The other day a friend invited me to her church because she knows that I’m interested in finance and the minister was beginning a series on God and finance. I almost declined because the thought of a minister preaching on God and finance gives me the heebie jeebies. I’ve often thought that religion and money ought to be kept separate, at least in public forums. In my experience, when a minister starts talking about finance in church it’s for one of three reasons: First, the church needs money and the minister uses his pulpit as a fundraising tool. Second, it’s because the church is trying to become more “relevant” to its members and thus offers financial advice (or parenting, business, psychological, or health advice-whatever is the trend of the moment) thinly disguised as a sermon.
Or, third (and most common in my experience), a pastor talks about finance because he wants to terrify people into “believing.” It seems like I see this one more often when the economy goes south. Because more people are hurting during down times, the minister seizes this chance to tell people that their financial troubles will be solved if they just pray harder, give more to the church, and come to church more often. It becomes a recruitment tool.
I know I sound cynical, but I’ve never heard any preacher or minister treat the subject differently and I’ve been to plenty of churches spanning almost every denomination. But since I try to keep an open mind about these things, I went with my friend to see what this particular pastor would say.
I wasn’t surprised at what I heard from this minister. Given the current economic climate, he went for the third approach. The gist of the sermon was that, if you are suffering financial hardships or are well off, it’s a direct result of your faith (or lack of). You are struggling because you have not been faithful, or because you have not demonstrated that faith through large donations to the church. If you just pray harder, give to the church, and live well, God will take care of your financial problems. If you are well off, it’s because you have done the “right” things in God’s eyes. “Come to our church, join our faith,” he says, “and we will put you on a path to financial success with God’s help. Be sure to sign up for our financial classes before you leave.” Thus the recruitment drive begins.
This certainly isn’t the first minister or financial advisor with a religious agenda I’ve heard talk like this. Joel Osteen has made a whole career and built an entire mega-church on much the same advice. He’s more financial guru than pastor most days. Dave Ramsey doesn’t go quite so far, but his advice definitely has undercurrents of this same message. There are plenty of finance books written from a religious perspective that all espouse this idea that, “If you have a good relationship with God and the church, you will be financially rewarded.”
I’m not about to tell anyone how to pray or what to pray for. That’s between you and your God. But I get aggravated when I see ministers promoting the “You just need to pray harder and give more to the church” approach to personal finance (or anything else, for that matter). Yes, I believe there are, very rarely, miracles where for reasons unknown to us someone in dire need suddenly comes into great wealth. I don’t deny that there are things we cannot explain. And I don’t deny that prayer, however and to whomever you choose to address it, can be a powerful vehicle for understanding yourself and the world around you that can lead you to get your life straightened out.
But I also know that prayer alone won’t solve most people’s financial troubles and I think it’s irresponsible for a minister to make it sound as though all you have to do is pray harder and/or give more money to the church. If it were that easy, wouldn’t we all be rich? We’d all be in church every Sunday, praying hard and giving everything we have. The righteous would have plenty of money and the cheats, cons, and criminals would have none. In practice, however, we all know it doesn’t work that way. There are plenty of good, devoted, church-going people who are poor, and plenty of cheats and crooks (some of whom are ministers or religious leaders themselves) who are rolling in it. If you have financial problems, does it mean that you weren’t good enough, or faithful enough to be deserving? No. It might mean you are being tested or that there is another plan for your life. If you are wealthy, does it mean that you are superior to others in God’s eyes, that you are perfect? Of course not.
What aggravates me most is that this sort of “pray harder, give more” thinking discourages any real action, such as going back to school, getting a better job, or saving money that will lead to a better financial picture regardless of whether your prayers are answered or not. People tend to rest on their prayer. “I’m praying harder,” they say. “It will all be taken care of so I don’t have to do anything.”
In fact, such preachings often encourage irresponsible behavior such as gambling and playing the lottery because people start thinking, “Well, I prayed about it and since praying is all I have to do, then this pull of the slot or this lottery ticket will bring me my fortune.” People may also begin to give more to the church than they can really afford because they think their giving will bring them riches. For people who are already struggling, this puts them further in the hole. It’s good for the church, but bad for the individual.
That’s not to say that this advice is always badly meant or part of a great scam to trick people into giving to the church. There is value in praying about your financial struggles. You might not receive unlimited wealth as a result, but you might gain some insight that leads you to quit your job and start a profitable business, for example. You might tune out the noise in your head long enough to hear or feel what steps you should take now to right your financial ship in the future.
And it’s not to say that you shouldn’t give to the church, if your faith and values lead you to do that. However, you should be wary of giving more than you can afford based on a minister’s promise of great returns. You might not see those returns for many years, if ever, and if you need the money to feed your family today, it would be unwise to bet all of your money on such a promise. Give only what you can afford. I have to believe that God understands that people cannot give limitless amounts, particularly people that are struggling. But if you want to make giving a priority, it might help to pray about your situation and see if you are led to cut back in other, less “ideal” areas such as smoking, drinking, gambling, shopping, etc. in order to free up more money to give.
Prayer, religion, and giving to the church can all be part of a sound overall financial plan that includes both religious faith and secular action. But they should be a part of the plan, not the whole solution. Certainly it’s worthwhile to take your troubles to your God and ask for help. However, solving your financial problems requires some action on your part, as well. You’re going to have to spend less, earn more, save more, or some combination of the three. Go to church if you want to and if it brings you happiness, but don’t fall for a minister’s recruitment drive based on promises of riches.
Maybe it’s telling that our currency says, “In God We Trust,” yet it was Benjamin Franklin (whose picture is on the $100 dollar bill and who was a noted advocate of thrift and frugality) who said, “God helps those who help themselves.”
Image courtesy of kalandrakas