Mikestrathdee’s Blog

On autonomy and community
March 1, 2016, 9:29 pm
Filed under: Communication, Financial Management, Generosity, stewardship, Theology

Published Feb. 24, 2016 in Canadian Mennonite magazine

Feb 24, 2016 | Volume 20 Issue 5

“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. . . . The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip” (Genesis 32:24-25, 31).

Dutch pastor Wieteke van der Molen used this text for a Friday evening message at the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Harrisburg, Pa., last July. Out of many good sermons that week, her message, “On autonomy and community,” struck the deepest chord for me. (The entire message is available online at pa2015.mwc-cmm.org.

We are all part of a community, van der Molen noted, be it a family, tribe, school, workplace or church. Some of us are members of multiple communities. Community feeds us, nurtures us and teaches us right from wrong, she said. To be human is to be part of community; we cannot survive alone.

We also crave autonomy, to have control over what concerns us. We want to make our own decisions, to be and do our best. There is a major tension between these important truths.

The struggle was ever thus, even in Old Testament times. As we read in Genesis, Jacob believed that he came first, always. He swindled his brother, deceived his father and so on. But living by your own set of rules and living in community do not go well together. After wrestling with the angel, Jacob struggled with the people around him, with God and with himself.

Autonomy, van der Molen argues, means that you are your own judge, but you have to figure it all out by yourself. Jacob’s story teaches us that it is not wrong to seek our own way, but we need to recognize the community around us, acknowledging the pain, hurt and frustration on both sides.

Modern, grown-up autonomy doesn’t come easy. When we act like Jacob did, wrestling with God, community and self, van der Molen has this warning: “Even if you win, it leaves you slightly limping.” How much of that limping results from failing to seek counsel?

One of the core principles that Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC) teaches is that God asks for our whole selves; that stewardship is best forged in Christian community marked by integrity, accountability and joy. Do we seek out Christian community and accountability in our walk as stewards of all that God has entrusted to us? Where do we find counsel in making choices around financial matters and in determining whether those choices are God-honouring?

In the 16 years that I have shared the MFC message of generous living and faithful, joyful giving, I have noticed the desire for autonomy, at whatever cost, intensify. Interest in, or even understanding of, community and the responsibilities that come with community, has crashed to a similar extent. It affects many of the institutions that we serve. Denominations, churches and some charities are limping, staggering in some cases. Others are thriving and growing, but there will be more limping and brokenness in coming years, I suspect.

We can do a lot more together than we can apart. How do we foster discussions around the value of community in our financial decisions? MFC can help. Perhaps a money autobiography class would be helpful. Maybe a discussion of best practices, both on a personal and congregational level, could be of assistance. Ask the MFC office closest to you for resources to help get the discussion started.

Mike Strathdee is a stewardship consultant at Mennonite Foundation of Canada serving generous people in Ontario and the eastern provinces. For more information on impulsive generosity, stewardship education, and estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit MennoFoundation.ca.


Tending the Body – Generosity Across the Generations

Published in the Summer 2014 edition of Leader Magazine
When I was a boy, finding ways to earn money was easy. By age 10 I was selling greeting cards and TV Guides, then delivering the morning paper. In my teen years, even for a smaller-than-average kid, there were no end of opportunities – mowing lawns, scooping ice cream and stacking shelves at our small town store.
I had to work my way through university, helped by several part-time jobs and small student loans that were repaid within a couple of years. Debt wasn’t a huge issue, as I mostly just spent what I could afford.
Decades later, the world that my daughters face is considerably different. Jobs are scarcer. Education costs have soared at a rate many times the increases in what can be earned from part-time and summer jobs.
Credit is easy to get, but the debts that accompany its use are harder to repay. Being in debt is the norm. Our children and young people are overwhelmed with choices and opportunities to spend far beyond what we or our parents ever had. Unless a person chooses early on to make giving a part of their life pattern, there will always be excuses why not.
We dare not allow our churches to be silent on the connection between our use of material things and our spiritual walk. A giving God created us to reflect and pass on God’s generosity. That’s a tough sell in our culture.
Author Nathan Dungan says many youth will encounter as many as 5,000 advertising images in a day encouraging them to spend (ignoring two other important purposes God intends for material possessions– sharing and saving).
Irregular and incomplete messages about money are too often the norm in church settings. In many congregations, there are year-end bulletin appeals. There are pleas from the front of the sanctuary to give more to close the gap between church income and what is needed to meet the budget.
Where are the other messages we all need to hear about money, regardless of our age? We all need examples of how to live contentedly, within our means. We need to hear warnings about the cost of debt, spiritual and otherwise, and the trade-offs we need to make.
The question of how to provide counter-cultural opportunities, to help to form and grow the generosity impulse in children and young people, is a major issue for the long-term health of the church and the spiritual growth of future generations.
We need to wrestle with what the gaps are in helping young people to gain a holistic appreciation of dealing with money. Then we need to reflect on how we fill those gaps.
Some congregations do a good job of involving young children in the offering. Having a separate box or other container into which children can bring coins is a helpful practice, as is designating a special project for that offering.
What happens when children graduate to junior youth and beyond? Where are the forums for conversation, for modeling giving as spiritual protection against consumerism? When are our young people invited to regularly give, to view the offering as a spiritual act?
Mennonite Foundation of Canada has had considerable success in starting conversations about holistic use of money with a Timbit Economics/ Lifestyle Choices game. This game allows people to have fun contemplating choices around food, clothing, lodging, transportation, leisure, charitable giving and taxes, using donut holes as a form of proxy currency that can be eaten at the end of the exercise. You can get details about how to play the game at this web link:
The game is most often done with high school or young adult groups, but works well as an intergenerational activity. It is best suited for groups of between 20 and 50 people, to allow for mixing people up into imaginary households of 5 to 7 people.
If you are seeking multi-week curriculum, Mennonite Foundation has adapted Everence’s Money Matters for Youth publication for the Canadian context. This seven lesson resource, intended for 45-minute Sunday school classes, includes sessions on biblical perspectives on money, budgeting, debt, saving and giving. It includes suggestions for accompanying print, video and music resources.
You can download the PDF file at this address: http://www.mennofoundation.ca/downloads/money-matters-for-youth.pdf
The original Everence version of this study, plus two other studies: Stewardship for Kids and Three Key Questions and Money: What’s God Got To Do With It? (for youth groups) can be found at this link: http://www.everence.com/showitem.aspx?id=12617

Things I wish I had convinced my father
January 23, 2014, 11:08 pm
Filed under: Communication, Estate Planning, Financial Management

First published in the Jan. 20, 2014 issue of Canadian Mennonite magazine

We almost missed it on the first pass, buried under the newspapers and magazines that were filling a large recycling bin. If we hadn’t been checking each piece, it would have been discarded unnoticed.

“It” was a letter I had long forgotten having written. My aunt, helping to clear out my father’s house this fall after his sudden passing, couldn’t believe Dad had kept the letter in his reading pile for so many years.

Dad told me in 2007 that he was naming me co-trustee of his estate and I wrote the letter to suggest steps he could take to simplify things. Making his wishes clear could minimize misunderstandings.

I mentioned that most people don’t state their wishes around distribution of personal effects. This is unfortunate, as disagreements about who should get an item that has fond memories attached to it are the greatest source of family conflicts after a loved one passes.

Dad had many musical instruments and all five of his grandchildren play one or more. Knowing his thoughts would have made some of the divvying up easier. Thankfully, no one has come to blows over any of Dad’s things!

As I haul stuff hither and yon, I wish I had convinced him of a few things:

• Federal deposit insurance protects up to $100,000 at chartered Canadian banks. Similar provincial insurance protects deposits at credit unions. Like many folks his age, Dad didn’t trust banks and spread his money around. But the only difference between 10 separate $20,000 deposits at 10 institutions and two $100,000 deposits is the work required to wind them up.

• Tell your trustees where important stuff is kept. My aunt and I had to visit numerous financial institutions before we discovered where Dad had rented a safety deposit box.

• Label your keys and tell someone where you keep them. Ask a Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC) consultant for a copy of our Personal Information Directory. We couldn’t find keys to Dad’s freezer, where a lot of important stuff was carefully wrapped in zip-lock bags. A crowbar took care of the lock, but not the answer to where his safety deposit box keys were located. I found those keys hidden in the back of a dresser drawer, weeks after paying to have the box drilled open.

• If you collect things of value, leaving records of the purchase date, maintenance schedule and so forth is helpful to trustees in establishing what stuff is worth.

• Put something in writing to inform your loved ones of your wishes for healthcare if you are incapacitated. Many Canadians have never prepared incapacity documents like powers of attorney or advance directives, and don’t understand the consequences of failing to prepare. Do your loved ones a favour and spell out your wishes. MFC can help. Ask for a copy of “Your will and estate planning guide” or meet with a consultant.

Mike Strathdee is a stewardship consultant in the Kitchener, Ont., office of Mennonite Foundation of Canada. For more information on impulsive generosity, stewardship education, and estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit MennoFoundation.ca


Full-time pastors on the decrease – What can congregations do to reduce turnover and attract strong leaders? -published in Sept. 2011 Christian Week Ontario
September 26, 2011, 2:29 pm
Filed under: Charitable Giving, Communication, Financial Management, Generosity, Investing, Work

Several media outlets had a field day this summer after learning that top staff at some Canadian charities earned six-figure salaries last year.

No effort was made to provide context in terms of the responsibilities and workloads of those people, nor how they compare with private sector counterparts.

They also focused on a small minority. The vast majority of registered charities in Canada operate with budgets equal to or less than the salaries paid to CEOS, presidents and fundraisers at the few large institutions whose Canada Revenue Agency filings formed the basis of the stories.
Reading the story, my thoughts went in a completely different direction than worrying about what the movers and shakers are earning.

I started wondering about part-time pastors.

Our church recently said goodbye to a talented young man who was a part-time associate pastor for an all-too-brief four years. I can’t blame him, as a recently married 20-something, for looking to focus on one job. He has already started a new full-time role with a relief and development charity that he was working for part-time alongside his pastoral work. Their gain is our loss.

His predecessors served a single term in the same position at our church. That says more about the demands of the job than any of the people involved.

Over lunch, Darren reflected on the challenges of juggling a couple jobs, and told me that churches need to offer as close to full-time as possible to minimize turnover and avoid burning out staff.

Unfortunately, the trend is in the opposite direction. Research by Rick Hiemstra of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada found that between 2003 and 2009, Canadian evangelical churches, both urban and rural:

  • tended to reduce their full-time staffing complements.
  • tended to add part-time staff.
  • converted some full-time positions to part-time ones.

Hiemstra studied tax filings by more than 5,400 congregations. He found that 50 per cent more congregations had no full-time staff in 2009 than was the case in 2003, even though congregational income generally rose over that time period.

“It is conceivable, if current trends continue, that a decade from now half of rural congregations will be without full-time staff, and most will be reduced to just one,” Hiemstra wrote.

Some of the change can be explained by churches moving from hiring full-time generalists to hiring part-time specialists, recognizing that it is a rare individual who has all of the gifts that a congregation is seeking. But Hiemstra also notes that “rural congregations appear to be having trouble attracting and retaining staff.”

As a father of adolescent children, I’m gradually cluing in to the primary importance of lasting relationships in faith formation. When I asked Darren what it might take to improve the chances that his successor will stick around longer, he suggested churches may have to stop looking to “20-somethings” to fill youth and young adult pastoral positions. The average university grad will change jobs a couple times before turning 30, so churches should be seeking out older candidates, he said.

But that would involve paying more, a tough sell in today’s climate.

Write a will now – for your family’s sake
January 21, 2011, 9:57 pm
Filed under: Communication, Estate Planning, Financial Management, Marriage, retirement

published in Christian Week Ontario November 2009

If you die tomorrow, would you leave behind a headache for your family?

Nearly half of Canadians have never made a will. Many more have never completed other documents that could save their family a lot of grief in the event of a tragedy. Only 21 per cent of Canadians under 35 have made wills, according to a national study conducted for FLA Group.

Young families may think estate planning can wait. But failing to name guardians for your minor children means that if both parents die, a judge could award custody to the family members you would least want your children to live with. Having the main breadwinner die without a will in place will lead to headaches, and likely financial hardship, for the survivor.

In Ontario, the estate of a person who dies without a will, leaving a spouse and one child, the first $200,000 goes to the spouse. Any balance will be divided equally between the spouse and child.  As minors can’t inherit, the child’s share will be held in trust until the child is 18. If the deceased leaves a spouse and more than one child, any balance (over $200,000) would be one-third to the spouse and two-thirds (in trust) to the children.

Even at age 18, many young people are not mature enough to make good choices about an inheritance. If you don’t make a will, your children receive their entire inheritance at 18.

My most vivid memory of a decade spent doing estate planning seminars and personal counselling involves a Sunday afternoon session in a small town’s biggest church. After I questioned the wisdom of letting children inherit at age 18, a young woman jumped up and said: “I agree with you completely. That’s a bad idea.”

Later on, she told me a sad story. When her father died, she and her brother were each left $60,000, payable at age 18.  Her brother wrecked vehicles, ran up debts and left a string of unpaid bills in the two years it took to deplete his share. She did a little better, but was determined not to repeat the mistake with her own children.

You should also prepare for the bad things that can incapacitate us without killing us. If you aren’t able to conduct your financial affairs and have never had a continuing power of attorney for property prepared, “a potential nightmare awaits the family,” Fish and Kotzer suggest in their book The Family Fight – Planning to Avoid it.

A Cambridge couple lived that nightmare earlier this decade. When the husband suffered a stroke, his wife found herself unable to complete the sale of the family home, yet needing that money for a condo they had purchased. His share of the home sale was held for a time by the Public Guardian and Trustee. It cost her a lot of grief and money to get the situation resolved.

Do your loved ones a favour –have a will and powers of attorney drafted ASAP.

Money and Marriage
January 1, 2009, 5:47 pm
Filed under: Communication, Debt, Financial Management, Marriage
Money and Marriage
From the Jan. 8, 2007 issue of Canadian MennoniteMoney and marriage

—Mike Strathdee

Money problems are a leading cause of failed marriages, the cable TV series Til Debt Do Us Part suggests. In the program, Canadian author Gail Vax-Oxlade works on financial makeovers for couples who are in over their heads, unable or unwilling to agree on how to make things better.

As many as 90 percent of all marriage breakdowns relate to money problems of one sort or another. So why is the discussion of financial issues in pre-marital counselling and marriage renewal courses often relegated to the margins, glossed over or neglected altogether? Even the Marriage Course, an eight-session video study produced by the people who put together the Alpha program, fails to give serious attention to issues around family life and mammon. Money is the greatest cause of arguments in marriage, the course mentions in passing, then moves on to the next topic.

In a society in which almost all of the financial messages that people receive are “spend, spend, spend,” if Christian communities don’t have strong voices urging couples to live frugally and model the nitty gritty of positive choices, it is almost as if we’re silently affirming the culture. Vax-Oxlade cites statistics indicating that 70 percent of people spend more than their gross income every year.

An article in Psychology Today noted that most adults—67 percent of women and 74 percent of men—enter marriage with at least some debt. Far fewer have a plan on how to deal with the situation, or an understanding of the negative effects the unacknowledged presence can have on their household. This can compromise what Scott Stanley calls the three important elements of safety in relationships:

• The ability to talk freely,

• Safety from physical harm, and

• A sense of security about the future.

Shared understandings around the use of money—who pays for what, when do I need to check in about a proposed purchase—need to be talked through early and often to avoid resentment and mistrust. Too often, the conversations needed to develop a common philosophy around spending, saving and giving don’t happen. Remaining stuck in family-of-origin patterns around finances, be they unhealthy hoarding or compulsive spending, can be equally damaging to a partnership.

Challenges to face and deal with these issues are absent from pre-marriage counselling, in some cases because pastors feel rushed, uncomfortable or ill-equipped to address the topic. Yet these transitional milestone times provide opportunity for introducing new thoughts and approaches, to encourage communication and full disclosure as cornerstones of relational health.

When a colleague and I did a presentation on marriage and money to a group of recently and soon-to-be wed couples this fall, we noticed several things. All of the participants did their pre-work and eagerly received resources offered for them to take home. The common theme in post-event evaluations was a desire for more conversation, both as couples and in a group setting. There can be considerable power and healing in shared stories of strengths and struggles.

Can we take the time and make the space in our congregational communities, in livingrooms and other settings to allow these conversations to multiply and flourish?

Mike Strathdee, CFP,  is a stewardship consultant at the Kitchener, Ont., office of Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC). For stewardship education, estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit mennofoundation.ca.

Why it’s important to have Powers of Attorney in place
January 1, 2009, 5:42 pm
Filed under: Communication, Estate Planning, Marriage, retirement
From the October 1, 2007 issue of Canadian Mennonite
Failing to planMike StrathdeeMost of us put off preparing for worst-case scenarios. But changes in what health care and financial institutions require of clients means that there are many good reasons to get our affairs in order—for the sake of those we love, if nothing else.

People generally don’t realize the need to have valid Powers of Attorney for Health Care (known in some provinces as advanced/health care directives, living wills or proxy directives) in place, so someone can advocate for them if they can’t speak for themselves.

A recent Royal Bank survey found that only about 48 percent of adult Canadians have wills. A chaplain at a hospital in Kitchener, Ont., says his guess is that as few as 5 percent of the people he works with have a valid power of attorney.

Increased concerns about liability, and the fear of being sued, lead health care professionals to take a hard line on the issue of informed consent to treatment. If a tragedy left you unable to express your wishes, would you want to leave the decisions on treatment in the hands of people who may not know your values?

Here are a few stories about what can go wrong.

A few years ago, a Kitchener lawyer gave an example of the extra stress that can result from a lack of preparation. A woman went to check on her elderly mother, and found her on the kitchen floor, unable to speak coherently. The ambulance was called, but the mother had never granted power of attorney to anyone. The daughter couldn’t prove her mom wanted to go to the hospital, so she was forced to call a cab.

The daughter couldn’t prove her mom wanted to go to the hospital, so she was forced to call a cab.

Inaction in authorizing people to represent us can have serious financial repercussions as well. A man recently told me how his wife, aged 52 and 10 years his junior, had suffered a serious coronary attack five weeks earlier and was in a coma. Her workplace benefits package entitled her to apply for disability coverage, but the insurer was balking at processing an application from a spouse who couldn’t prove he had the right to speak for her. The couple had never considered the possibility that she might be the one to become incapacitated. No power of attorney had been designated.

In another case, a Cambridge, Ont., couple was selling their home when the husband became incapacitated due to an aneurysm. Both names were on the deed, so the husband’s signature was required to complete the transaction. They had never given each other power of attorney, so she was unable to complete the sale quickly. When the deal closed, half of the sale proceeds were sent to the Ontario Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee, to be held in trust for her husband. She had to apply to the courts for official guardianship of her husband, a process that took several months.

It is wise to set in place instructions about who should be in charge if you can’t be.

Ask your area Mennonite Foundation of Canada consultant for a free Estate Planning Guide or for guidance in your decision-making.

Mike Strathdee, CFP is a stewardship consultant with Mennonite Foundation of Canada’s Kitchener, Ont., office. For stewardship education, estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit mennofoundation.ca.