My financial autobiography

Reflecting on our personal habits and attitudes about money and connecting them to biblical and theological wisdom is a critical discipline for Christian leadership, says the Rev. Kevin R. Armstrong.

After preaching a sermon series on biblical wisdom for tough economic times, a friend and occasional critic of theological education asked me, “They didn’t teach you that in seminary, did they?”

“Actually, they did,” I said.

What I didn’t say was the seminary faculty stood alongside earlier teachers and experiences that already had shaped my habits and attitudes toward money. Exposing my financial autobiography to the light of biblical and theological wisdom continues to be a critical and useful discipline for personal growth and pastoral leadership. Indeed, pastors, congregations and Christian institutions need to look back to move ahead, particularly now as the household of faith is asking how to be faithful in household economics.

How do you begin uncovering your financial autobiography? Start by writing down everything your parents told you about money. Go ahead. Try it.

If after a cup of coffee and a long nap your computer screen is still blank, you’re in good company. Most of us can’t remember childhood conversations about money because there were few. In American culture, money is personal, private and emotionally charged. Many of us heard more about politics and sex at the dinner table than we did about money. As one person has told me, “The only thing my parents told me about money was there wasn’t much of it, so don’t expect any.”

As the son of a small-town banker and the student of several Depression-era grade school teachers, I heard a lot of money talk. In fourth grade, we balanced checkbooks in math class. In fifth grade, I opened my first Christmas Club savings account at the local bank. That bank had a “Kid’s Club Window” where children climbed three wooden steps, rang a cowbell and summoned a cheerful teller who received 50 cents or a dollar each week from July to December. A savings account book, not a credit card, was my first exposure to the financial market.

Questions to consider:

  • Growing up, did you think of yourself as rich or poor, or did you even give the question a thought?
  • Was your family more likely to be on the giving or receiving end of money and gifts? How did that make you feel then? How about now?
  • What did your parents tell you about money? If you have children, what are you telling them?
  • What do you remember learning about money at church? Do you talk about money at church today?

In junior high, I helped balance my parents’ checkbook, which my father regarded as a good lesson in family finance and, I later learned, was an even better lesson in household economics. We really spent that much on groceries this month? What’s a mortgage? Does the preacher get to keep all the money we give each week? Why do we leave extra money for the waitress? We’ve got more checks -- why can’t we buy the better baseball mitt? It didn’t take long to learn what was most and least important to our family. Years later I understood exactly what my seminary professor was saying when he described a budget as a moral document.

Not all the money memories are good ones. My parents were generous to a fault. If we went out to eat with friends, my father would snatch the check. Small loans to friends and neighbors seldom were repaid. (It’s habitual, according to a cousin: My grandfather, who operated a service station in the 1960s, died with a cigar box of IOU’s from customers who never got around to paying him for gas or repairs.) A growing pile of medical bills, a job loss and undisciplined generosity ultimately led to family bankruptcy. If it’s more blessed to give than receive, what did it say about us now that we were on the receiving end?

Few of my thoughts and little of my behavior toward money had been shaped explicitly by the church before going to seminary. Like most churchgoers, I heard the occasional “Sermon on the Amount” in October or November. I certainly witnessed remarkable financial generosity on the part of a few, very quiet and mostly elderly saints. But the local bank spoke more eloquently and persuasively about money than the local church. My public school teachers had more to say about spending, saving and sharing than my Sunday School teachers.

How might our home life have turned out differently if our church had frequently and openly shined the light of biblical wisdom on our daily financial practices? As my seminary professors reminded me, economics is rooted in the Greek word oikos, meaning household. And good economics is always about the well-being of the entire household.

In times of indecision or crisis, a congregant may turn to her pastor in addition to a therapist or counselor. A wise and empathetic leader understands the pastor’s particular role at that moment -- to connect our rich biblical and theological traditions with current conditions, to speak plainly and gracefully about brokenness and healing, and to draw on the wisdom and resources of the larger community. That is no different in times of economic crisis. Pastors are not financial planners. But we have a unique role.

We are part of a tradition that knows something about what it means to spend, save and share. We’ve lived through seasons of scarcity and abundance. We’ve got stories about bigger barns and empty pantries. The more clearly we can connect the insights and ideas of our financial journey with these traditions and stories, the more likely others may see themselves as standing among, rather than outside, a community that takes seriously every part of our life and livelihood.