Church Finances for Uncertain Times
Cultivating Emotional and Financial Resilience
Recently in my clinical practice, I met with an Episcopal priest for an initial counseling session. With two children near college age, economic pressures at home and at church, and uncertainty regarding her preparation for retirement, the stress was becoming overwhelming. “I’m not sure how we will get by from month to month,” she said. “My husband’s business has never really recovered from the economic downturn, and everything feels uncertain. Some days I struggle to find hope. Things often feel beyond my control.”
The stress she is experiencing is not unusual. The economic recession of 2008-2009 and concomitant demographic shifts in mainline Protestantism have indeed resulted in many sources of financial and personal stress for church leaders. Clergy and lay employees can be especially vulnerable. “Let’s talk about what we do have some control over,” I said, “and for the time being, I’ll do the hoping for us both.”
In the midst of the stress that financial troubles can cause — stress that affects our health and wellbeing — we can cultivate both financial and emotional resilience. But how might we do this? What is resilience? How can we respond to the challenges of financial and emotional stress by strengthening our resilience?
The American Psychological Association has defined resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors.” It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences, and flourishing in the new normal.
This capacity to adapt can be cultivated. The behaviors, thoughts and actions involved in resilience can be learned and strengthened in anyone. While a variety of factors contribute to its development, many studies show that caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family are a primary factor. Relationships that create love and trust provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance. Additional factors associated with resilience include:
- The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out.
- A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities.
- Skills in communication and problem solving.
- The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses.
All of these are abilities and attitudes that we can develop. Here are some ways you can nurture your ability to adapt well in stressful times:
Make connections. Good relationships with close family members, friends or others are important. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you — including financial advisors, such as a trusted CPA or financial planner — strengthens resilience.
Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. You can't change the fact that stressful life events and periods of financial difficulty do happen. But you can change the way you interpret and respond to these things. Try looking beyond the present to consider how your situation might improve in the future.
Accept that change is a part of living. Certain economic goals may no longer be attainable. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on those where you can make a difference.
Move toward your goals. Develop realistic personal and economic goals. Do something regularly — even if it seems like a small accomplishment — that enables you to move toward your goals. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What can I do today that helps me move ahead?”
Take decisive actions. Act on adverse situations in every way possible, rather than detaching from problems and stresses and wishing they would just go away.
Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle with loss. Many who have experienced hardship have reported better relationships, greater strength, and increased sense of self-worth, a more developed spirituality and a heightened appreciation for life.
Nurture a positive view of yourself. Developing confidence in your ability to solve problems and trusting your instincts helps build resilience.
Keep things in perspective. Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing things out of proportion.
Maintain a hopeful outlook. An optimistic outlook enables you to expect that good things will happen in your life. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.
Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Caring for ourselves helps to keep mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.
Consider additional ways of strengthening resilience, as well. For example, some people write about their thoughts and feelings related to trauma or other stressful events. Others find that meditation and spiritual practices help build connections and restore hope. The key is to identify ways that are likely to work well for you as part of your own personal strategy for fostering resilience.
Cultivate financial resilience as well
In similar fashion, cultivating financial resilience refers to an individual’s ability to take advantage of opportunities as they appear, as well as to endure difficult times. It is enhanced with financial resources, like savings, health insurance and a good-paying job, and by putting your human capital — the knowledge, skills, experiences, contacts and other personal qualities you have to “sell” to potential employers — to use. Wise financial practices can increase financial resiliency and are especially important during a tough economy.
Every small positive step makes a difference. Below are five examples from Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP, writing for the Business School of Rutgers University:
- Maintain a low debt-to-income ratio. Monthly consumer debt payments should be 15% or less of monthly take-home pay.
- Maintain an emergency fund of at least three month’s expenses. Keep this money liquid in cash equivalents such as a bank or credit union savings account, money market fund or short-term CD.
- Never consider your education or job training finished. Continue to develop marketable skills and take care of your health (e.g., good nutrition, screening exams and exercise) to increase your human capital and remain employable.
- Purchase adequate life insurance to protect dependents against the loss of a breadwinner’s income and disability insurance to provide continued income following an accident or illness.
- Educate! Increase your knowledge of financial topics so that you make smart financial decisions.
Both personal and financial resilience involve maintaining flexibility and balance in your life as you deal with stressful circumstances. In “How Resilience Works,” published in the Harvard Business Review, Diane Coutu describes three common characteristics of resilient people:
- a staunch acceptance of reality
- a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful;
- an uncanny ability to improvise.
“You can bounce back from hardship with just one or two of these qualities,” she writes, “but you will only be truly resilient with all three.”
Sometimes simply making the decision to act can be the first step towards resilience. “I do feel better,” my client said at the end of our initial session. “I am glad I reached out. I guess I had gotten isolated without even knowing it.” Indeed, reaching out in relationship may be the most important first step!
- How Resilience Works by Diane Coutu, Harvard Business Review, May 2012
- America’s Changing Religious Landscape by Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life, May 12, 2015
- Robert Waldinger TED speaker profile
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