Living paycheck to paycheck. Not having enough money to make payments on student loan debt. Not knowing enough about financial management. The toll of financial worries on a marriage and family. Those are just some of the stresses facing pastors starting out in ministry.
The Christian Reformed Church, with the help of a $1 million Lilly Grant, seeks to alleviate some of those stresses and improve the financial security of its ministers of the Word and commissioned pastors through its three-year Financial Shalom Project.
Last year the denomination surveyed pastors and found that many struggle with anxiety about their finances. “It became clear that many Christian Reformed pastors are in need of financial shalom,” said John Bolt, director of finance and operations for the CRCNA. The Financial Shalom Project offers both immediate assistance and long-term training. “I like to think of this as both giving pastors a meal today and teaching them to fish,” he said.
Anxiety about finances was not news to Rev. Chelsey Harmon, pastor of Christ Community CRC in Nanaimo, B.C. When she became a pastor six years ago, she had a student debt of $45,000 USD, but her income was in Canadian dollars, at times worth 25 percent less than the U.S. dollar. “I remember living paycheck to paycheck and how difficult it was to save money on my starting salary as an associate. Once I was bumped up to solo/senior pastor payscale, I had a lot more financial stability. And by God’s providence, the currency exchange was on par until I got that raise. If the timing had been different, it may not have been feasible for me to stay serving in Canada.”
Rev. Chris Schoon, pastor of First CRC in Hamilton, Ont., has been in ministry for 13 years. He started out with $60,000 USD of debt and said that early on, the challenge of making ends meet put major stress on his marriage and family life. “We took initiative to learn what we could about financial planning. We followed Dave Ramsey’s principles as best we could,” he said. “But there was only so much planning we could do when our income did not cover our shoestring budget.”
To help pastors in situations similar to those of Harmon and Schoon, half of the Lilly grant will be used to directly aid pastors in need of immediate relief to pay student loans, pay Christian day school tuition, or cover unexpected expenses. The amounts are moderate and will be matched by the denomination. For instance, a pastor whose student loan debt exceeds $50,000 can apply for a one-time payment of $2,000. Likewise, pastors who send their children to Christian day school can apply for a one-time grant of up to $2,000 to help pay for it if their local church does not provide assistance as requested by Synod 2003.
That is the “give them a meal” aspect of the project. “Teaching them to fish” aims to help pastors achieve long-term financial literacy with resources and referrals for training programs, along with small grants to help them pay for it.
That knowledge is crucial, according to Rev. Drew Sweetman, pastor of First CRC in Fremont, Mich. He isn’t in the same boat as Harmon and Schoon, having come out of school with a debt of $8,000. But he sees the need for the Financial Shalom Project. “From time to time, I receive calls from pastors (or their spouses) asking about a variety of things related to clergy finances,” he said. “The reality is that so few people are knowledgeable in that area.”
And it isn’t just pastors who need help. The Financial Shalom Project is also designed to help churches find financial fluency. For some congregations, “giving them a meal” includes some short-term grants to help pay a pastor’s salary. But “teaching them to fish” includes stewardship training provided by Barnabas Foundation in the U.S. and Christian Stewardship Services in Canada to enable members of the church to better use their resources of time, talent, and money. “Too often our ministers end up in financial difficulty because they become the balancing item in the church budget,” Bolt said.
Sweetman agrees that [church] treasurers and elders need to be informed and must be accountable for adequately supporting their pastor financially. If that pastor’s income won’t cover reasonable expenses in their household budget, he said, “remember that the CRC letters of call state that the pastor should have no earthly need. Hold the church accountable to that where possible.”
Sweetman said he is excited about the Financial Shalom project, mostly because of the opportunity to educate both clergy and lay leaders. “My hope and prayer is that Financial Shalom equips both pastors and church leaders with the tools and knowledge they need to better navigate the financial side of ministry.”