Faith and finances 

Different local churches take similar approaches to help members through tough times

Tucked north of where Colorado Avenue passes beneath Interstate 25, Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church is thriving in the economic downturn. The exact blend of financial and spiritual prosperity is of minor concern to congregants what's important is that they're hearing a different story from their pastor than they see on the evening news.

Speaking from the pulpit on a recent Sunday morning, in a voice that matches the crescendos of the choir behind him, the Rev. Cleveland A. Thompson talks about trust in God. Today, that common spiritual theme is grounded in awareness of the economic troubles outside the church walls but also in the security of knowing that Emmanuel, an influential local presence since 1963, will be there for its 950 members.

"Stop cursing your company," Thompson says to his congregation. "Stop talking about how many people are gonna be laid off, how much is getting cut back. Speak life into your company. Head for the hills. Go to the high places of God."

Thompson's Baptist interpretation of scripture resembles an evangelical analysis eight miles up the interstate.

Woodmen Valley Chapel senior pastor Matt Heard speaks from the Rockrimmon campus' main worship hall, and is simulcast to another nearby chapel as well as a satellite campus. Each worship hall hosts its own live band, and the music is broadcast across the live line as three bands play along with one another.

Heard's sermon builds from a personal anecdote and references Slumdog Millionaire, football star Terrell Owens and the literature of C.S. Lewis and Arthur Miller. He concludes with a recording by young blues musician Jonny Lang.

Those references aside, Heard discourages his listeners from being relativistic. He urges them to focus on what is actually happening in their lives, with their families and their money, rather than heeding the irresponsibility and panic infusing American society.

"We're all really good at worshipping," Heard says. "The question is, are we worshipping that which is worthy?"

Old words, new ways

As different as they are, and with no direct association binding them, Woodmen Valley and Emmanuel have adopted similar takes on the church institution's role in uncertain times: They're helping their members continue to live their lives as confident Christians, by remaining upbeat amid widespread despair over money and job loss and using Bible scriptures to empower productive management of personal finances.

They're talking about money in Sunday services and weeknight family-finance sessions. For spiritual guidance on how to promote a Christian attitude toward stewardship, debt and the value of money, they're looking to the Bible and sometimes more commercial sources, such as money management "guru" Dave Ramsey and his Financial Peace University program. ("FPU teaches your congregation how to handle God's money God's way," claims Ramsey's Web site.)

Pastors and members at both Emmanuel and Woodmen Valley are coping with the conclusion that the downturn shows humans have poorly managed God's resources. The Bible does not condone bankruptcy, and it calls for a person to repay all debts, says Woodmen Valley's Mike Biedermann, a licensed pastor, the church's chief financial officer and director of its finance ministry.

"I grieve when somebody comes in and says they cannot pay their utility bill," says Biedermann. "How can I even confront the issue of teaching them, or trying to share with them, the idea of contentment?"

A different Bible class

What Biedermann can do is offer one-on-one counseling and a finance course he put together using materials from other sources, including Focus on the Family. His "Your Treasure in a Financial Storm" runs for 10 Wednesday evenings.

An early March class of 16 watches a PowerPoint listing America's top financial fears: rising cost of living, economic downturn and job insecurity, consumer debt, the housing crisis and savings.

Biedermann has a reassuring message: "In this financial storm, God is captain of our ship!"

"It used to be that the No. 1 thing parents wouldn't talk to kids about was sex now it's finances," he says to the class. "Some parents don't even talk to one another about money."

Biedermann has prepared a well-organized binder of printed slides, a "Financial Weather Report," and debate and homework questions. The students, including three couples, some singles and a few married individuals, use Bibles to find passages relevant to his lessons. Biedermann addresses them by first name and enthusiastically confirms their every concern as valid.

Chris Johnson, a fireman, and his wife, Marion, an assistant principal at an elementary school, have been married a little more than two years.

"We sit down regularly to talk about our finances," Chris says with Marion at his elbow. "We did financial counseling with Mike right before we got married to make sure we were on track. It was a blessing."

These trainings are not strictly practical lessons in money management. They are a new version of Bible study oriented toward today's most widely broadcast questions in America: How reliable is the money we think we have? And will we be able to make and retain money in the future?

Groups like Ecumenical Social Ministries, a network of eight downtown churches, and Westside Cares, a collaboration of more than 20 churches, have been a resource for Christians, including families in need of financial assistance, since the early 1980s in Colorado Springs. But things in the financial world have unraveled incredibly quickly in 2008 and '09, leaving more and more people in urgent need of help. And many of them have gone to their church and its leaders directly.

"Before this wake-up period of time, we could get five or six requests a week from people that are in financial difficulty," Biedermann says after the class. "Now it's sometimes 10 that come in. In some cases we have an increase in 'benevolence' requests,' where the church will cover a person's utilities bill without recompense."

But, he says that now, "it's well beyond the scope of even putting a utility bill in.

"We get a lot of evictions. We get a lot of people who are on the edge of bankruptcy, if not in bankruptcy."

Ramsey's approach

The most well-known alternative to a homemade program like Biedermann's is Ramsey's 13-week DVD course. Ramsey has gained a national reputation through television and talk radio; a strong following in Colorado Springs tunes in to his daily show on KRDO's AM and FM stations, 1240 and 105.5, respectively. Last year, he drew a huge crowd to a free one-day seminar at the World Arena. (His Total Money Makeover tour will return April 18 to the arena.)

Ramsey's story takes something of a phoenix-like arc: As a young man, he made a lot of money, then fell under the weight of too much debt before rising again as a smarter businessman committed to helping others avoid his mistakes. Most sessions of Financial Peace University cover money management, and the final sessions draw connections to scripture.

"Imagine what the People of God could do for the Kingdom of God if they were debt-free," says Ramsey's extensive Web site. He encourages people to "be weird," since "normal in America is broke."

Following last year's World Arena event, Betty Shepard, leader of Emmanuel's family support ministry, introduced Ramsey's program to her church. Rev. Savannah Jackson and Deacon Troy Jackson agreed to be among the facilitators. After giving members time to save money to pay for the class, Emmanuel will start a new "semester" in April.

Emmanuel, the church, charges $100 for individuals or couples to enroll in Ramsey's program. Woodmen Valley charges $90 to enroll in that program, and just $10 to enroll in the one Biedermann has put together. Biedermann says even a fee that small marks a commitment to attend consistently.

"That 10 dollars brings people back," he says. "Free, they lose interest."

The bigger picture

Churches, of course, must confront their own financial stability while consoling and advising members on managing their money.

"The trillion dollars of debt structure this is mimicked not only in individual lives, it is mimicked in government, it is mimicked in church communities everywhere!" Biedermann says.

At Emmanuel on this Sunday morning, Rev. Thompson reinforces the advice to avoid relativism, embracing language that empowers individual accountability.

"The world is telling you to cut back," he exhorts. "We're telling you to manage what you have."

Accompanied by an organist, a band and the joyous choir emphasizing his enthusiasm, Thompson announces Emmanuel's recent gifts from members and friends.

Following a series of $1,000 checks, he adds, "It ain't that we haven't seen a thousand dollars before. Let that be heard!"

With a wide smile, laughing as the choir rises behind him, he goes on: "We've been told the economy is shrinking ... but we ain't been told before that it was expanding!"

Thompson keeps pressing the point home: Emmanuel can sustain itself, and that is the best mooring its members could wish to have.



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