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.

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Dealing with debt
January 21, 2011, 10:04 pm
Filed under: Debt | Tags:

Heard any sad debt stories lately? Chances are you know someone who is struggling financially as a

result of overspending, job loss or health issues.

The amount of debt owed by Canadians has been increasing at a staggering rate in recent years, and

shows no signs of slowing down.

Asked what will happen with their personal finances in the next six months,

about one person in five who answered a recent national Nanos poll said their debt will increase. Almost half said their debt load will stay the same, and only 30 per cent said it will decrease. Looming interest rate increases will change some of these situations from dangerous to desperate.

By the time people realize their situation is serious, and reach out to a friend, pastor or lay leader

at their church for help, the problem is often complex and not easily solved.

In many cases, the people who are asked to assist aren’t well equipped to do so. They are unaware of

the services offered by community counselling agencies, or the limits of same, let alone the hefty fees

charged by the rapidly growing for-profit debt counselling sector. They don’t know how to set

appropriate boundaries, such as insisting on full disclosure before agreeing to help someone in difficulty.

Nor do they usually understand the ins and outs of making a proposal to creditors, or the process and

consequences of declaring bankruptcy.

Lawyer Mark Silverthorn addresses many aspects of this information vacuum in his book “The Wolf at

the Door – What to Do When Collection Agencies Come Calling.’’ Silverthorn is well versed in what

happens when people can’t or don’t pay their debts. He spent 12 years working for collection agencies,

and now has switched teams – helping consumers in their dealings with bill collectors.

Silverthorn’s book provides a useful overview of how different types of debts are collected, negotiated

downwards or written off, depending on circumstances and the passage of time.

He also explains how the “debt collection game” is played in Canada, chronicling instances of

commission-based collectors making illegal threats, false or misleading statements in an effort to

meet their quotas and keep their jobs.

Silverthorn provides timing tips – as with buying used cars, the best time to

negotiate with a collector is near the end of the month, especially in December. He also airs the dirty

laundry of a nasty, sometimes unethical industry that should face greater government oversight.

Three chapters are dedicated to ways of dealing with unprofessional bill collectors.

Silverthorn’s book would be a great addition to the toolkit of elders, deacons or anyone else who is

trying to help others figure out their options. Whether you want to give this book to someone who is in

debt is another question. Some of his suggestions, such as the chapter entitled “How to Avoid Paying

Your Outstanding Accounts” get into murky ethical waters, particularly for people

who believe the biblical admonition (Romans 13: 7-8) that we should repay others what we owe.

For more information, see Silverthorn’s website, http://www.helpwithcollectioncalls.ca