Updated on 04.16.11

Finances and Churches

Trent Hamm

Over the last few years, I couldn’t help but notice that several churches in my local area have run personal finance programs of various kinds, such as Financial Peace University and so on. Having sat in on a few of them, I can certainly say that they’re often well-attended, with enthusiastic people taking notes and often asking good questions, too.

This left me wondering why churches are such a hotbed for personal finance education. I’m not so much interested in the reasons why churches would host such events, but why churches happen to be the place where such events find great success. More importantly, is there anything useful in that relationship that could be applied to those who seek financial success without such groups?

In order to figure this out, I’ve had conversations with a few different pastors and a lot of different church members over the past year along these lines. Why does your church host personal finance programs? Do you feel they’re successful? Why do you feel that they’re successful?

The answers were actually pretty consistent – and fairly insightful.

First of all, churches often host financial seminars because it is in their interest for their members to find financial success. That makes sense, of course. If your members are in poor financial shape, they’re less likely to donate. If they’re in good financial shape, they’re more likely to donate. Thus, a healthy church is going to want members that are in good financial shape.

That explains why the churches would host a seminar, but it doesn’t explain why I was witnessing seminars that seemed to be really successful.

One person attended these meetings because she knew it would provide a support network. She had tried executing a financial turnaround on her own, but she found it incredibly difficult and often failed at it. Going through the process with a group of supportive people that she knew made it easier to start making changes. If her friends were making these changes, it made it easier for her, too.

So how can you apply this independently? Find a money buddy. A “money buddy” is simply someone who has a roughly similar financial situation as you who is also trying to make positive financial changes. You basically agree to talk to each other about money and spending issues and agree to reinforce each other’s good choices in a positive fashion. Your spouse can be a very good money buddy, for example, as can your best friend or your sibling.

Another theme I heard is that when the ideas were presented in a Biblical context, they seemed to hit home much more powerfully. In other words, because the ideas were wrapped in a greater philosophical and spiritual tradition that the people had held for much of their lives, it was easier to digest the basic ideas of personal finance.

You can apply this independently by simply digging deeper into the things that you’ve valued during your life and looking at what aspects of them apply to personal finance. Many of the basic principles that govern personal finance – frugality, prudence, temperance – are universal virtues that can be found in many different places in life.

A final theme I heard is that by incorporating such learning with the church, the church itself became a reminder of the goals they were setting. Since they were attending services weekly (and often attending other programs and events more often than that), they would often be reminded of their personal finance learning and commitments simply by visiting the church or being near it.

In essence, the church is just a visual reminder for them. A visual reminder can be anything. Two of my most useful visual reminders have been a photo of my kids (wrapped around my credit cards for a long while) and a picture of the country home we dream of living in (taped to the rear view mirror in my truck). These were incredibly useful for constantly reminding me of my goals and, more importantly, why I was working so hard to achieve them.

There are often valuable lessons to be found from the simple act of the lessons themselves.

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  1. Tammy says:

    Some of the success is related to religious obligations about tithing. God says to give 10% to the church, and that 10% is part of these financial programs, so it follows that people would have religious guilt motivating them to follow the promises they made in the seminar to follow the financial plan. It’s the combination of money and religion that contributes to the success of this venue. However, as you can see, I am suspicious of this unholy alliance, just as I am of the blending of politics and religion in other situations.

  2. Alice says:

    I like this post because it made me think about something I had never thought of before.

    Now I’m curious about the effect Dave Ramsey may have had – he tithed throughout his own financial disaster, and it would be interesting to know if folks who find Ramsey when they’re in the midst of financial meltdown start to give greater attention to religion as part of a turnaround.

  3. Karen says:

    In my women’s bible study today we discussed what proverbs had to say about wealth and poverty. I think one of the reasons these conversations are so powerful in a church context is we were discussing things that would be awkward to discuss in an off-hand manner over a water cooler with people who weren’t just as interested. They are fantastic, deep discussions. I valued having the wisdom of different generations represented too.

  4. Sonja says:

    From the conversations I have had with enthusiastic attendees of these programs I gather the message is “Everything I have comes from God. So all of my money is really God’s money – and He only wants 10% of it back!!” In that light tithing sounds less onerous, and money management becomes “stewardship” with God’s other 90%. What gets under my skin is when people go to these classes and then try and tell me that their newly found ways are the ONLY way or the BEST way because they have some special sanctification.

  5. Kirk says:

    You are looking at the context of churches, so I will mention the incredible amount of Scripture that is focused in one way or another on money and / or finances.

    When most people think of giving or a “tithe” which we typically think of as 10%, it takes on a legalistic, obligatory tone.

    What if, in our abundance, brought about by wise stewardship, we now had the ability to abundantly give beyond a “tithe”? Thus the opportunity to serve others amplified!

  6. Rachel says:

    Crossed the line, Trent. Churches do not host such seminars to earn money. They host seminars like FPU because the Bible clearly states that we are servants to our lenders. I can’t believe that you suggest it is so people can “donate” more. You are way off base here. And please, please, please stop bolding every other sentence!

  7. Julie says:


    In the New Testament Jesus points out that 100% of what we have belongs to God, not just 10%. All of the standards set in the Old Testament were raised to a different level by Jesus in the New Testament… as he pointed out that it was the attitude of the heart that really matters, not just following the laws.

    I also agree with Rachel in that I don’t believe that the church’s motivation is so that people will donate more. Statistics show that money problems are listed as the number #1 cause of marital strife and divorce, and the Bible states that the “love of money” is the root of all kinds of evil. I think the church realizes that when peope can gain a proper perspective of money and when it becomes tool to be used, not an idol to be worshipped, quite often many other areas of a person’s life will fall into place too.

  8. Tammy says:

    I have spent 20 years as a pastor’s wife. I know all about the Bible and what it says.

    There is a dark underbelly to many things in the church, so while I believe some leaders simply want to help their church members get out of debt, I have personally heard conversations about how having FPU come to one’s church will increase tithes by an amount that will more than offset the cost of the seminar, even if they give tickets away.

    It’s a business, like any other.

  9. Kate says:

    when I hear that some churches run credit checks on new members, I have to agree with Tammy. While not all churches do this to increase tithes, there are churches that probably do.

  10. Tammy says:

    (and I don’t want to start a religion debate here, so I apologize it came off that way. I don’t mind that church is a business, but I think it helps all of us to recognize that reality. It keeps things in perspective.)

  11. Julie says:

    There is a dark “underbelly” to every human being, so it certainly isn’t surprising that there would be dark side to any organization. Regardless, with 25 years as “Deacon’s” wife, and 20 years as a CFO of a 200 million dollar corporation, I am just as aware as the next person as to what goes on in the church…and in business. However I don’t think it is fair to group all churches into the one category and to assume that the majority of these seminars are done for an ulterior motive, just as I don’t believe it is fair to assume that all “big corporations” and capitalism are evil.

    And to Kate…in regards to a church running a credit check…I think you would find this to be a very rare circumstance, possibly if someone is seeking employment at a church. I am not aware of any churches in the greater Orange County (CA) area with such a practice…and I imagine most people would leave if this became a common practice since a credit check can’t be run without the signed consent of an individual.

    Back to the post, I think Trent fails to mention the most important factor as to why these seminars are often church based. It is because the ideas and concepts presented are based on the Bible, which those attending believe to be the inspired Word of God. It has nothing to do with “philosphy” or “tradition” and by using these words it appears that Trent is trying to avoid a controversial topic. But this doesn’t have to be a controversial topic as he is really only pondering why these seminars succeed at church….not questioning whether or not the teachings of the seminars are valid.

    Those attending church based seminars want to learn the pricinples of money they believe to be designed by God versus just another seminar giving a persons’ theory. Thus someone who doesn’t share these beliefs is going to get absolutely nothing from such a seminar and they would be better off attending some other type of financial seminar…and there are plenty…which becomes the problem. How do you decide which approach is true as so many of them offer conflicting advice?

  12. Kathryn says:

    To Julie – #11; One of my clients, a single mama on a limited income joined one of the mega churches in Orange County, one that is very well known. She told me that as soon as her membership went thru, some folks from the church showed up at her door with paperwork so that her tithe could be direct deposited from her account into the church coffers.

    I don’t really expect you to believe me because even at the time, had she said this had happened to one of her friends and to to herself, i would not have believed it. I would have assumed she got it mixed up somehow. But she told me it happened to her personally.

    It is a church that recommends “reverse tithing” to its members – “giving God” 90% and living on 10%.

    The pastor states he does this. My take on it is if he can live on 10% of his salary in Orange County, CA, he is making too much money. Most regular folks could not do that. Before i married i was near poverty level, anyway. “Reverse tithing” meant i would have been living on the street or out of my car. I visited that church once. Walked around amazed, saying, “This is just like Disneyland. I can’t believe it is just like Disneyland!” It is not, of course. But the way they park and use trams to bring folks in and the artificial hills and landscaping made me think of the entrance to Disneyland Park.

    Personally, while my husband and i do contribute some to the churches we attend or visit, i believe “giving to God” comes in many forms and we choose to give most of the funds we have to folks in need. Churches, like our gov’t, have a tendency to not use funds frugally and there is a lot of waste that goes on.

  13. deRuiter says:

    Churches generally want to help their members succeed and improve their lives. Financial security gives people the time, and peace of mind to concentrate on things other than survival. Churches do many things to attempt to make their members lives better. I would consider that we don’t know whether posters here are speaking the truth, or whether they have some agenda which is forwarded by making up stories about avaricious churches to show religion in a bad light. I’m NOT religious, when I die I’ll rot and it will be over for me. Most Jewish temples and Christian Churches in America want to help their congregations succeed, to make things better. There are bad apples in every facet of life, so there are a few unsavory churches, but on the whole the churches are there to try and help their congregations live better lives spiritually and materially.

  14. Steve in W Ma says:

    I am not religious, and not a churchgoer, but I can understand why workshops on personal finance that are hosted by a church for the church’s members might be more successful than others. This mainly has to do with the trust level that church members have, both with the organization and its leaders, and with other members. When you are a member of a church, you are already getting guidance and support spiritually and in other aspects of your life, so opening it to the financial side seems like a natural extension of that to me.

  15. Marsha says:

    I think, in general, this is a valuable resource that churches offer, just like many have marriage or family seminars. Many people have little knowledge of personal finance and can benefit from attending classes. Yes, the church will benefit if it has members that are financially sound and have strong marriages and/or families. A church with a strong membership is much more able to reach out to others, which after all, is the mission of the church.

  16. Borealis says:

    I don’t think Trent went too far in suggesting it might be in a church’s financial interest in sponsoring financial seminars. Church leadership spends a lot of time on church finance and these programs probably pitch the financial angle to church leaders when the decide to host the seminars.

    At the same time, they are perfectly legitimate for church’s to sponsor. Any serious budget should reflect a family’s values, and religion is all about the family’s values.

    Thus a church doesn’t have to exert any financial pressure on a family other than just encourage them to think hard about how they spend their money and put that down in a budget.

  17. Julie says:


    I do believe you. But this isn’t the same thing as a credit check. I am not sure if you are referring to the Crystal Cathedral, but this is definetly a “church” that has pushed the limits as far as operating as a business is concerned…even filing bankruptcy. I don’t put the mega churches in the same category as a traditional church. However I personally do attend a very large church with a member list of 3000+, and I can guarantee you nothing like this has ever happened at our church. Most people would leave should they feel that the church is truly only after their money.

  18. Tammy says:

    “However I don’t think it is fair to group all churches into the one category and to assume that the majority of these seminars are done for an ulterior motive … ”

    I don’t believe we are doing that (at least my posts did not do that) — we are just mentioning that there are more motives than just spiritual ones, and some are business-based. that does not make them necessarily evil (that is, ulterior) unless the church is using undue pressure on its members to participate.

    business is not bad. I never said it was. I said that the sooner we recognize that churches are a business, the better off we will be, as our tendency is to think that churches are somehow set apart from the business world.

    churches do a lot of marketing, and like with any marketing, we can be talked into spending money we did not plan to spend. so we need to be aware as we go about our lives.

    the difficult part with all this, is that many people believe that when the church speaks (ie: the church markets something to them) it is God speaking, and they had better obey. This can lead to a lot of problems ….

  19. Kathryn says:

    Julie, not CC. A South County church, wikipedia reports: averages nearly 20,000 (weekly attendance), currently making it the eighth-largest church in the United States.

    I do not KNOW, but i believe from what Mormon friends have told me that their church may run credit reports. If nothing else, that church does expect their members to tithe legalistically and to know the finances of their members.

  20. Suzanne says:

    Nonprofit organizations will also offer free financial planning seminars, particularly to educate people about charitable gift annuities and/or planned giving. The underlying goal is to encourage someone to give to the nonprofit as part of their financial planning. I do not know the success rate, but it makes business sense to offer this to your prospects.

  21. Kandace says:

    I have two comments: I am a Mormon and have never had a credit report run on me. The church doesn’t know what my finances are, unless they take my tithing and multiply it to figure out what my annual income is. But couldn’t any other church figure out a member’s annual income by the same methods?

    I attended a financial workshop taught by a member of my congregation. It was solely to help me, didn’t cost anything, nor did I have to disclose my income. The purpose of the class was to help members understand their financial position and make good choices. Many people in my congregation are struggling financially and this was offered as a way to help. My church leader (Bishop)feels responsible for ALL people who live within his jurisdiction, not just the Mormons. He wants to help us help ourselves.

  22. karishma says:

    I’ve never attended a church-sponsored financial seminar, so this is just speculation on my part.

    But it seems to me that the support aspect of doing this as part of a large group from your church goes well beyond that offered by a money-buddy, especially if that money buddy is your spouse.

    Doing the program gives you a whole social circle of people who you share a lot in common with – everything you had in common before as part of the same congregation, plus now the knowledge that you are all working to improve your finances.

    At least within this group, there’s no need to blush when mentioning budgets, frugality, etc. like you might have to with other friends that aren’t in the same boat (as far as you know).

    That’s a far greater level of support than just having one or two people that you can be this open with (especially if one of them is your spouse).

    This support by itself would probably be enough for a lot of people to succeed in this endeavor, especially when combined with the negative pressure of not wanting to fail and have all these people know about it when you have to see them every Sunday or more often.

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