It does not take much searching to find alarming statistics about the financial health of the typical American household. USA Today recently reported that 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.1 Perhaps even more alarming is a study quoted by CNN Money, which reveals that up to 35% of US households are in debt collection.2 Add in the fact that the average credit card debt is over $16,000 for households that carry a balance,3 and it becomes clear that an overwhelming number of Americans live in a precarious financial state.
Jimmy Rodriguez has seen the toll taken on families by financial strain and uncertainty first hand. Rodriguez is the director of the Faith & Finances program at STCH Ministries, which works with churches to bring biblically sound financial education to individuals and families. Rodriguez is also a member of CrossBridge Fellowship in Corpus Christi, Texas, the first church to partner with STCH Ministries as a hub location for Jobs for Life and Faith & Finances.
"Our church is located in an area with the highest crime, the most poverty, and the highest likelihood for someone to end up in jail," says Rodriguez.
He notes that churches are often the first place people go when they find themselves in financial straits. Unfortunately, he says, many churches do not have a policy for responding to requests for assistance.
"What are you going to do when a woman approaches your church and says that she needs $200 or the electricity will be shut off?,” he asked.
Joanna Berry, the Vice President of Family and International Ministries at STCH Ministries, explains the scale of the problem. "In comparison to the government welfare give-away, churches far out-give them with our response to people in need; but because we're doing it without a plan, we often are not really helping people."
The solution is more complicated than merely giving or not giving. According to Rodriguez, it requires a relationship. "The concept is easy," he says. "Taking action is hard."
That's where the ministry of Faith & Finances comes in. Developed by The Chalmers Center, Faith & Finances offers a two-pronged approach: a twelve-week curriculum on personal finances and a set of resources that equip churches to deal with the problem of poverty.
Faith & Finances aims to break the cycle of benevolence and dependence by providing a protocol that churches can follow.
The program starts with an assessment form to be completed by individuals seeking help. Next, a church leader meets with the person for an interview to learn more about their situation. The process brings consistency and removes the panic of the moment from decision making.
"That way churches start to make more thoughtful responses," says Berry. "They are able to access community resources that are already there, as well as find out what the deeper needs of the individual are, spiritually and emotionally."
Those individuals who are willing to take action and change their situation and behavior are invited to participate in the twelve-week Faith & Finances course at the church. During the classes, students learn how to prepare a budget, set savings goals and prioritize spending. Bad habits are replaced with sound principles. Tithing is added to the budget, while impulse spending is cut out. Throughout the process students have "allies," trained volunteers who provide encouragement and accountability.
"We want to come alongside you," says Rodriguez. "If you are willing to learn, we can help you."
The change starts by building a relationship and helping with finances, but the ultimate goal is much deeper than an individual's pocketbook.
"Do you have a plan to lead others to Christ?" Rodriguez challenges church leaders. "We should be intentional about this, but we're not. We tend to be churches that are really, really busy, but there's no fruit." He believes that Faith & Finances is a way for churches to meet people at their place of need, but not leave them there.
Rodriguez recalls the transformations he has witnessed in families who took part in the course together. In one extreme situation, a woman was overwhelmed with eleven payday loans and seemingly no hope of keeping up with the interest, much less paying off the principle. STCH Ministries staff helped her develop a plan that included strict budgeting and the consolidation of her loans at a local credit union. With manageable payments and a balanced budget, she is on track to be debt free in five years.
The most exciting part for Rodriguez is to see graduates of Faith & Finances return as allies and help the next round of students find financial freedom.
In 2016, STCH Ministries expanded Faith & Finances from one to four locations in Corpus Christi and San Antonio, and Rodriguez sees the growth continuing unabated. His team recently conducted a Faith & Finances seminar for seventy-four church leaders in the San Antonio area to provide training and more information about how they can get involved. To other churches that are interested in meeting the needs of financial literacy in their communities, Rodriguez says, "Call us. Our vision for the next four years is to start hub centers in larger communities in Texas and beyond. Additionally, our Ministry Consulting program offers our expertise and resources to help churches operate Faith & Finances. We can provide training and oversight at your location."
To learn more about STCH Ministries Faith and Finances, visit www.stchm.org or call 361-452-3046.
Reed Hewitt serves as Director of Communications for STCH Ministries.