Clergy learn money basics at Financial Leadership Academy

(From left) The Revs. Charles Cole, Lydia Munoz, Daniel Lebo and James McIntire, four of the 25 EPA Conference clergy at the Financial Leadership Academy’s first session, discuss their insights.  John Coleman photo.

Adapted from a story by Melissa Lauber, Communications Director, Baltimore-Washington Conference.

Money has a deep and profound effect on how pastors do the work Christ calls them to do, the Rev. Phil Jamieson told 62 pastors embarking on a two-year learning experience through the Financial Leadership Academy. The way the church thinks about and addresses money will transform its future – for better or for worse.

“You’re at the launching pad of something transformative,” said Jack Brooks, who leads the Mid-Atlantic United Methodist Foundation, which sponsors the Academy. “This is a unique approach to get to change within the church.”

Two dozen of the pastors were from the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, the others mostly from the Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula Delaware conferences.

They each paid $1,125 to participate in six learning sessions taught by financial ministry experts and also regularly scheduled small-group meetings with coach-facilitators. The Foundation underwrote most of the expense for the participants, explained the Rev. Andy Lunt, who serves as Dean of the Academy.

At the first session at Simpson UMC, Wilmington, Del., Jamieson and his wife, Janet, spoke about stewardship and personal finances. Janet, a certified public accountant, helped clergy with complex tax, salary and benefit issues. She also helped them to develop a deeper understanding of stewardship.

Thirty percent of self-identified United Methodists report giving nothing to the church, she said. Sixty percent of contributions given to the church are given by five percent of its members.

“If those who attended United Methodist churches regularly tithed,” she said, “and less committed Christians gave half a tithe, we would be able to generate $133 billion more. You could solve the problems of the world.

“It’s not that we don’t have,” she said, citing more than $2 trillion earned by American churchgoing Christians since 2005. “It’s that we don’t give.”

The Academy’s first session dealt with personal finances and giving issues for pastors because people tend not to follow those who don’t lead by example, Lunt said. “It’s about getting our own houses in order, first,” said Brooks.

When he served at Glen Mar UMC in Ellicott City, Md., before retiring in 2010, Lunt announced each year what his salary was and the precise dollar amount he intended to give to the church. People like being informed and tended to be inspired, he said. Many worked to match his generosity.

Jamieson warned against becoming legalistic about tithing percentages. Rather, people need to realize God has provided them with all they have and need. Giving is a spiritual discipline, and tithing or any giving, he said, is not an end in itself, but a means to a transformed life.

Jamieson urged participants to ponder that if they belong to Christ, how does their giving become a witness to that? “Our giving should reflect God’s giving,” he said.

When working with congregations, asking for 10 percent or some other proportional figure has the danger of becoming legalistic, ignoring the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

Traditionally, both Jamiesons said, only about 35 percent of Americans think they have enough money. Most tend to think their needs could be satisfied if they only earned 20 percent more. But then when they earned that, with fading horizons, they still felt compelled to need more.

Leading people to understand that God is not a vending machine and helping them to give their wallets to God, is not an easy task. However, “the Financial Leadership Academy has the potential to be transformative for participating clergy” and for those they influence, said the Rev. Conrad Link, a Baltimore-Washington Conference superintendent.

The first session challenged participants to understand the theology of money and the “false power” we give money, said Link, “because of the sense of sacredness and secrecy we often imply it has.”

The Rev. Charles Cole, pastor of Downingtown UMC, found the teaching useful and looks forward to future sessions. “This is the kind of positive stuff nobody else is talking about,” he said. “There are a lot of things we can do (to increase giving). Let’s not wring our hands; let’s do something.”

“Money is central to our faith,” Brooks summarized. “Money is a spiritual matter.”

Following the three-day seminar participants were tasked with creating an action plan for their churches and for their own personal finances.  The academy continues in April when financial stewardship expert Cliff Christopher speaks, and in October when strategist Gil Rendle will address the group. Next year, General Secretary of the denomination’s Council on Finance and Administration, Moses Kumar, and Ken Sloan of the General Board of Discipleship are scheduled to teach at the Academy.