Killing the debt monster: Church members move toward responsible stewardship
The 34-year-old architect paid $521 a month to lease a 2001 Ford Exhibition. Even with gasoline prices rising, he filled up frequently, getting 17 miles to the gallon on his 80-mile round-trip to work.
Unable to go home for lunch, he’d pull out a credit card and enjoy a nice pizza or Chinese buffet every day at noon, much to the chagrin of his wife, Kali, who handled the bills for the family of four.
Then on Sundays, he’d drop a few dollars in the collection plate, not stopping to consider that he spent more on a backyard “pet butler” to clean up after the family’s dogs than he gave to God.
About the only financial stress Wood acknowledged was the “nagging” from his wife. Kali knew her husband’s $40,000 in student loans, their $10,000 in credit-card debt and her $5,000 in medical expenses from chronic migraines and rheumatoid arthritis were a problem – a big problem getting bigger.
But he would hear none of it.
“Every time she’d get talking about finances, I’d get angry or upset,” said Wood, a member of the Singing Oaks congregation, Denton. “I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t want to know or I felt that she was coming down on me.”
Then in February, his outlook suddenly changed when he attended a “No Debt No Sweat!” seminar at his congregation.
Steve Diggs, a minister from Antioch, Tenn., seemed to be talking directly to Wood with quips such as, “Folks, some of you in here right now have made payments this month on meals you ate during the Reagan administration.”
As Wood explained later, “I had never realized that eating out and putting it on the card and just paying the minimum makes that about a $200 meal.”
THE MASTER VS. MASTER CARD?
Diggs — a self-described Gomer Pyle-lookalike — favors colorful Hawaiian shirts and simple financial advice.
With a mix of humor and Scriptural applications, this easygoing fellow who survived open-heart surgery and then decided he wanted to do something truly significant with his life fights an enemy he claims is destroying marriages, families and even churches.
So far, he’s taken his message of “killing the debt monster” from Florida to Fresno, Calif., from South Dakota to the southern tip of Texas — and no shortage of congregations and Christian universities seem eager to learn more about his “ABC’s of Christian Money Management.”
The reality, Diggs proclaims everywhere he goes, is that about three-fourths of the audience is struggling with finances, based on a Wall Street Journal report that 72 percent of people live paycheck to paycheck.
“We’ll talk about divorce and remarriage. We’ll talk about Internet pornography,” Diggs said.
“But nobody wants to stand up and say, ‘You know, my wife and I are about to kill each other over money, and I’m sitting bolt upright in bed worrying about my money, and I’m not giving at church.’ ”
Now, though, more congregations appear to be taking notice – acknowledging not just that members are in financial trouble, but also that congregational work suffers when members give just 2 percent of their income to the Master and 20 percent to pay off Master Card, as Diggs describes it.
CHURCHES WORK TO SHUT ‘DEBT TRAP’
According to the Barna Research Group, a Ventura, Calif., firm that studies American religious trends, 65 percent of all adults donated some money to a church or other place of worship in 2004. The average amount given to churches was $895 per donor.
However, the study found that only 9 percent of people identified as “born-again Christians” tithed to churches. Barna defined tithing as donating at least 10 percent of one’s income. Among people under age 40, tithing is “almost non-existent,” according to Barna.
“I think we’re waking up and realizing we need to help folks address this,” said Kregg Hood, whose sermon series and writings on giving and financial management have been used in hundreds of churches of Christ.
His latest book, From Debt to Life: 10 Proven Steps to Beat Credit Crisis & Build Financial Freedom, was released in paperback in August.
This spring, the Elmwood church, West Lafayette, Ind., distributed copies of Hood’s Escape the Debt Trap: Let the Lord Lead You Out and pulpit minister Gayle Crowe preached on it.
The congregation followed the sermon series with small-group studies based on the “Good $ense” program developed by Willow Creek Community Church, an evangelical megachurch in the Chicago area.
In Crowe’s counseling with couples, money frequently emerges as a tension point, he said.
“There are so many people who are overextended on credit cards and that kind of thing,” he said. “So we just sort of felt this was a positive way to help people try to get their lives into perspective.”
Overall, Americans hold 1.5 billion credit cards, or about five cards per person, according to CardWeb.com, which compiles data about the industry. Households with at least one credit card owed an average of $9,205 in 2003, a 23 percent increase from five years earlier after adjusting for inflation.
RAMSEY ADVOCATES ‘PLASTIC SURGERY’
Perhaps the best-known Christian debt management program is Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University,” a video series in which Ramsey squeals with delight as he slices a credit card in half.
“Plastic surgery,” he calls it.
About 5,000 Protestant churches, military bases and offices – including 200 churches of Christ in 10 states – have offered the program, according to Ramsey’s database.
Among them is the Culver Palms church, Los Angeles, where church member and certified public accountant Sherwood Kingsley teaches the course twice a year for $95 per person, most of which goes to buy the kits from Ramsey’s organization.
“The class I have now, there are 11 people,” Kingsley said. “Take a guess of how much consumer debt they have. It’s a little over $200,000.”
His last class paid off $68,000 in debt during the 13-week series, he said.
“I’ve seen the desperation in some of these students’ eyes of, ‘Holy moly, how do we get out of this?’ And then you see them start to grasp the concepts he gives.”
‘BORROWER IS SERVANT TO THE LENDER’
One of Ramsey’s favorite Scriptures is Proverbs 22:7: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.”
In Ramsey’s world, you wait to buy a car, preferably used, or a washing machine until you can pay cash for it. You also use cash for necessities. You put budgeted amounts in envelopes with labels such as “Food,” “Clothing” and “Gas,” and stop spending when the money is gone.
Ramsey, whose daily radio show airs on 250 stations, maintains that his business and similar ministries have helped millions improve their lives, marriages, careers and spiritual outlook.
But in an interview with the Chronicle, he was quick to add, “Every time I cut up a credit card, they print up about a billion more of them.”
According to Economy.com, Americans’ median household income has risen 11 percent since 1990 after adjusting for inflation, while median household spending has jumped 30 percent.
Median household debt outstanding has leaped 80 percent.
Crown Financial Ministries – another popular faith-based financial responsibility program – is used by thousands of Southern Baptist churches and a number of churches of Christ, including the 900-member West Houston church, Houston.
Still, many people — and churches — remain in denial, said Matt Soper, West Houston’s senior minister.
Soper preached on the subject in March before the congregation made the Crown small-group studies available.
But there wasn’t much response, he said. The perceived stigma of signing up apparently concerned many. The challenge, Soper said, has been conveying that one doesn’t need to be in financial crisis to benefit.
“There’s so much consumer debt out there, and so many families are struggling with it,” he said. “It’s almost the accepted addiction right now.
SHOP TILL YOU’RE PHYSICALLY ILL?
In a country where many laugh at bumper stickers such as “Born to shop” and “Shop till you drop,” a recent survey found that more than 75 percent of people with credit-card debt have experienced some type of physical symptom they attribute to the financial strain.
The study for Rockford, Ill.-based Family Credit Counseling Service was performed by Impulse Research Co. of Los Angeles, which queried 1,590 consumers with credit-card debt, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Among the most common symptoms cited were headaches, inability to concentrate and nausea. Fighting over debt was most common among couples earning more than $45,000 a year.
No wonder, Diggs says, that he has found such an insatiable appetite among churches for his seminars.
At the 150-member Belgrade, Mont., church, giving jumped 10 percent after Diggs came in March 2004. The congregation ended the year $12,000 over budget, evangelist and elder Mike Schrader said.
“I think Steve’s lessons probably helped everybody see the importance of putting God first,” said Schrader, who had sought a way to help several people in the church dealing with credit-card debt.
PUTTING GOD IN HIS RIGHTFUL PLACE
Too many church members, Diggs tells audiences, are killing themselves to pay for designer clothes that don’t fit, a motorboat they don’t use and gifts to impress people they don’t like.
And all too often, they pay for it with plastic.
Diggs assures couples such as the Woods that they’re not alone, they’re not stupid and, best of all, they’re not doomed to a lifetime of financial despair.
Diggs maintains that getting finances under control is a simple matter of (A) acknowledging who owns your money (God), (B) budgeting your money and (C) controlling your money.
Like Ramsey, he advocates an “envelope system” and an “emergency fund.” He also tells men that working 40 hours a week is not enough when their family is in debt and can’t pay its bills.
“I’ve got guys who kiss their wives at 10 o’clock to go clean office buildings, or they deliver pizzas, or they start businesses cleaning yards and hauling off debris,” Diggs said.
Kali Wood, office coordinator at the Singing Oaks church, e-mailed Diggs after his seminar there in February.
That Sunday, Ty Wood took home Diggs’ book and started reading it, she said. By nighttime, he began talking to her about how they were going to fix their situation and become debt-free in four years.
“He apologized for making me carry the load of this situation alone for our entire marriage,” she wrote.
“And the most important thing he has said to me this week is, ‘God is now coming first in our marriage!’ My heart and spirit are soaring!”
FROM SCOOP SERVICE TO STEWARDSHIP
In the weeks that followed, the Woods returned their leased SUV to the dealer, and Ty started driving a paid-for car owned by his parents.
They came up with a written ‘personal financial freedom plan’ — also known as a budget — and Ty got a job only 10 minutes from their house. Now, he goes home every day for lunch and eats leftovers with his wife.
And they made a commitment to give their “first fruits” to God. To help with that, they got rid of the pet butler. Ty decided he could handle that dirty work himself.