Diocesan Pathways to Vitality Conference Explores Financial Integrity

Comedian Peter Dunn and the Rev. Rick Foss, a former ELCA Lutheran bishop of Eastern North Dakota, spoke bluntly—as well as with humor—about financial integrity in families and congregations when they opened the Pathways to Vitality conference Saturday, April 16.

The two main speakers identified key issues about honesty and money, and entertained about 200 lay and clergy leaders representing all the diocese’s congregations at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Peter Dunn (also known as Pete the Planner) revealed that financial wellness begins at home and identified behavior—not money—as the best way to talk about budget health.

“Crossed fingers are the No. 1 financial strategy in America, but hope is an awful planning strategy,” Dunn said. Literacy and wellness are essential components of sound money practices, and knowing how to use your financial products is at the root.

Dunn’s humorous example about knowing the details of your financial life versus knowing how to behave with your money is that 91 percent of Americans check their checking account balance at work.

“At the heart of this problem is ‘presenteeism’. This is a loss of productivity (that is very serious), when your mind is somewhere else,” he said.

Another hard reality of Americans’ financial behavior is that 11 percent of workers have garnishments for their debts, and too many workers “push the raise envelope”—because they don’t live under their means, they spend the difference between their old wages and new wages, instead of saving that money.

The No. 1 reason to spend beneath your means, Dunn said, is to retire. He spoke of a three-legged stool of financial wellness in retirement being savings, social security and expenses.

He pointed out that eliminating expenses—living beneath your means—is an important now behavior that impacts how you can live later in retirement.

On the subject of behavior, Dunn pointed to his own household. When he was a newlywed “our first household budget meeting was about a month after we were married.” His wife noted that he ate about 20 meals at Panera restaurant the previous month and used his debit card. “Yes, that’s true, I said” and he promised to never do that again.

He spun this story into his philosophy about how Americans spend money:

A disconnect exists between spending behaviors and sources of money, he said. In American households “the average number of expenditures per week is about 22” for daily necessities and should be from 10 to 14 a week. “If chips are one of your transactions, you’re in trouble.”

And finally, Dunn said that the goal of working to retirement with enough money to live on is being threatened by another dangerous behavior—the PLUS Loan (college loans taken out by parents for their children). “This will be the headline you see for the next 60 months.”

Student debt was a main topic of the Rev. Foss, who has been hired by the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment to coordinate programs within the Endowment’s national initiative to address economic challenges facing pastoral leaders.

The Rev. Foss drew a picture of student loan debt that is very serious, noting that effective leadership is impossible among those recently ordained clergy with very high debt.  High debt pre-occupies clergy and keeps them from focusing on their leadership in the parish.

“Vitality has nothing to do with size, but there were healthy and unhealthy congregations” when he was a Lutheran bishop.  He noted that some pastors in his congregations had personal financial difficulties that made them unable to lead because they were focused on their own problems.

He said that clergy as a group are motivated to help others, and have high integrity, but they have poor financial skills and savvy when they feel like they should be on top of it “and feel like I can’t lead or help myself, and are ashamed”.

Previously in the program, Canon Bruce Gray noted that 50 percent of clergy have student loan debt when they leave seminary.

Many newly-ordained clergy leave the ministry after five years if they have $30,000 or more in student debt, Gray said. Canon Gray said that in today’s church a third of clergy can’t afford to tithe, and this brings shame and sorrow that they can’t talk about with parish leadership.

Clergy financial wellbeing equals vital congregations, so authentic communications about possibilities become the focus of congregations, he said. The goal is “to lift the veil of silence surrounding money so we can all share in the generosity of God.”

The Pathways to Vitality conference was made possible by a grant from Lilly Endowment’s National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders. The $798,500 grant will fund a variety of new and existing financial literacy programs in the diocese designed to enhance ministerial innovation, vitality and sustainability in our congregations.

The Diocese of Indianapolis will

  • enhance existing financial literacy programs and services for clergy and lay leaders;
  • enhance congregational innovation, vitality and sustainability; and
  • establish the ministerial excellence fund to provide financial support to clergy.

A fourth component has established a $50,000 budget to support the relationship building work of the new bishop and successfully launch the new Episcopate in 2017.