Money and the Spirit
. . . It's Time To Talk about Money at Church
by Dan Hotchkiss
Money is a spiritual challenge. It arouses great depths of passion in us and requires the best of us in moral reasoning and courage. Money is a medium of power through which we act and are acted upon. A spiritual life that does not concern itself with money can have little effect on our daily lives, especially in a culture as saturated by financial forces as ours.
Strong feelings about money threaten to preoccupy us: shame at lacking it, pride in having it, fear of losing it, compulsive eagerness to spend it, gluttonous delight in hoarding it. Each of these feelings has a moral and spiritual dimension: At worst, shame can render us unconscious of our kinship with God's family; pride can make us feel like gods ourselves. Fear can take away the courage requisite for moral action. Compulsive spending, like compulsive hoarding, turns our attention toward ourselves and away from the well-being of others. At its best, though, money can be a spiritual plus. Money earned for useful work is an encouraging symbol of our worthiness and value. The thoughtful use of money spending, saving, investing, giving is an effective way to care for others and realize our visions of a better world.
Everyday experience confirms a strong connection between faith and money. Money plays a central role in virtually all important ethical decisions. The way we earn and spend and give away our money shapes in large part the memories we leave behind. Money may not be sacred, but when we approach the sacred in our lifetime, money almost always is nearby. The most exquisite acts of charity and the most heinous acts of cruelty have this in common: Money is the most frequent medium through which the act is done. The most soul-destroying vices and the most ennobling spiritual disciplines both require "free" time, which in our society costs money. What excuse can we have for skittering around the subject, or for dealing with it superficially, in a house of worship?
But in many if not most American congregations, religion no longer offers an effective counterweight to the pressures of the broader culture, at least where money is concerned. The teachings of religion seem too unrealistic, too otherworldly, to serve as practical guides to economic action. Religious traditions about money arose in settings so different than the present that many of them have had to be severely tailored and adjusted. Consequently many people compartmentalize, assuming that faith has little to say about the economic world and, by default, live without economic guidance from religion. When we relegate money to a realm apart from the sources of our most enduring values, we should not be surprised that our feelings about money become confused.
One way people express the separation of money and faith is by calling them both "private." Just as it is not polite to question my religious beliefs, it is rude to raise questions about my financial choices. Faith and money are so private in our culture that we can avoid serious conversation about either one, and certainly a conversation that brings one to bear on the other. To many clergy it feels risky to encourage congregants to criticize their own assumptions about money from the standpoint of faith. Faithful ministry under these conditions is not easy. But it is essential, because the money choices people face each day are not, at bottom, technical questions that can be solved by a financial analyst. Money represents time and energy. It confers power and status. It is the medium through which we carry out some of our most important responsibilities and extend some of our most practical help to others. If religion is to mean anything, it has to influence the way we manage money choices.
But American culture divides economics from religion. It places money in a sphere governed by power, calculation, market forces, and self-interest, even to the point of selfishness and callous disregard for human suffering. Some people accept this state of affairs as a necessary evil; others claim that ultimately (or, as economists would say, "in the long run") it serves the public good. For people who work in the economic sphere, it can be difficult indeed to connect the guiding principles of economics to religion, which in recent decades has spoken mostly in the language of compassion, family life, and personal relationships.
Soft, compassionate "religious" values stand in contrast to hard-hearted, "businesslike" decision making. I will exaggerate a bit to make this distinction clear: Religion, in this way of thinking, ought to stay in the domestic sphere where kindness, generosity, and mercy rule, while business, personal finance, and economic policy should, while perhaps aiming at the same ultimate goals, be guided day to day by harsher values. These compartments roughly correspond to the traditional spheres of men and women, marketplace and home. Clergy occupy a midpoint in this cosmology, leading congregations populated mainly by women, whose discourse is confined to the home vocabulary, and who are regarded as incompetent to speak truth to the economic powers still held by wealthy men (or these days, sometimes wealthy women playing roles defined by men). This mind-set reinforces the taboo on conversation about money in congregations and confines clergy to an awkward mediating role: espousing the "soft" values of the home, while accommodating (and, as institutional leaders, perforce sometimes living by) the "hard" values of the marketplace.
There is another trend in American religion that takes almost the opposite approach. One hundred years ago, Baptist journalist and minister Russell Conwell preached a "Gospel of Wealth," proclaiming "it is your Christian duty to get rich!" In our time, innumerable versions of "abundance" or "prosperity" theology carry on in the same vein. The idea that human wealth (along with human health and happiness) is high on God's list of priorities has never enjoyed strong support from academic theologians or mainstream denominational bodies because the idea that God wishes us as individuals to become wealthy with no ethical or covenantal strings attached is out of tune with much of the biblical text. Nonetheless, theologies that simplistically equate wealth with divine favor remain tempting, especially in this country, to people with wealth and what is perhaps more difficult to understand to those who lack wealth but hope one day to get it.
Congregations that fuse faith and money probably raise more money than those that separate them into compartments, but both approaches sidestep many of the spiritual challenges money presents in daily life. If God wants me to be rich, how does that help me to decide between a job that pays well and one that offers a more relaxed lifestyle? If God rewards a cheerful giver, will God also help me to decide which of the charity appeals in today's mail I should contribute to, and how to balance charitable giving against paying child support or saving for retirement? Will God pay my credit cards, or are there other things I should be doing? If God decides who will be rich, how should I understand the poverty around the world, and how should I respond? A simplistic marriage of religion and finance is little better spiritually than a complete divorce, because neither extreme compartmentalizing faith from money or co-opting faith in money's service addresses the deeper challenges of life with money.
What does it mean to have a spiritually mature relationship with money? One thing it means, certainly, is to face facts rather than denying or distorting them. Spiritual maturity also means taking account of reality in all its paradox and ambiguity, rather than resorting to quick doctrinal fixes. Decision making about money does not lend itself to pat ethical formulas. Short of renouncing money for a life of poverty, we cannot escape the need to balance multiple, sometimes conflicting values. Generosity, as good as it is, stands in tension with our other obligations to care for our families, to take responsibility for ourselves, to deal fairly with others in the marketplace. No doubt most of us could and should be more generous than we are. At the same time, though, we could invest more of our money in constructive business ventures, provide more adequately for our retirement, and care better for our dependents which may or may not involve providing more money for them. A spiritually mature person balances competing values, not for the sake of compromise but to "hold fast to what is good" even when ends refuse to meet.
Each of us must find a balance between work and play, indulgence and self-denial, control and trust. The spiritual challenges of money are not problems with simple solutions; they are dilemmas for which no one has a final answer. But faith communities can help. After all, the point of much biblical language about wealth is not that money or even self-indulgence is a bad thing, but, as theologian Carol Johnston has put it, that "wealth brings with it the danger of a desire to cling to it for its own sake, rather than use it freely for the sake of the larger community." Far from dividing the spiritual from the financial sides of life, the teaching here is that our choices about wealth and money occupy a central place in God's vision for humanity.
The Rev. Dan Hotchkiss is a congregational consultant for the Alban Institute and author of Ministry and Money: A Guide for Ministers and Their Friends (Alban Institute, 2002; $16), from which this essay is adapted. Hotchkiss was director of ministerial settlement for the UUA from 1990 through 1997. His Web site is www.danhotchkiss.com.