September 17, 2014

And Forgive Us Our Debts...

How do parish’s talk about debt --- when many parishioners are crushed by debt?

We began this three part series on debt retirement talking about the impact of debt on the mission and ministry of a parish. A reminder that the current rule of thumb is that debt services should comprise no more than about 25% of your budget. Begin by asking, 

“Has our parish’s debt had a negative impact in any way on the church’s ability to meet current operational needs? “

In my last blog, I wrote about the importance of connecting how mission and ministry will be positively impacted by a successful capital campaign.

But, there’s a big elephant that many parishioners are too embarrassed to talk about. Many priests, struggling with loans from seminary, are unable to tackle their own debt. 
As of January 2014, not only are most Americans in debt, but also are quite substantially indebted. Consider this USA household consumer debt profile:
  • Average credit card debt: $15,270
  • Average mortgage debt: $149,925

This impact of debt is felt across generations:
  • Generation X is known to be the first generation to not surpass the previous generation’s financial success. 
  • Traditional markers of adulthood (leaving home, getting married, having children, buying a home, graduate education) are now no longer appropriate for the millennial generation. Now, unlike previous generations, most can`t afford to do these before the age 21. (Andrew Kellner, canon for family & young adult ministries, Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania)

With debt as a given for most Americans, what does it look like in our parishes to talk about the impact of debt on mission and ministry?

A few parishes are now taking on this problem. Where it is most successful is where both a collective theology around debt is articulated and where parish communities seek out external consultants to provide individualized support for parishioners as a part of their overall ministry.
When I was first married, my husband and I lived in Alaska. The local church we attended paid for a financial consultant to come up and provide onsite advice to all who were willing to engage in the discussion. Fresh out of college, my husband and I were first on the list. We felt empowered when leaving our appointment---knowing we had a plan and that our church community wanted to help us. 

How does your parish talk about the problem of debt? Could your parish community benefit from talking about individual consumer debt? Have you seen any effective strategies?