To Save or Not to Save?

chicklet-currencyDue to my role as the Eklund Chair of Stewardship at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, students regularly ask me about financial stewardship. Some of the basic advice I always give relates to budgeting, paying off debt, and saving. I am happy to report that many students take my advice and begin the journey of taking control of their finances. This is not just an economic issue, but I believe it is a spiritual one as well.

Unfortunately, the culture often teaches the opposite of what I try to pass along to my students, particularly at a time when many people believe the economy is surging ahead with no end in sight.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the rate of savings among Americans has dropped to a 12-year low. The article states, “Soaring stock prices and improving job prospects have set Americans off on a spending splurge that is cutting into how much they sock away for retirement and rainy days.” As net worth has risen over the last decade, people are spending more of their lifetime savings. This could mean drawing money out of retirement accounts or tapping into their home equity to make purchases.

The net result is that savings has decreased. The WSJ article continues, “The saving rate was 2.4% of disposable household income in December [2017], the Commerce Department said Monday. That was the lowest rate since September 2005, not long after then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan began warning about froth in housing markets. The saving rate had risen to 6.6% when the recession ended in June 2009.”

In my Family and Church Financial Stewardship class last week, we focused on a number of passages from Proverbs that speak about how a wise person should view money. Proverbs 6:6-11 gives us a lesson from the world of insects related to the topic of saving for the future. These verses read:

Go to the ant, O sluggard,
Observe her ways and be wise,
Which, having no chief,
Officer or ruler,
Prepares her food in the summer
And gathers her provision in the harvest.
How long will you lie down, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
“A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to rest”—
Your poverty will come in like a vagabond
And your need like an armed man.

The ant recognizes the need to save for the future when the present is bountiful. We are in a historic time of increase in the stock market, and for many the economic boom holds great promise for the future. However, we have seen booms before and they are typically followed by busts. The question for us is whether we are storing up like the ant or sleeping away these bountiful days like the sluggard. Notice that the sluggard does not see his poverty coming. It hits him like an armed man seeking to steal all he has.

At the same time, we must be careful not to put our trust in the financial resources we may amass during our lives. Jesus tells a parable about a rich fool who trusted his riches rather than the Lord (Luke 12:16-21). Jesus says:

The land of a rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.’” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” So is the man who stores up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

There is a balance to be struck between preparation and abundance. The sluggard of Proverbs 6 did not prepare for the future, but the rich fool of Luke 12 trusted in the abundance of his riches. We must pursue wisdom in discovering where the balance is between these two examples. Both refusing to save for the future storing up treasures on earth are foolish. I pray we pursue contentment between these two extremes.

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Harriet Torry, “With Stocks Surging, Americans Are Saving at 12-Year Low,” The Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2018.

Preparing for a Financial Emergency

chicklet-currencyToday is the first day of classes for the spring semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is my twenty-third convocation and the start of my twelfth year at SWBTS. For the last few years I have taught Family and Church Financial Stewardship each spring semester. This class has quickly become one of my favorites because I get to see the lives of my students impacted almost every week. This is not my typical seminary class. There is no research paper. I use a number of guest speakers. The newspaper is one of my textbooks. However, it is probably the most practical course I teach.

One of the assignments I require for Family and Church Financial Stewardship is a quick review of a couple news articles each week that address financial issues. This requires my students to stay up to date on the news beyond yesterday’s basketball scores or any recent developments at the White House. I want them to be aware of the financial side of the news. We even talk about some of these articles on a regular basis.

In order to practice what I preach, I just came across an article from CNN Money this morning that states most Americans would be unable to cover an emergency expense of $1,000. Kathryn Vasel reports, “Only 39% of Americans say they would be able to pay for a $1,000 unplanned expense, according to new report from Bankrate.”

The article goes on to report how often American households have these emergency expenses. Vasel writes, “Unexpected bills aren’t uncommon. More than one-third of households had a major unplanned expense last year, the survey showed, with half of those costing at least $2,500.” Unfortunately, the typical American household is unprepared for such an expense and places it on the credit card. Such an approach only complicates matters because high interest rates on credit cards mean you pay even more for this unexpected expense.

The article suggests a few practical tips for building your savings in order to cover an emergency expense.

  1. Set aside money to save before you start spending your paycheck.
  2. Start the habit of saving early in life.
  3. Separate your emergency fund from the money you spend in your checking account.
  4. Find a good savings account.

Seminary students are not immune to these same problems.We joke around the seminary that students are as poor as Job’s turkey (I’m not sure how poor Job’s trukey was, but after the events of Job 1-2, it must have been rough). I surmise that the figure is actually worse among seminary students regarding their ability to cover a $1,000 expense in an emergency. And then students begin a cycle of debt that can cripple their future ministries.

My goal in the stewardship class is to give students hope for their financial future and tools to help them be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to them. This is not a class about getting rich. It is a class about serving God with our financial resources. God owns it all anyway, so we are simply managers of his resources.

The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains,
The world, and those who dwell in it.
Psalm 24:1

Family and Church Financial Stewardship

Stewardship Class PromoEven though I have spent most of my academic career teaching courses on ethics, one of my favorite courses that I teach is actually in the realm of stewardship. STWLD 3603: Family and Church Financial Stewardship is a fun class to teach because I get to see my students implement the concepts they are learning on a weekly basis.

As you can tell by the title, the course covers two major areas of financial stewardship–the family and the church. In the first half of the class, we consider what the Bible says about financial stewardship and how to apply those truths to our lives. We also handle some of the unique components of financial management for ministers including housing allowance and ministerial taxes.

The most practical assignment for this section of the class is the family budget analysis. Students are required to track every expense for two months, categorize those expenses, and then analyze their expenses. This is the first step to building a workable budget. Many of my students have never tracked and analyzed their expenses, so this is the first time they get a clear picture of how they use their money. Students are regularly surprised by what they find and begin making changes immediately.

When we transition to the part of the class on church financial stewardship, the focus is on how to build a church budget and how to protect the church’s money. New seminary graduates often do not have the luxury of going to churches with multiple staff members where someone takes care of the finances. In most cases, the new pastor also has responsibility of managing the budget with the assistance of a volunteer committee. For that reason, it is imperative that they learn how to budget for the church.

In addition, protecting the church’s money is also a crucial element. I once heard a friend of mine who is a church administrator say, “If you serve at a church that collects money, someone is trying to steal it.” The longer I have been around churches, the more I realize he is correct. Whether it is someone taking coins out of the soda machine or a staff member embezzling millions of dollars, the reality is that our churches’ money is vulnerable. Therefore, we need policies in place to help protect money and promote integrity in the handling of money.

As you can see, this class covers a wide range of topics related to financial stewardship. My students are also thankful that they do not have to listen to just me for the semester. This semester’s guests include John Cortines, co-author of God and Money (one of our textbooks), Stephen Osborne, senior relationship manager at Guidestone Financial Resources, and David Hain, executive pastor at Birchman Baptist Church.

I encourage as many students as possible at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to take this class. The class is offered on Tuesday/Thursday at 1:00-2:15 this semester. I also just received approval to offer it in our flexible access format so that students can take it without being on campus. If you are interested in the class, please contact the Registrar’s Office.