Steps to Dousing the Bonfire of Personal Debt

Dousing the Bonfire of Personal DebtBy Ray Waddle

(UMCom) -- The mounting bonfire of consumer debt in America, like a roaring shrine to the god of personal possessions, is swallowing up savings accounts and peace of mind.

Ken and Deborah Stein finally got tired of it.

The Steins, members of Belle Meade United Methodist Church in Nashville, had debts of $6,000 or so when they decided enough was enough. They took a debt-reduction class at church and turned their values upside down: They made their tithe to the church a new priority, the first check they write each month.

Life suddenly looked different. God moved closer to the center of their spending decisions. Instead of panic, things fell into place. It took some hard work, but the couple reduced their consumer debt to zero in six months.

“It makes you face your priorities. Everything belongs to God. We are stewards. That means we don’t own any of it. It’s when people think it all belongs to them, that’s when things get messed up.”
“That’s when things started getting in line, when you pay that first 10 percent to God,” Ken Stein says. “It makes you face your priorities. Everything belongs to God. We are stewards. That means we don’t own any of it. It’s when people think it all belongs to them, that’s when things get messed up.”

Many ministers are reluctant to preach about debt. They don’t want to lay on the guilt. Sometimes they have debts of their own, notably student loans from seminary days, and they feel hypocritical to condemn it in others.

But by one estimate, consumer debt is hovering at $2 trillion and growing. That’s an average of $19,000 per household. It includes car payments, credit card bills, student loans, and mountains of interest (consumer debt does not include home mortgages). It causes family strains, anxiety and, not least, headaches for churches if worshipers have nothing left over for the collection plate.

Now voices in the United Methodist Church are rising to douse the fire of debt and get it under control. They want to send a counter-message to a frantic culture of easy credit and 24/7 consumerism. It’s a simple mix of practical advice and biblical wisdom, founded on the spiritual truth that one who loves money will never have enough. Twenty-first Century Christian stewardship means the practice of love of God, not cash.

“Money has this godlike power to it,” says the Rev. David Bell, director of stewardship at the denomination’s General Board of Discipleship in Nashville.

“It makes us think we’re in control and we have the power, when in reality everything is a gift from God. It’s interesting that Jesus talked about money and possessions four times more than about the two other hot topics -- faith and prayer.”

Bell knows it’s not easy. We live with the myth that debt is expected and unavoidable, he says. He lists two other consumer myths: “Things buy happiness,” and, “A little more money will solve our problems.”

“U.S. consumer borrowing is at an all-time high,” he says. “But ultimately those possessions are not going to fulfill our deepest needs. Jesus’ teachings call us to help people discover the gift of generous giving.”

This year (2004), a pilot program in the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference will be introduced that could become a model for the church nationally. It’s a personal budget action plan to help individuals reduce debt based on biblical principles. It suggests ways to record actual spending, consolidate debts, rearrange spending priorities, and strengthen relationship with God by teaching the power of cheerful giving. It aims to demystify the obsession with personal possessions, clarify what real need is, and say farewell to impulse buying.

“The line between need and want has changed dramatically,” says Fred Leasure of the United Methodist Foundation for Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference.

"The point is to remember who owns everything and where it comes from, not, ‘I deserve a new Lexus today because I’ve been a good boy.’ ”
“The point is to remember who owns everything and where it comes from, not, ‘I deserve a new Lexus today because I’ve been a good boy.’ ”

Organizers say the issue of consumer debt has been long neglected by much of institutional religion, though some churches do sponsor debt-reduction classes, like popular author Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University.” That’s what the Steins used more than a year ago to help put their financial house in order.

And some ministers do preach on the sensitive subject of debt. In one of the richest counties in America, Williamson County in Tennessee, the Rev. Tom Gildemeister uses the pulpit to confront the god of money.

“Most people are convinced that their lives are finally going to get right if they just buy the next new thing,” says Gildemeister, minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin.

“Our culture is saying, if it’s not new, it’s no good, and if you don’t have it, you’re no good. But our relationship to material goods has a lot to say about our relationship to God. Jesus didn’t want us all to be poor. He wanted us to be free.”

Ray Waddle, author of the new book A Turbulent Peace: The Psalms for Our Time (Upper Room Books), is a writer in Nashville.

This article was developed by United Methodist Communications.



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