Financial stress can quickly slip into financial anxiety, as Christian counselor Jeremy Lelek has seen in his practice. Communication, relationships, and transparency can dry up before couples realize it.
“As people are recognizing the reality of financial strain, it’s obviously increased stress in their lives,” he says. “[There is] a lot of discouragement, a lot of depression, a lot of anxiety as a result of the financial situation that we’re facing right now.”
And the solution to financial anxiety requires more than a sermon.
“What does it mean to be anxious? That means I’m anticipating a negative outcome. That’s why we have to change our whole mindset,” says Deborah Pegues, author of “Financial Survival in Uncertain Times.”
Pegues and Lelek agree that financial peace depends on much more than the state of the economy or personal finances.
The road to peace in the midst of economic anxiety can be a long one, but everyone can take the first steps to develop a practical, faith-filled response.
Step One: Recognizing Denial
“The truth hurts and we don’t want to face that truth,” says Pegues
Denial can easily become the de facto choice because of financial illiteracy, entrenched habits, and mounds of debt. So for some, the first step is simply recognizing how much you don’t know.
Until job loss forces people to take a look, Pegues say, it’s easy to ignore potential problems. Afterwards, when the panic has set in, it’s almost too late.
Taking a couple hours now to assess living expenses and basic financial responsibilities can prepare you emotionally as well as financially. Even though honest assessment can be humbling, the process can reduce uncertainty and help people strategize.
“It’s almost easier to shut your eyes to all the practicals and say, ‘I’m just going to trust God!’, put your fingers in your ears, hum a happy song and try to trust God in the middle of this,” says Pastor Ken Delage of Kingsway Community Church in Midlothian, Va.
“For me, the hardest place to be is engaged with the details, seeing really what’s going on, and trusting God at the same time,” he says.
To combat denial – and fear – Kingsway hosted Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University for its congregation and the surrounding community. The financial classes allow people to brush up on their personal finance knowledge, but also encourage the viewpoint of “stewardship” instead of “ownership.”
The church leadership discovered that the class not only helped people steward their resources better, but the classes also gave them a greater sense of community.
“[T]his has brought fellowship into a new arena of finances,” Delage said. “Because finances tend to be fairly private, even in a church that has a high value on being open and being real genuine with each other.”
Step Tw Resisting Isolation
Once people face up to their financial situation, Pegues says, the pendulum can swing in the opposite direction: penny-pinching withdrawal.
The restaurant and recreation industry have taken a hit in the last few months as people have significantly cut back on the number of times a week they go out. The problem, Pegues notes, is that cutting back on the food and entertainment budget has some unintended consequences.
“The interesting thing about the crisis it that it has caused some of us to stop fellowshipping and interacting with people because we say, ‘I can’t afford it,’” Pegues says. “Well, do you really have to meet for breakfast? Why don’t you just meet for a walk? And still have the fellowship?”
Being open about your circumstances instead of withdrawing can open the door for encouragement, and cultivates a communal willingness to be honest in financial struggles. And, as Pegues notes, letting those needs be known can be the very thing that allows someone else to step in with help.
“Sometimes the church has been an expert at hiding when we’re struggling. But I do a see a change and a trend in the church where we’re being more and more open with our struggles, which is a good thing,” Lelek said.
Financial seminars like those offered by Dave Ramsey or Crown Financial can help open the conversations, Lelek said, helping people see the universality of their financial troubles or lack of financial grounding. In a sense, these classes are group counseling sessions applied to finances.
“There’s a sense of camaraderie. There’s a sense of support just from being able to rub shoulders with those who are struggling just like you are,” he said.
For Kingsway, discovering that one family’s problems were shared by another only encouraged the church fellowship.
“The conversations are nonstop. When two folks are together from Kingsway who are going to this class, that’s what you’ll hear them talking about,” Delage said. People realize that “this is a church full of people like me in finances. And we’re not all superstars… we’re all struggling through this together.”
Step Three: Deciding to Look Outward
Financially-triggered anxiety and depression are all “episodes where we just sort of implode on ourselves. We get consumed with our own circumstances.” Lelek says. Once people have assessed their situation, they need to quit dwelling on it and look beyond their own circumstances.
As head of the Association of Biblical Counselors, Lelek encourages people to get up and get out. For counselors, this means might mean volunteering with a client to broaden their perspective. For individuals, it means staying involved in the local church and with their neighbors, watching for their needs. Volunteering a homeless shelter or other ministry fills up time once spent in more costly pursuits, while keeping feelings of entitlement at bay.
“I don’t think this is a time to be so selfish that we say I’m going to meet my needs and nobody else’s because I’m going to think about me,” Pegues said.
Continuing to give – with time, finances, and relationships – to the local church and community helps keep the focus off your problems and on your blessings, she said.
“When you talk about the famines in the Bible – the economic downturns – people were blessed when they gave in the famine. Like the woman who fed Elijah,” Pegues said.
The call to give should be lived out whatever the economy looks like, Lelek notes, but Christians get a special opportunity to reprioritize during tough times.
“Financial strain cannot stop us from living out the commands that we as Christians are called to live out, which is to love God and neighbor,” he said. Nothing can restrain us from that except from our decision not to do it.”
Step Four: Changing Assumptions
Most of all, Pegues says, people need to get rid of preconceived notions about wealth. Otherwise, that unwillingness to change will let old attitudes creep back in.
“It’s not, ‘Woe is me I’m so used to all this stuff,’” Pegues she said. “It’s like, “Hey you know what this is a new season, we’re freeing up. We’re throwing things overboard that we don’t need. We’re going to be free now!’”
That attitude change toward “stuff” necessarily includes changes in big spending habits. But questions needs to go much deeper, says economist Dr. John Stapleford, and reassess common American assumptions about work.
Today, retirees aim for years of a second childhood of sorts, including a trip to Europe, and ample time for hobbies– all assuming they’ll live the same upper-middle class lifestyle they did before retirement. Stapleford, author of “Bulls, Bears and Golden Calves,” points out that this cultural norm has only materialized in the last two generations.
In contrast, those who lived during the Great Depression assumed they would work as long as they were able.
“That’s the way it was. Our expectations have changed so significantly.”
Stapleford points to the thousands of Christians around the world who live a subsistence life and face persecution. “Does it make sense to have jetskis and so forth when you’ve got people all over the world who are Christians and living in just terrible distress and dying of hunger?”
That open-handed attitude towards finances reinforces the crucial point – “that we don’t own anything,” Pegues says.
“We’re just managing God’s resources. Now more than ever we’ve got to have that mindset.”
Published on May 5, 2009