed up for giving and savings.
With regard to giving, people in this situation need to be challenged to take a next step. If they’re not giving regularly, that should become part of their Spending Plan. If they are giving regularly but not yet at the tithe, they should be prayerfully moving toward the tithe.
What does success look like?
Success for people who are treading water financially is primarily a matter of intentionality with their finances. Creating and sticking to a Spending Plan – and modifying it along the way as needed – is a key achievement. Ideally, this would look something like the 10-10-80 plan: 10% of income for giving, 10% for savings, and 80% for lifestyle.
As implied above, a second key success factor is getting to the tithe with giving. For most people in this situation, giving 10% of income is going to mean something of a sacrifice – not that basic needs can’t be met, but it’s going to cost in terms of entertainment money, vacations, or other areas where the natural tendency is to spend on lifestyle. Developing an attitude of joyful sacrifice is a major win.
A stewardship ministry that can develop people in intentionality and generosity disciples them effectively in this key area of spiritual growth.
Swimming – living with abundance
In most congregations, there’s a segment of people who have significant resources. This was true in the early church; on two different occasions we see church members selling some of their resources to provide for the needs of the congregation (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-36). Jesus’ ministry was supported by several women of means (Luke 8:2-3), and we see Zacchaeus using his resources to help the poor upon his conversion (Luke 19:1-9). If your stewardship ministry is not equipping these people as faithful stewards, you’re missing a segment of the population that needs discipleship in this area, and an opportunity for significant Kingdom impact.
Are they Financially Free?
We might be tempted to look on the surface and say, “Of course these people are financially free – look at all they have.” But possessions, savings accounts, and investments are not in and of themselves indications of financial freedom. Jesus said, “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
The thing is, these people are financially OK but they often don’t realize it. There’s a subtle temptation as wealth increases to begin to rely on that wealth for security, rather than trusting in God’s provision. Driven by fear of economic downturn or other unexpected occurrences, people in this situation can become relentless in their pursuit of earning and saving. With all that they have, they’re not free.
These folks need to recognize their abundance. They often live with a scarcity mindset, afraid to spend or to give because they fear not having enough – though in reality they have enough and more. Though they really do have an abundance of resources, they live as though they don’t – and as a result deprive themselves and others of the blessings God means to provide for them.
What are the Financial Indicators?
People in this setting have a significantly positive cash flow. They may have some consumer debt, but they probably don’t worry about it because the interest charges are minimal to them. They may or may not have a mortgage and car payment, depending on their view of debt; but in any case, they are in no danger of not being able to meet their obligations.
These folks have considerable net worth – their assets significantly outweighing their liabilities. They likely have a good credit score and they are earning and saving plenty. They may or may not be tracking where the money goes, since they have more than enough.
Saving is the name of the game for people in this condition. They have more than enough emergency savings and are on track to have significantly more than they need for retirement. They may be giving regularly but may not have thought about tithing. Often, they have untapped opportunities to make Kingdom impact with their resources.
What do they need?
The key spiritual needs in this situation are faith and a sense of mission. Faith to trust in God rather than their wealth for security (1 Timothy 6:17). A sense of being on mission with God, making use of the resources he has provided. Peter Parker (aka, Spiderman) lived by the mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Jesus put it this way: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48)
Vision beyond themselves is a key need here. These folks need a Kingdom mission that they can be passionate about – not only with their finances, but also with their lives.
Finally, people in this scenario need a God-given sense of balance. Once the basic needs are met, is God empowering them to earn significantly more in order to finance Kingdom-impacting projects? Or is he calling them to dial back on earning in order to spend more time with family or in volunteer efforts? Of course, this is not a question a stewardship ministry can answer, but it is a question we need to challenge people to pray about.
The key realization for these folks is that legacy is about much more than just accumulated wealth. We all know that “we can’t take it with us”, but some folks allow the idea of leaving it for the next generation to drive them well past healthy earning and saving into hoarding. Relationships, vision, and Kingdom focus are even more important to leave as a legacy than earthly wealth.
The key decision here is to answer the question, “When is enough, enough?” Partly this is a question of lifestyle cap – how much is really needed in order to live a God-honoring lifestyle and provide for family, etc. And partly it’s a question of saving – how much is needed to provide for later years. The latter question may not be easy to answer, given uncertainties about the future. But there should be an effort to estimate this and to balance between wise preparation for the future and Kingdom impact and relationships in the present.
With regard to giving, people in this situation need to be challenged to consider the tithe as a starting point. The real fun can come in going beyond the tithe to set up a “Generosity Fund” – an amount of money set aside to use to fulfill needs as God brings them. Such giving can make people more sensitive to the voice of the Holy Spirit, as they hear and respond to the needs he brings. This brings us full cycle back to the the examples of generosity in Acts 2 and 4.
What does success look like?
Success is often a matter of changing focus – away from finances and toward relationships, mission, and Kingdom impact. Spiritual legacy, missional lifestyle, and discipling the next generation in generosity provide great focus points for people with this level of resources.
Getting free for people in this scenario is often a matter of taking charge and making decisions. Instead of allowing career to dictate their work week, they determine how much of their lives to give to work, and draw a line in the sand. Rather than chasing financial security with an ever-present goal of “a little more”, they make an informed choice about how much they need and devote resources beyond that to kingdom work. Instead of simply assuming that the next raise means another step up in lifestyle, they create a lifestyle cap and free up finances beyond that for other purposes.
In short, success here looks like living with purpose. Of course, all of us should have this goal. But people living with abundance have additional opportunity to be purposeful, with less worry about meeting basic needs. A stewardship ministry that infuses them with a sense of purpose disciples them effectively and makes significant Kingdom impact.
Discipling the Whole Congregation in Stewardship
Your congregation represents a variety of financial situations, each with differing needs. So how do you create a stewardship ministry that effectively disciples the entire congregation in Biblical financial management?
- Choose a stewardship curriculum that addresses the entire congregation. Ideally, your curriculum should have teaching and tools tailored for different financial situations. As we said at the beginning, people living in abundance don’t need training on a debt snowball. People living in debt don’t benefit from exhortations to sacrificial giving.
- Go beyond the basics for maximum impact. To help those in financial crisis, train financial coaches to and walk with them on the journey to stability. For those with significant resources, consider offering a Journey of Generosity or providing access to an estate planning ministry focused on Kingdom impact.
- Engage your small groups. Life-change happens best in small groups, and financial discipleship is no exception. It’s especially valuable when small groups are integrated with people from multiple different financial situations.
And pray! Pray for individuals you know in each of these financial places. Ask God to grant a greater sense of discipleship in the area of finances. Pray for freedom, stability, clarity, and legacy. These are prayers God loves to answer.