Christians shatter taboos on talking about money

May 26, 2011

No sooner had 29-year-old Graham Messier joined a small group at his
church earlier this year than he found himself breaking an American
taboo: talking about how much he earns and where it all goes.

Others
in the group in Beverly, Massa­chusetts, did likewise as they kicked
off an eight-week program aimed at reconciling personal finances with
Christian rhetoric about economic justice. It's countercultural, they
said, but it works.

By the eighth meeting, Messier's group had
raised $1,800 for three nonprofits simply by cutting back on gourmet
coffees, dining out and other nonessentials.

Talking about
household bud­gets isn't "the most comfortable thing in the world,"
Messier said. "But talking as Christians about the reality of our money
situations should be more of a focus than it is generally if we're going
to be real about loving, giving to the poor and taking care of our
fellow man."

Since its inception in 2006, the Lazarus at the Gate
curriculum has guided some 400 people in more than 30 groups to give
away a total of $200,000. Using the biblical story of poor Lazarus
seeking help at a rich man's gate, most participants learn that ordinary
Americans rank among the world's richest 5 percent—and that a few
dollars go a lot farther in the developing world than they do at their
local Starbucks.

What began as a Boston-based pilot has grown into
an open-source curriculum. The ecumenical Boston Faith and Justice
Network (BFJN) shares Lazarus materials upon request with college
student groups and churches in other regions and countries. The Boston
group recently received funding from Episcopal City Mission and the
Presby­terian Hun­ger Program to encourage the curriculum's use in their
respective denominations.

For small groups in U.S. churches,
intimate sharing is familiar terrain, but few go so far as to probe
spending practices. This "special kind of discipleship" is rare in part
because it entails true vulnerability, and people often don't want to
"disclose family secrets," according to Max Stackhouse, a retired
Prince­ton Theological Seminary theologian and coeditor of the book On Moral Busi­ness.

Talking
about spending habits "really does cut to the depth of who you are,"
said Craig Gay, a Regent College sociologist and author of Cash Values: Money and the Erosion of Meaning in Today's Society.
"It really does lay you bare, and that's threatening," Gay said. "Most
of us don't want to be that transparent with each other, [but] being
less private and more accountable in this area is probably a good idea."

Discomfort
notwithstanding, Lazarus has proven a compelling challenge in various
religious sectors, appealing to both evangelicals and mainline
Prot­estants, according to Ryan Scott Mc­Donnell, executive director of
BFJN.

College students seem especially interested since Lazarus
campus groups have drawn in non-Christians who sense that a portion of
their money could be used in better ways for greater impact.

"People
are looking for a framework for social justice or something, and they
have a hunger for it in their heart, and they don't know how to
articulate it or interpret it," said Mako Nagasawa, co­author of the
Lazarus curriculum and an advisor to the Asian Christian Fellow­ship
group at Boston College. "We want to say it comes from being made in the
image of God and being redeemed by Jesus."

As a Lazarus group
gets started, participants share household budgets with the assurance
that others won't judge them or break confidentiality. Sub­sequent
meetings place those budgets in larger contexts.

Participants
explain how money was (or wasn't) discussed at home during their
childhoods. Together, they unpack biblical passages that address money
and responsibilities. Presenters illustrate how poverty fuels social
problems such as prostitution, human trafficking and environmental
degradation.

In practice, Lazarus groups function as a kind of
hybrid between secular giving circles and evangelical accountability
groups. When members of Messier's group convened at Christ Church of
Hamilton and Wenham (Massa­chusetts), participants would re­port their
spending and saving over the previous week.

Lifting the veil on
finances involves risk, Gay noted, and requires vigilance to make sure
no one suffers abuse. Yet when trust is warranted, he said, Lazarus
groups might help people steer clear of secretive spending habits.

Simplicity
for the sake of generosity is one of the Lazarus goals, but exceptions
are al­lowed. After seven weeks of vegetarian fare at the church, the
final dinner at one couple's home featured flank steak, wine and two
desserts.

As the last meeting wound down, the group's 13 members
voted to divide their $1,800 equally among three organizations whose
work includes microfinance, sustainable agriculture and rescuing
prostitutes in Manila.

The group agreed to keep meeting monthly
and making quarterly donations. And they gave thanks for an experience
that's helped them learn to live more gratefully from day to day.  —RNS