Too often money is sidelined in our discussions of ministry. We forget that money is a pivotal part of our daily lives. Unfortunately, because money is seen as such a private affair, not only is money spoken of rarely in the church with respect to our collective financial lives; but also many ministers are hesitant, even reluctant, to speak up about their own money issues.
The truth is that theological education can be a debt-saturated affair, with little hope of an earning potential that will alleviate the struggles produced by large amounts of debt. In addition, people of all stripes–ministers and lay persons alike–are susceptible to the gravity of poor financial decisions and habits plunging them further into the cycle of debt.
Thankfully, I was supported richly by the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) in my theological education, and so I do not know what it is like to be struggling to find a call under the weight of immense personal education debt (and little hope of a high paying career). However, I do know what it is like to be under tremendous financial pressure. My wife is a professional student whose debt load is almost unfathomable. Her earning potential makes that debt seem less daunting. Still, we are discovering just how crippling the reality of debt can be. But we are also aware of how we can respond faithfully and responsibly to that reality with our financial decisions and habits. Budgeting is a must. Sacrificing certain goods is called for. Organizing our lives around certain priorities requires setting limitations for other aspects of life we might also enjoy but cannot stretch ourselves to experience at this point in time.
It seems we need to lift these issues to the surface, struggling against some pervasive taboos about money and begin seeing the intimate connection between our financial lives and our ministries. Ministers anxious about debt are not ministering to their fullest. Maybe equally pressing, we need to see the way that we can imagine and live into financial ministries. Not only are resources, almost always including money, needed for ministry, but also ministry is needed for money. We need to turn theological attention and resources toward our personal and collective money predicaments and practices.
Thankfully, for ministers in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), there is a new ministry aimed at those who are burdened and maybe drowning in debt. In response to a recent call for debt-free living from the general assembly, the Jubilee Fund was established to help ministers who feel they have no way out. I can only imagine how debt-free living* might transform the way ministers can truly minister.
The truth is that we all need to be more intentional about the spiritual and theological implications of our financial habits and situations. What might it mean for us if we pursued lives that responsibly reduced our debt? What might it mean if we worked with others so that they could free themselves from the crushing weight of the debt cycle? Can we recapture and reimagine the spirit of Jubilee, that ancient spirit of joy that rejoiced in newly found freedom (see Exodus 21: 2-6 and Deuteronomy 15:1-6) ?
*by “debt-free living” I mean more than being debt-free. I mean enacting intentional, purposeful financial practices that avoid the entrapments of disastrous debt and channel funds into what matters most for our well-being. This is why the Jubilee fund not only offers financial assistance with respect to funds, but also builds financial counseling and advising into its ministry in an attempt to enhance and transform lives (not just bank accounts)