Public discussion of personal finances

No sooner had 29-year-old Graham Messier joined a small group at his church earlier this year than he found himself breaking an American taboo: Talking about how much he earns, and where it all goes.

Others in the group did likewise as they kicked off an eight-week program called Lazarus at the Gate. The curriculum is aimed at reconciling personal finances with Christian rhetoric about economic justice. It's countercultural, they said, but it works.

By the eighth meeting, Messier's group had raised $1,800 for three non-profits simply by cutting back on gourmet coffees, dining out and other non-essentials. Talking about household budgets isn't "the most comfortable thing in the world," Messier said. "But talking as Christians about the reality of our money situations should be more of a focus than it is generally if we're going to be real about loving, giving to the poor and taking care of our fellow man."

Since inception in 2006, the Lazarus at the Gate curriculum has guided some 400 people in more than 30 groups to give away a total of $200,000. Using the biblical story of poor Lazarus seeking help at a rich man's gate, the program teaches participants that ordinary Americans rank among the world's richest five percent - and that a few dollars go a lot farther in the developing world than they do at their local Starbucks.

What began as a Boston-based pilot has grown into an open-source curriculum. The ecumenical Boston Faith and Justice Network shares Lazarus materials upon request with college groups and churches in other regions and countries.

The Boston group recently received funding from Episcopal City Mission and the Presbyterian Hunger Program to encourage the curriculum's use in their respective denominations. For small groups in U.S. churches, intimate sharing is familiar terrain, but few go so far as to probe spending practices. This "special kind of discipleship" is rare, in part, because it entails true vulnerability and people often don't want to "disclose family secrets," according to Max Stackhouse, a retired Princeton Theological Seminary theologian and co-editor of the book, "On Moral Business."

Discomfort notwithstanding, Lazarus has proven a compelling challenge in various religious sectors, appealing to both evangelicals and mainline Protestants, according to Ryan Scott McDonnell, executive director of the Boston Faith and Justice Network. College students seem especially interested since Lazarus campus groups have attracted interest from non-Christians who sense a portion of their money could be used in better ways for greater impact.

"People are looking for a framework for social justice or something, and they have a hunger for it in their heart, and they don't know how to articulate it or interpret it," said Mako Nagasawa, co-author of the Lazarus curriculum and an advisor to the Asian Christian Fellowship group at Boston College. "We want to say it comes from being made in the image of God and being redeemed by Jesus."

As a Lazarus group gets started, participants share household budgets with the assurance that others won't judge them or break confidentiality. Subsequent meetings place those budgets in larger contexts. Participants explain how money was (or wasn't) discussed at home during their childhoods. Together, they unpack biblical passages that address money and responsibilities.

Would you be comfortable discussing personal finances in a small-group setting? Would sharing your economic decisions make you more accountable in your Christian walk, or should this area of faith life remain private?

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It all depends on the group. If I trust the people in my small group, I can share this kind of detail. But it would still be hard if there were much economic diversity in the room. Describing our spending habits with an average family income to someone who struggles to pay bills with twice our income or half our income would be difficult. I can imagine resentments rising up very quickly.

I agree with goodword that this could cause resentment and could be difficult in certain groups or with certain people, but if everyone in the group agreed to discuss the issue honestly, I’d go for it.  I really liked this article, and would love to see something like this at my church.  I’ve noticed myself spending less and less on me over the last year, then trying to give little bits to ministries that have been inspirational to me.  I’m not talking about large sums, but more like 10 bucks every couple of weeks to places that I had never given to in the past.  It’s been a great feeling for me, and I’d like to see myself doing it more and with larger sums in the future.

I wonder if that resentment might not be healthy, in the long run.
I’d link this discussion to the one below by Bethany, where she talks about which denominations have more poverty and about the importance of economic diversity in the Church; if the local church doesn’t contain those who are long-term unemployed, struggling to get by, undocumented immigrants, or others who are looking down the business end of the Howitzer that is this economy, then in what sense can the Gospel be said to be “good news for the poor”?

Those who make half as much or twice as much as you do might begin to fairly ask what exactly it is about their work and their effort, that makes it worth half as much or twice as much as yours. The unemployed person might begin to fairly ask what exactly it is about the system we live in that deems his or her labor unworthy of compensation while yours is deemed worthy—or, if you’re unemployed, those who do have work might begin to fairly ask what it is about the system that deems their labor worthy of compensation while yours apparently isn’t. 

They might begin to ask if the way our economy assigns value to labor is a fair or equitable one—and, more importantly, whether the standards by which our economy assigns value to labor are moral or Godly standards, whether they are in line with God’s crystal-clear position standing with the poor and oppressed. 

As Christians who believe the Scripture, they might look at the way our economy assigns value to labor and ask what the consequences are if we take seriously the idea that God will judge the nations—and what the consequences are for us personally and corporately in the Church if we take Matthew 25 seriously and believe that God will judge us based on what we did for “the least of these.”

Discussions of micro-level wealth inequality could trigger questions about macro-level wealth inequality. Is our economy serving the people, or are the people serving the economy? Who is our economic system set up to benefit, and who is it set up to detriment or oppress? 

Why is it that the CEO’s 40-60 hours per week sitting at his or her desk are worth millions or billions of dollars in wages, stock options, bonuses, etc., while the 40-60 hours per week of actual labor from the person who cleans the CEO’s office at night doesn’t even merit enough money to support a family on, basic health benefits, or a pension? 

And what is the Church’s witness in this? What can the Church say about what is one of the crucial moral issues of our time? How can the church prophetically call the wealthy to forego their wealth, give it to the poor, and take massive income cuts in order to more fairly compensate those who work for them or their businesses? What hope can the Church give to those who are being oppressed by the wealthy’s economic system? How can the Church call political and societal leaders to put in place policies and social norms that benefit the poor instead of lining the pockets of the rich—and what consequences can the Church create for them if they continue to work in favor of the rich instead of the poor?

In short, if discussed in a loving, open, honest way, I think the potential for resentment created by the inequality of wealth within a small group or a church could spur a group or church to get serious about the crucial moral question of wealth inequality in our society. And right now, our society desperately needs the Church to witness to God’s position on that issue.

Thanks for making the connection to Bethany’s earlier post James. For those interested, here is a link to it:

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s:   the govt. stamp is on our money; we live in a society; there are economic/social claims and requirements upon citizens of any land. Nothing is truly “ours”—-prosperity or lack of it is tied as much to opportunity as it is to effort.
Render unto God that which is God’s:  God’s stamp—-his image, his seal of our baptism, is on us, with all his claims and requirements of us.  We are not our own, but belong body and soul to him.
In either rendering, we wish to remain the individual, independent, focused more on our sense of “rights” v. needs of neighbor, stranger, society, humanity.
We begrudge what living in a society asks/requires of us, we begrudge being asked to seek justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly, by the one who made us—-especially if it involves money.

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