August 23, 2022

Money Legacies

We all love stories. Storytelling is imbedded in our DNA as human beings. Stories were used to explain the unexplainable—those mysteries such as birth, death, nature and the existence of a higher power or force, eventually described as God.

People of faith, or those who follow or practice a particular religious tradition are especially fond of stories. Jewish and Christian heritage and custom have been passed down to us through stories—about creation, sin, floods, slavery, freedom, laws, prophets, angels and, ultimately, redemption and resurrection.

While we love to tell stories, we also love to talk about ourselves, especially those qualities and experiences of which we are most proud. Telling our story is an essential element of the human experience and is the precursor to making connections, establishing relationships, and falling in love.

Our storytelling tradition extends into our faith communities and is an important part of our worship and fellowship activities. We find out about people’s backgrounds, families, careers, health conditions, hobbies and even culinary abilities and food preferences. There seem to be very few limits on the information we seek and share in our parish family settings. Or are there?

In the process of incorporating people into our church communities, what if we asked questions like these:

“What was your family’s financial situation growing up?”
“How did your family express its values through its spending practices?”
“Tell us your money story; tell us about your financial journey.”

The response may be: “What? Stop! It’s bad enough that you are asking me about my faith. My money story and my financial journey are none of the church’s business.”

It’s true. Talking about money is still the big taboo, especially in church circles—and especially among Episcopalians. We talk about everything else in church—the most intimate details of our lives, including health and even our relationships. What is it about money that makes it so off-limits in faith-based conversations? Is it none of the church’s business to ask their members to tell their money stories along with other essential aspects of their lives? If we ask questions about faith, why can’t we ask about money? What would Jesus say?

It's pretty amazing how much Jesus talks about money. Jesus offers more wisdom and has more to say about money than any other subject other than the “kingdom of God.” Eleven of his forty or so parables were about money or use money to illustrate his message. While they are familiar stories, I think we often fail to recognize that they deal directly and specifically with money.

Those challenging words from Jesus continue to shake us up to this very day, especially for those of us who have accumulated some financial resources. Is Jesus actually saying that our individual salvation is dependent on giving all our worldly possessions to the poor? He says in Matthew 19:24, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is clearly instructing us that, as Christians, we need to confront our relationship with money. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus uses money as a tool and metaphor for illustrating the limitations of human priorities and the need to shift to a healthier and more life-giving attitudes toward wealth. He drives home this point in the Sermon on the Mount. In preaching about the kingdom of God using the beloved Beatitudes as an illustration, Jesus was aware of the significant challenges we face in trying to follow his way. He was willing to name those impediments to embracing his message. This clearly suggests that while many things may interfere with or distract us from a true relationship with God, money is at the top of the list. And that is why money should be an important discussion topic in the church.

While many of us may have issues with Jesus’s exhortation to the rich young man to sell all his belongings and give the proceeds to the poor, most of us would agree that money, and how we spend it, is the clear indication of our values and priorities. Money defines who we are to the outside world, and permeates our work, our friendships, our social standing, and our access to necessities like food, housing and health care. Whether we like it or not, money also affects our self-worth—the way we look, act and function in society.

Whether we have a little or a lot of money, our spending patterns not only define us as consumers, but also as followers of Jesus. Money is not only about our values and priorities, money lies at the heart of Christianity and the fundamental premise that God created everything and everything ultimately belongs to God. This precept is totally contrary to our consumer society, our sense of entitlement, and the economic theory that everything we earn belongs to us.

Fundamental to a Christian view of money is how we should give it away. As followers of Jesus, our only response to an all-generous God is to be generous in return. That is what stewardship is about—caring for and managing all of God’s resources, especially those for which we have a particular responsibility—our own money. Therefore, stewardship is not only one aspect of Christian life, it is the summation and culmination of how we live as followers of Jesus. Jesus talks so much about money because it is a tangible way we participate in building up God’s kingdom here on earth in our own time and place.

Before we can embrace and practice Christian stewardship to our fullest, each of us needs to discern and acknowledge those obstacles that prevent us from doing so. Talk leads to action. Therefore, we need to talk about money with our partners, our families, and the wider community as part of the work of change and transformation.

Stewardship lies at the heart of who we are and what we do as Christians. Since the way we handle money is an important component of stewarding God’s creation, the church must talk about money, and, more importantly, encourage and empower its members to do the same. The personal money stories of its members provide insights into hopes, dreams, spiritual longings, need for community, and most important, their relationships with God.

This is not easy stuff. Church leaders should be willing to address the financial aspects of spiritual well-being. It is not so much about what is in our bank accounts but about helping us examine our relationships with money. Our individual relationship with money also affects the wider community. People with unhealthy attitudes about money in their personal lives cannot effectively manage or address the financial affairs of their faith community.

Each of us has a personal money story that developed early in life and stems from our family of origin. This legacy shapes our attitudes about money even as we age, including how we spend it, save it, and give it away. Consequently, our economic status as children often determines our approach to money during our entire lives even if our personal financial situation changes over time. This may be especially true for people who grow up with a feeling of scarcity or economic insecurity and later achieve a greater level of financial success. Similarly, economic privilege as a child often stays with us although our financial condition may diminish.

Individual parishes and congregations, especially those with a wealthy historical past, also have money legacies that shape their attitudes and spending habits even when their demographics and financial circumstances change. As with individuals, a congregation’s financial management and budgeting practices are developed over time and reflect spending priorities that often span generations. For this reason, congregations also need to tell their money stories to examine possible unhealthy relationships or experiences with money in the past, and, more importantly, use money in effective and spiritually healthy ways for current and future ministry.

I realize that conversations about money are challenging, if not taboo, especially among people of faith. Consequently, as we embark on this journey together, let us do so thoughtfully and prayerfully and without judgement or guilt. Our money legacies and money stories are essential keys to who we are as individual Christians and Christian communities. They help form and shape who we are and what we do. During this time of incredible uncertainty and change in the church and the world, these conversations may also be a way of grounding us and focusing us on the work of the gospel and how we respond to God’s call in this time and place.

This is an excerpt from the book Money Legacies by Donald V. Romanik, which is available for purchase through Church Publishing Inc. here.