Since posting a testimony of the progress we’ve made to reduce financial debt in our personal life, I’ve had a handful of interchanges with people that have been mutually encouraging. Honestly, I’ve been very surprised to receive not one word of criticism (my fears of being too transparent were invalid). The opposite has been the case. Responses include:
- “Thank you so much for your transparency. The Christian church needs this.” (a pastor in another city)
- “I appreciate you opening up on this issue of debt. I know it wasn’t easy, but my feeling, for what it’s worth, is that you did the right thing. My wife has been telling me for some time that there should be more direct teaching on debt in Christian churches, and I agree with her. I am worried that there are a lot of young Christians who start out on a bad foot because they don’t know any better or have never seen anyone challenge popular wisdom. It’s important, I think, to convict hearts while at the same time not being too judgmental of others. I believe you were able to accomplish this by giving your own testimony.” (a church member)
- “Congratulations on getting out from under the credit card debt. I’m sure it is a breath of fresh air for you and Karen. May God continue to direct your ways. Thanks for having the courage to write about it.” (a different pastor in another city)
Today, I’m posting a few more related thoughts in a Q&A format. Hopefully this will give you another gentle prodding to evaluate your current income-to-debt ratio and take whatever action may be appropriate for your situation. I’m no expert, that’s obvious, but am compelled to pass on to you some of what I’ve learned…and am still learning.
You said that it was your willing, and self-initiated, accountability with a fellow church leader that was crucial to your ongoing progress in the right direction. I thought pastors did not need counselors. What brought you to the point of asking for help? What did that accountability look like? It was my increased reading of books on family finance, couple with the pressures of life, that led me to rightly conclude that we had too much debt (credit card debt being the worst kind). Life had become very difficult and foggy. Therefore, I knew I needed an outside pair of eyes to help. As a result, I asked to meet with a fellow elder who has a keen eye for money-matters and is part of our financial counseling team. A threatening foreclosure, or pattern of late bill payments, was not the motivation. There were no late payments on anything. We were “managing” our debt (in the sense that we were making the payments), but this “management” exceeded biblical wisdom. The amount had gotten out of hand and the weight was too heavy for mental well-being. The pressure from this form of slavery was intense (Prov 22:7). In 25 years of marriage we may have been late on a payment only a few times, which was unintentional, due to forgetfulness. One thing my parents drilled into us was that we must never be late paying our bills. I’m thankful for that discipline, which has produced and preserved a high credit rating. Unfortunately, our mailbox has never lacked offers to loan us more money!
As far as the accountability part, this is what it looked like. For a few years several of my fellow leaders were aware that we were working at reducing debt and also knew some of the details of our life situation, which had contributed to the long-term accumulation of debt. By the way, though I mentioned the early years at our church being such that I had to also work other jobs, my church moved as quickly as possible to change that as we grew. To this day I believe they are exceedingly gracious to me. In fact, I believe it is one reason the Lord’s blessing is upon our church in some unique ways.
Back to the accountability part. When I met with my fellow leader, I explained our situation to him and the intense feelings of bondage that dominated my mind. He asked to see our budget and gave me the assignment of putting together a list of all our debts, including interest rates and minimum payments. A week later we together decided on the best strategy to begin debt elimination. We started with the smallest amounts, even if the interest rate was low, for the sake of providing quick encouragement and mental relief. I began looking around the house and garage to sell things we no longer needed or used. Just selling my old moped was enough to clear out one debt completely. That was very encouraging! We knew going into this that it would take a long time to see our way out of the fog because life must go on. You can’t stop living…pay off your debts…and then start life over again. It would be great if we could hit the Pause button, straighten a few things out, and then hit Play again. But a family has many needs that simply don’t stop existing. Toss a half-dozen major medical issues into the mix, regular long-distance trips to Children’s Hospital, and some old vehicles and you have a debt-reduction road map containing more than a few speed bumps. But perseverance pays off. It just takes longer than you think it will. It always does. But we can already tell that the road to financial freedom is well worth traveling.
One accountability habit that was especially helpful was that over the 3½ years it took us to eliminate our credit card debt, I submitted a bi-annual debt reduction report to my accountability partner and met over lunch to evaluate our progress. His view of our progress was always more positive, and hope-filled, than mine. Since it was largely my prideful sense of self-sufficiency, which had led to our debt load, this aspect of accountability was a crucial part of God humbling me. Please pay attention. If you are in debt way over your head then stop going it alone. Get some sound counsel. Stop. Ask for directions. Let someone else help you figure out the map and get you headed toward freedom.
Did you maintain your habit of giving to the Lord’s work? Yes, we’ve always been convicted to give faithfully to the Lord based on our understanding of the New Testament’s teaching that giving is dominated by grace, not mere duty. I realize there are financial counselors who say a person should get out of debt first, before giving, but our consciences before God never allowed us to do that. We crave God’s blessing upon our lives and family so much that we did not want to stall our submission to biblical teaching concerning God’s ownership of all and the call to believers to trust Him with their first-fruits and, therefore, become sacrificial givers (Prov 3:9-10; Ps 24:1; Mal 3:10; 2 Cor 8:1-5).
As a pastor, how did you teach biblical passages concerning money while you were in deep debt yourself? I taught them very carefully, but honestly. On more than one occasion, when the passage being exposited addressed some aspect of financial stewardship, I admitted to my congregation that we were diligently reducing our debt and challenged them to do the same. If I was counseling someone with financial troubles, I brought a member of our church’s financial counseling team into the mix and delegated that portion of the work to them. In good conscience, I felt that was the best approach (by the way, it also helped me see the benefit of multiple counselors being involved in the same situation). On more than one occasion I told the elder, to whom I had made myself accountable, that I was longing for the day when I could share more openly with the congregation about the changes that we were able to make by God’s grace. He agreed that when that day came the testimony accompanying the instruction would be powerful and make a difference in our church. That day has now come and it is already making a difference. The lessons we are learning are helping others.
Did you keep teaching your children about handling money wisely even though you had accumulated too much debt? Yes, I did. There was no need to talk to our youngest children about debt (our children range in age from 2-24); however, the young adults knew we were making concentrated efforts to pay down our obligations, though I did not deem it necessary for them to know specific amounts. Over the years, I have made a habit of warning them of debt’s bondage and steering them toward God’s wisdom. In hindsight, I think I could have been more transparent with them. By God’s grace they are practicing wisdom and responsibility, which is at least partly due to our efforts to make corrections in ourselves. It is wiser for parents to have a clear financial vision to impart to their children. It will spare them from certain kinds of trouble. One word of caution to myself, as I grow in much-needed wisdom concerning money management, is that I be careful not to “over-plan” in a fleshly, self-confident way. There are too many Christian young adults who do not know what it means to work hard and trust the Lord for their daily bread (Prov 6; Matt 6:11), which is more commonly the result of their parents’ credit-based indulgence; however, we can also err on the side of transferring our trust from the Lord to the wisdom of our own financial planning. Just as I trusted for too long in credit cards, rather than the Lord, so I must guard against trusting my own ability to manage my life, but instead surrender to Him and live by faith.
Another related post: Does Romans 13:8 Teach It Is a Sin to Borrow Money?]
Get John Temple’s helpful booklet, HELP! I’m Drowning in Debt.