Mikestrathdee’s Blog

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.


Garlic, and remembering Dad
August 20, 2014, 3:17 pm
Filed under: gardening, Generosity, Tributes | Tags: , , , , ,

This summer’s garlic harvest was bittersweet, for several reasons. I picked a poor spot

to plant it in last November, too dry due to a nearby maple tree.

That error yielded a series of undersized bulbs in August. And for the first time, I can’t compare

harvests with the man who passed on his love of allium sativa to me.

Dad died last September, weeks after digging up his final haul of large, fragrant bulbs. There

were 500 bulbs, give or take, enough for a small village, more than ample to supply many family,

friends and neighbors plus his daily intake. It was an extravagant supply, in keeping with the massive

harvests of potatoes, carrots and in his final years, kale that he planted in an oversized small town

garden larger than many city lots. Had he been so inclined, Dad could have run a stand at the local

farmer’s market with his surplus produce.

As a gift to people who came to his funeral, my brother Al, sister-in-law Gloria and other members of

their family prepared 300 bulbs, each prettied up with a length of ribbon that had attached a small card

with Dad’s picture and the phrase “a gift from Grandpa Jim’s garden” on one side. Instructions for late

fall planting were written on the other side of the card.

Some people said they would use it for lasagna that night, others said they would follow the

instructions and do their first ever planting late in the fall, thanks to “The Garlic Man.”

Appropriately, the variety Dad favored was an Ontario breed named “Music,” completely suitable for

a man whose other great love was picking and grinning.

Like Dad’s over-sized love for his garden, raising rabbits and making music, Music garlic at its best

is elephantine in scale, with little resemblance to the shriveled foreign garlic that many make do

with from grocery stores for much of the year. When planted around rose bushes, it proves most

effective in keeping bugs away. The taste cannot be equaled either.

Native to Asia and cultivated for over 6,000 years, garlic is commonly eaten around the world. While

there are 70 different strains of garlic in the estimated 2500 acres that commercially planted in Ontario,

Music is said to make up about 90 per cent of the total. But price conscious Canadians import over two

thirds of their garlic from China. Dad had little use for store bought Asian garlic, saying it was of little

value on the rare occasions he was forced to substitute.

Dad made a point of downing at least a large clove a day, often raw, sometimes in his breakfast juice,

first thing in the morning, much to the chagrin of some health care professionals who literally couldn’t

stomach the smell. My guess is that most years he consumed three or four times as much as the

2.3 pounds reportedly eaten annually by the average North American.

Many a full head of garlic made its way into clay bakers at our house, oven roasted and later spread on

fresh-baked bread for a delectable dinner treat thanks to Dad’s never-ending supplies. It is important to

exercise caution when indulging in this treat however. We once had dinner guests who were newcomers

to Canada and unfamiliar with garlic’s charms. The two heads we had baked as a side dish for the meal

sat largely untouched until a family member decided to go for it and consume the lot.

Reminders of that meal oozed through the diner’s pores for several days, an aroma that is not to

everyone’s liking.

Trying to locate Dad near his garden on weekends between mid-April and October was generally a

futile exercise. Most often, he had loaded up his trailer, grabbed his beloved Martin guitar and headed

off across southern Ontario with his girlfriend Joan to a steam show, fiddle competition or some other

rural gathering of the country music and bluegrass “gypsies” that were his tribe. Like him, most were

retired folk who loved nothing better than a weekend camping, playing, singing and telling stories,

some of which were possibly even true. He died on a Friday evening at one of these gatherings,

succumbing to a heart attack shortly after singing a few numbers in a friend’s barn and

wandering off to his trailer with promises to see everyone later.

Fitting then, that acoustic music played a large part in his funeral celebration. A trio of fiddlers,

including a granddaughter, cranked out “Maple Sugar”, “Devil’s Dream” and other jigs and reels while

over three hundred mourners took their seats in the St. Marys United Church for the service.

Five of his grandchildren sang or played during the tribute, and a long-time musical friend from

Hanover played some Hank Williams hurting music as the family followed the casket out of the church

an hour or so later. At the rural cemetery outside the hamlet of Avonbank, where his parents had been

laid to rest over 50 years earlier, the musicians started up again once the pastor had finished the

committal service. Strains of “Til We Meet Again”, then “Heart of Gold” rang through the countryside.

When I returned to Avonbank months later to view the gravestone, someone had left a bulb of Music

garlic beside Dad’s grave.

Maybe I should sing some old country songs while planting this fall’s garlic crop, to get it right.

How to plan your digital estate
July 3, 2014, 1:19 pm
Filed under: Estate Planning, Financial Management, retirement, Uncategorized

First published in Canadian Mennonite, July 2014

The most surprising “friend” request I ever received on Facebook came from someone I knew only slightly.

That may not seem unusual, except the person was dead. When I clicked the Facebook page, which has since been taken down, I found an unusual memorial. It spoke of being glad to be free of pain and cancer, missing family and so on.

This memorial, a digital legacy, is becoming common.

That incident may seem silly to those of us who didn’t come of age in the computer era. But the question of what happens to digital assets—anything stored in electronic form—is becoming a hot topic for lawyers, trust officers and anyone who helps people do end-of-life planning. Some people’s digital assets may be worth more than their cars.

The list of things that qualify as digital assets and often don’t get mentioned in a will is huge: text documents, photos, multimedia files, user licences, profiles for online accounts (Facebook, LinkedIn) and subscriptions.

In some cases—accounts at financial institutions and rewards programs—substantial amounts of money are at stake. Or someone just may want an account or pictures taken offline.

Changes in technology are way ahead of how we think about changes we need to make in estate planning. Soon we will need to add “tech savvy” to the list of qualities we want our estate trustee to have.

Issues we need to consider include making a list of our online accounts, passwords and security questions, and where the information that will allow someone to access these is stored: computers, mobile devices, flash drives or websites.

“Normal” rules of how trustees get access to information when someone dies don’t apply to the digital world, complicating this new list of things to think about. Each company has different regulations on how it handles the situation, and standards are mostly lacking.

Google may require a U.S. court order before it will disclose any information. Yahoo allows no right of survivorship or transferability on accounts. There have been lawsuits in the U.S. over these policies.

Shoppers Drug Mart won’t allow the transfer of rewards points from a deceased person, but will allow the estate to donate them to certain charities.

One Kitchener, Ont., lawyer is now asking clients to do beneficiary designations for Air Miles points.

A handful of U.S. states have passed laws to impose some order. Nothing of the sort is in place anywhere in Canada.

An easy and important step for estate trustees to take concerning electronic assets is to notify credit agencies about the deceased’s passing. Identity fraud is on the rise, and the risks increase with the amount of online activity.

If the potential complications of all this makes your head spin, you are not alone. Please pass the Aspirin. All the more reason to think twice when you are asked to serve as an estate trustee. Turning the job over to professionals and letting them worry about navigating these complications could be money well spent.

To help you keep track of a wide range of accounts and assets, MFC offers a free, downloadable Personal Information Directory at MennoFoundation.ca/PID.

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

On the topic of impact – are you a fire hose or drip irrigation donor?
June 26, 2014, 2:25 pm
Filed under: Charitable Giving, Estate Planning, Financial Management, Generosity

Published in the June, 2014 issue of Gift Planning in Canada
On the topic of impact
Mike Strathdee
Helping donors understand the impact of how they support their favorite causes can take some explaining.
The people I have the privilege of working with generally
make giving decisions informed
by their faith. Unlike churchgoers
of earlier generations, the place where
they worship is often not the primary
or sole beneficiary of their giving.
In fact, it is common for me to meet
with folks who receive charitable
receipts from 20, 30 or more different
charities every year.
Without a doubt, deciding whether
to make large gifts to a few causes
or smaller donations to a greater array
of charities is a highly personal
decision. Getting people to recognize
that one-time gifts under $100
are costly for charities is sometimes
the first discussion point.
Once donors have narrowed down
who will be on their list, asking whether
they want their end-of-life gift to have
short, or longer-term impact can result
in blank stares. I am often asked,
“Isn’t it all the same?”
Water metaphors can be a useful
way of helping donors see the value
of different approaches. The metaphor
I have found most helpful is fire hose
versus drip irrigation.
A fire hose provides quick, intense
bursts of water – great for extinguishing
a blaze, with as much pressure as
possible, or responding to a large,
immediate need. If a person wants
to grow flowers or vegetables, however,
the amount of water that comes out
of a fire hose quickly may be
overwhelming. When growing fragile
crops, drip irrigation, with smaller
amounts of water released over a longer
period of time, is more helpful.
The fire hose approach to end-of-life
giving may be unhelpful, particularly if
the gift is to a smaller charity (or
a larger one that doesn’t have good
policies on how bequests will be used).
I once met with a couple who wanted
to leave a $180,000 gift to their church
– a small rural congregation – that had
no bequest policy. When they told me
that the church’s annual budget was
only $150,000, we were able to have a
good conversation about whether this
gift would be helpful or harmful.
They eventually decided to have the
gift to their church flow through the
Mennonite Foundation of Canada over
a 10-year period.
Sometimes, for donors with
significant charitable intent, there
is often an opportunity to combine fire
hose and drip irrigation gifts. There
are a number of reasons that people
will choose to support an endowed,
or drip irrigation approach to giving,
including ensuring that their support
will continue after they are gone
– incorporating both legacy and
sustainability elements. For example,
In a recent meeting with a couple that
had spent a fair bit of their career
working in the charitable sector,
I was happy to hear that they wanted
to give gifts to organizations that had
endowments. They knew that many
donors dislike supporting the
important work that goes on behind
the scenes, unnoticed or appreciated
and so decided to give support to the
administration of charitable work.
Other donors want to create (or
support) new possibilities for mission,
if a charity’s use of its long-term fund
is broad enough. Contributing to a
medium or longer-term fund to support
the cause(s) they care about fits well
with the giving wishes of more donors
than you might think. But they may
need to ponder different sorts of water
pressure to understand why.
Mike Strathdee, MA, CFP is a Stewardship
Consultant with Mennonite Foundation
of Canada, a national, faith-based public
charitable foundation. Based in Kitchener,
Mike works with individuals, families and
congregations throughout Eastern Canada
in the areas of charitable gift and estate
planning and financial literacy. Prior to
joining MFC in 1999, Mike had a 15 year
journalism career, including 13 years as a
business writer at the Kitchener-Waterloo
Record newspaper.

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


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.