Mikestrathdee’s Blog


Preventing Prodigals
February 24, 2017, 10:15 pm
Filed under: Estate Planning, Generosity, stewardship, Theology, Uncategorized

 

By Mike Strathdee

(Published in January 2017 issue of Canadian Mennonite and the Jan/Feb issue of The Recorder magazine.)

Many of us are familiar with the the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. There are great lessons in this story about grace and forgiveness, but I’ve never heard it used in the context of warning about giving children gifts before they are emotionally or spiritually mature enough to handle them properly.

We aren’t told how old the prodigal was when he made his disrespectful, audacious demand of his father, but clearly he wasn’t ready to handle money responsibly. When I heard that passage read some time ago, I couldn’t help wondering if the story could have been different if the father knew what we now know about human brain development. What was the father thinking? Could he have had any idea how poorly equipped his son was to handle the premature inheritance?

Science has taught us that even in well-adjusted people, it can take up to age 25 before the prefrontal cortex is fully developed. That’s important because this part of the brain helps people appreciate the consequences of their actions. In her book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Margaret Atwood argues that, knowing what we now understand about brain development, giving people access to credit cards too soon could be considered a form of child abuse.

Similarly, parents should consider whether allowing their children to potentially inherit more money than they’ve ever had before, as soon as they attain the age of majority, would be a blessing or a bane.

About 15 years ago, I was trying to make this point in an end-of-life planning seminar at a church in a small town. I was shocked to see a young woman stand up in her pew and say that she agreed with me completely.

Later, I heard the sad family story. Her father died when she and her brother were 19. Their mother had passed away earlier. They each inherited $60,000. It was way more money than either of them knew what to do with. Her brother chose particularly poorly, burning through all the cash and ringing up considerable debt in only 18 months. She is now determined to ensure that her children have a better understanding of money.

Another verse relevant to the topic of inheritances is Proverbs 13:22: “A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.”

At first glance, this passage may seem to focus on skipping a generation and leaving everything to the grandkids. But when taken in context with other advice in Proverbs, we see that wealth can only be successfully transferred between generations if a values transfer comes ahead of the money.

Part of me wonders if we might have fewer prodigal sons and daughters, and fewer prodigal grandsons and granddaughters for that matter, if we were more explicit in modelling generosity and explaining our beliefs and habits. We can transfer good values to our children by educating them about responsible spending, good habits and about giving throughout our lives. We can also model generosity in our estate plans by including charitable gifts as if they were an extra child in the list of beneficiaries. Let your kids know what values are important to you and how you hope they will continue them with their inheritance.

Abundance Canada can help you design and carry out a generosity plan. Ask us how.

Mike Strathdee is a gift planning consultant at Abundance 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 Abundance Canada office or visit abundance.ca.

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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.



If I had a million dollars

Published in the June 24, 2013 issue of Canadian Mennonite magazine

Many of us dream about how we might spend a large, unexpected windfall. Some imagine travelling to exotic locales, or owning a new vehicle or dream home. Some dream about making a difference.

I would use my imaginary windfall to invest in our pastoral leaders and the future health of the church by funding financial literacy programs at Bible colleges and seminaries.

Debt is a huge issue confronting our society. The average Canadian owes $1.65 for every dollar of after-tax income earned. It would take over half a year’s salary for the average Canadian to repay his/her consumer non-mortgage debt.

How much training do church leaders get at seminaries and Bible colleges so they can help people learn how to live within their means? Basically nothing. When I asked about this at a Mennonite ministerial gathering this winter, some nodded and murmured assent. No one disagreed.

Not only do seminarians graduate ill-equipped to help members of their congregation in this area, increasing numbers are graduating with crippling debt loads that impair their own ability to be effective, and may even force them out of ministry. This situation also reduces the pool of candidates who are able to serve at smaller congregations. (A shortage of pastors willing or able to serve small and rural churches is an increasingly major concern across Canada, according to a recent study by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.)

Some seminary graduates have student debt loads approaching or even exceeding $100,000. Graduates head into ministry and are offered part-time positions, sometimes with few benefits. Many times their first churches are in small or rural communities where there are limited opportunities to earn additional income unless they are handy with a hammer or a computer.

It’s hard enough for pastors to talk about money, let alone lead by example, without the pressure of unresolved personal challenges in that area. Fortunately, some organizations are recognizing the problem and taking steps to address it.

Luther Seminary in Minnesota has a financial coaching program through its Center for Stewardship Leaders. Any student who applies for financial assistance at Luther is paired with a trained volunteer coach. Coaches are transparent about their own choices and situation, and provide a safe environment to guide students through their challenges over at least one academic year. “The job of financial coaching is to help you get your financial life in order, clear the way to a sense of well-being about money and free you to be a stewardship leader,” the coaching manual states.

After developing the coaching manual and recruiting mentors, the seminary spends only a few thousand dollars a year on the program, director Charles Lane tells me.

The United Methodist Church in Indiana takes a more holistic approach. Matching grants from the Lilly Endowment provide educational programs for clergy and lay leaders, plus grants to clergy or clergy spouses.

If I had a million dollars, I’d fund Bible colleges and seminaries to offer financial literacy programs. Tuition and materials would be free for anyone who commits to full attendance and participation. On successful completion, a graduate would get the added bonus of a grant that could be applied against student debt.

We ask a lot of our pastors. Giving them the training they need in financial matters would be a great gift for them, their congregations and the wider church.



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:
http://www.mennofoundation.ca/downloads/timbit-economics.pdf
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



Why Business Matters to God – And What Still Needs to Be Fixed
January 9, 2013, 9:50 pm
Filed under: Business, Environment, Generosity, Investing, Theology, Uncategorized, Work

Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed)
Jeff Van Duzer Inter Varsity Press, 2010, 201 pages
For Van Duzer, business is about much more than the bottom line. “Business is intended to serve the common good by providing goods and services that enable the community to flourish and by providing opportunities for individuals to express aspects of their God-given identities through meaningful and creative work,” he writes in Why Business Matters to God.
The author is a lawyer and Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. His keynote address at the opening of the 2012 Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) convention of in Niagara Falls in November was by far the highlight of the event.
Van Duzer’s reflections on business and why it does matter as part of God’s redemptive plan for humanity encompass the scope of the biblical narrative – creation, fall, redemption and consummation. His incisive analysis will give pause to entrepreneurs and church leaders alike, for a variety of reasons. He persuasively explains why the cherished notion of the free market, for instance, is a post-fall construction, given its dependence on scarcity. His analysis touches on the role of a providing a living wage and care of the environment in conducting business, among other considerations. “Business must concern itself with redemptive as well as creative work.’’
The even-handed approach that he brings to this work is shown by the fact that early reviewers – business people and theologians, all found something different to pick at. “Business associates criticized the text as being too negative about business… My theology friends, however, argued just the opposite.”
I often read while traveling, but have never been asked by strangers about what I am reading. This book elicited questions from several people curious about its message. Well worth taking in at several sittings and pondering at length.