February 5, 2021

Stewardship Scenarios: Under Water

The most common circumstance we tend to address in our congregations is that of being “under water” financially – that is, in debt and struggling 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 in this state 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 this could be causing marital issues.  They have no financial margin and are likely not able to meet current financial obligations.  They may be candidates for your benevolence ministry and may be getting other forms of assistance.

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 milestone for them.

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 but over time, 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. They’re not going to be able to fix an overspending problem (if that’s how they got here) 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.

What’s next?

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 – such as taking a second job, selling assets, or possibly moving to less expensive 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.  There are accomplishments to be had along the way in this journey.

Two key early victories are to get to a point of positive cash flow and to begin giving.

Getting to positive cash flow is going to require a disciplined spending plan but for those in crisis mode, it often means 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.