April 27, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part one of two on managing stress triggered by finances.
Plenty of Americans are lying awake at night when they used to sleep soundly. The dreaded words “foreclosure,” “job loss,” and even “budget” keep popping in uninvited, due to 24/7 media attention. All the while, stress and anxiety keep building.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone in your economic “depression.”
“We’re susceptible to letting all existence sort of shrink down to this financial problem, so that everything we’re doing throughout the day is sort of shaped by how bad things are financially,” says Jeremy Lelek, president of the Association of Biblical Counselors. “We’re all susceptible to caving in like that.”
Lelek, who often counsels couples embroiled in financial troubles, has seen a noticeable spike in family stress due to money problems or job loss, even though most of his clients are Christians.
Other groups such as the American Psychology Association (APA) back up his experiences. By the end of last year, 80 percent of Americans included money and the economy as their top sources of stress. That stress spills into other areas, including relationships, communication, and general well-being. Historically, it’s a short jump from more stressed people to more depressed people.
Opposite reactions denial or sudden stinginess leave people unprepared, isolated, and self-focused. Even moderate responses can jolt people from ignorance into consuming worry and second-guessing.
Economist Dr. John Stapleford, author of “Bulls, Bears, and Golden Calves,” says Americans now face a day of reckoning for the “casual” attitude they learned during the real estate boom, when buying another house was so easy that many people didn’t read the fine print. “People weren’t financially astute enough to realize that there were hidden agendas there.”
Though people realize they need to change their spending habits, he says, the “financial literacy curve” is overwhelmingly steep.
Escaping financial stress – and other problems it can trigger – requires more than one solution, Lelek says. The monetary strain can be alleviated through practical tools and training, and provide some relief. But because such tools don’t change the overall economy, Lelek says, people remain vulnerable to renewed anxiety with every rise and plunge of the stock market.
“It basically builds a prison around themselves… until that [the economy] changes, they’re going to remain hopeless,” he says. As such, real freedom requires a complete perspective shift. “It can be a very fertile time to reexamine hearts and lives and who we really are.”
As the economic doldrums continue, a growing number of people are finding this combination of financial help mixed with fresh perspective in an odd place – their local churches.
“The more we can introduce people to these very, very basic ideas and things to look out for, things to be careful of – as long as it doesn’t become a fixation with becoming wealthy – if the objective is to live a better life of Christian stewardship, then that’s terrific,” says Stapleford.
For Ken Delage, a pastor with Sovereign Grace Ministries, the needs became clearer as the summer of 2008 wore on and the economy began to crumble.
“A lot of sermons can tend to be more theoretical or less practical – more based on biblical principles, as they should be,” says Delage, who was a pastoral intern at Kingsway Community Church in Midlothian, Va., at the time. “But there is a need to really get into the nitty gritty of how do we make this work.”
Kingsway joined a growing number of churches offering personal finance courses like those offered by Dave Ramsey and Crown Financial, fitting the once-private arena of personal finance into the broader context of Christian stewardship and God’s provision.
Both ministries have seen interest spike since last fall, and the number of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University classes have doubled since 2007. Classes cover everything from basic budgeting to debt elimination to mutual funds, but place a special emphasis on reminding participants that true freedom comes from God alone.
For Kingsway, the Financial Peace University program turned into an outreach to the community as well as its own congregation.
“Coming in Wednesday night to a financial class, it’s just not as intimidating” as walking into church on a Sunday morning, Delage observes. “I’ve had several folks come up to me just cause I’m kind of the face of it, up there in the evenings welcoming people, just expressing real thanks for us doing this as a church. And those are folks that don’t go to Kingsway.”
Class participants will notice a decidedly different starting point from run-of-the-mill financial advise – the goal isn’t to make you wealthy. Every program points people to stewardship, not wealth, as a way to honor God, who creates all wealth.
“Folks could tend to look at Financial Peace a life ring – ‘Oh good! This is going to save me!’” Delage says. “No, God’s going to save you.”
Interested in learning more? Part two of this articles examines specific responses – and corrections – to watch in responding to financial troubles. Stay tuned!