“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)
The Rev. Lisa Cressman, an Episcopal priest and the Founding Steward of Backstory Preaching, recently wrote an article for the Center for Stewardship Leaders at Luther Seminary titled, “How Our Failure to Address the “M” Word Damages More Than Budgets.”
With stewardship season fast approaching and knowing many preachers feel uncomfortable talking about money, Lisa wanted to know why. Why does preaching about money — or talking about money in just about any context — make us squirm with awkwardness? Here’s what she concluded:
When did talking about money become taboo?
Interestingly, while talking about money may be taboo for you and me, it isn’t off limits for everyone everywhere, because talking about money—or avoiding it—is culturally specific.
For example, in some cultures talking about money is seen as genuinely helpful, and not discussing it is rude. If I’m paying a higher price for rent than you are, or I paid less than you did for a car, it’s polite to talk about it so we can both pay what’s fair. In the United States, especially among the middle class, it seems we inherited the taboo of talking about money from early American colonizers from England.
In England, the wealth of others was easily estimated based on the amount of land one owned and all it required to build up and maintain it. A person’s wealth, and the status, power, and prestige it implied, was self-evident. People who had money didn’t need to talk about it. Therefore, those who talked about money were the ones who didn’t have it.
And thus, the discussion of money was associated with those in a “lower class.”
To oversimplify hundreds of years of social development, to be “classy” (meaning to be polite, genteel, respectable) meant not talking about money—and so our social norm was established.
What is the cost of avoiding the “M” word?
Think about how much time, emotional energy, and relational labor is spent worrying about money in the life of your average congregation member. Practically speaking, this taboo around money talk traps people in ignorance, stress, and scarcity:
- financial illiteracy leads to uninformed consent when we sign on the dotted line, leading to unwelcome surprises when the bills come due
- as a country, we continue to amass the greatest amountof personal debt in the history of the world
- financial distress is a factor correlated with domestic violence
- immense unnecessary stress occurs when the spouse who managed the finances dies without leaving a trail of bread crumbs to the family’s bank (or the computer passwords to the online accounts)
- college grads amass student loan debtwithout calculating whether a chosen profession provides an adequate salary to pay it off
- women and minorities continue to experience injustice in pay equity because ignorance of what others are paid makes it impossible to know if they’re paid the same
What we gain by breaking the silence?
Money itself is amoral—neither evil nor good. But our perspective toward it can make it decidedly corrupt or benevolent. As Stewardship leaders, we have a responsibility to disrupt the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture of silence around money to cast a sacred vision for money.
When we avoid discussions of money, we forfeit an opportunity to free people from the anxiety or shame of financial distress. Here are some of the ways we might do that:
- promote justice for our lesser-paid colleagues by advocating they receive the same pay we earn for the same work
- teach financial literacy—beginning with our kids so they learn sound financial decision-making skills
- focus on the joy of living well within one’s means with enough left over to give to those in need
- learn the virtue of patience, which is so often missed with every purchase we pay interest on
- provide dignity and respect to our loved ones after we die by sharing with them the amounts and locations of our assets and debts
- experience joyful financial giving because we no longer care whether we are “keeping up with the Joneses.”
During this season of Stewardship, find ways to truly talk about money, not in terms of scarcity, but in terms of abundance. What does your budget say about your mission and ministry? How can you free your congregation to share their own financial stories and how it impacts their ability to freely give?
Associate for Stewardship for the Presbytery of the James