Does Progressive Christian Financial Advice Exist? | Sojourners

Does Progressive Christian Financial Advice Exist?

Over the last two decades, Dave Ramsey’s name has been synonymous with evangelicalism and money. Although some Christians reject Ramsey’s financial advice and the theology that supports it, it’s not always clear where those seeking alternative faith-based money-management programs can turn.

Ramsey, who hosts a national radio program, has authored seven bestselling books, and co-created Financial Peace University, which is famous for its strict approach to personal finance. Ramsey often takes a harsh approach to debt and poverty, teaching debt is due to “stupidity” and that with “seven baby steps” anyone can take control of their money.

Financial Peace University, a nine-week course that Ramsey describes as a “proven plan to pay off debt, save for emergencies, and build wealth” is most well-known in churches, who have utilized it to teach congregants money management.

Ramsey’s approach — often yelling at and berating the people who call into his show — has received regular scrutiny, as has his investment advice. The data around the “debt-snowball” method that Ramsey popularized is mixed: It’s effective to help build debt-paying habits, but financial advisers say the method would lose you money in the long-run.

Christian critics of Ramsey don’t often focus on his style or methods; rather, they say Ramsey’s narratives about money and wealth promote individualism and greed — a contradiction to Christian teaching.

“[Financial security] is not really a theme we find in scripture,” D.L. Mayfield, author of The Myth of the American Dream, told Sojourners.

Ramsey and his business, Ramsey Solutions, have faced even more scrutiny in 2021. The company made headlines after reporting by Bob Smietana of Religion News Service outlined how the business had fired a pregnant employee for premarital sex and downplayed the threat of COVID-19.

Building together

Where Ramsey blames poverty on a personal failure, Christians who acknowledge the effects of systemic racism, rising wealth inequality, and other institutional failures seek money management programs and ideologies that reflect such realities. Additionally, Christians who have long prophesied against American inequality, consumerism, and capitalism, are passing those lessons on to a new generation.

Stanley Long, chairman of the board for Urban Ministries, Inc., an African-American Christian media company that produces curricula, magazines, and other church materials, said that, overall, Black churches have stood against individualism and consumerism, promoting a spirit of communal living instead.

In contrast to Ramsey’s belief that debt is fundamentally about consumer habits, Long said Black Americans have seen how racist practices — in hiring, real estate, home-loan approval, and more — have impeded their ability to build wealth. Confronting these practices required most Black Americans to build together, viewing themselves as a community, not individuals in competition against one another.

Long said that UMI has been working to call attention to the story of Black Wall Street, an affluent Black community in early 20th century Tulsa, Okla. Black Wall Street is better known as the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, during which white residents and police destroyed the community and killed between 100-300 residents. UMI, however, has sought to highlight the lesson of community building found in the Tulsa community.

“Black people built together a community that included everything from banks to churches to hospitals, to colleges, to dry cleaners, to whatever, as a community,” he said.

That mindset serves as contrary to Ramsey’s approach. Step seven of Ramsey’s program is “build wealth and give,” which Long described as “get yours, give the crumbs to somebody else.”

While he emphasized that no one person could speak on behalf of the entire Black church, he said the historic teaching found among Black Christians is the opposite of prosperity gospels that promote personal wealth.

“The Black church has championed the idea that … you are only a good steward when you’re sharing what you have with others.” he said. “You have been given so that you might give, not so that you might accumulate for yourself.”

Abundance to share

For church leaders looking to find a program that has a theology markedly different from Ramsey's Financial Peace University, sources for this piece pointed to Lazarus at the Gate. The eight-session course disciples people in a four-pillar approach to money, according to one of its creators, Gary VanderPol.

VanderPol released the program in 2007, as part of his doctoral work and a partnership with the Boston Faith and Justice Network. Participants are taught to live gratefully, live justly, live simply, and live generously. The first two pillars draw from the Old Testament, where abundance is taught as a good to be justly distributed among the people.

“The law of gleaning, whereby you own your orchard, but the edges and whatever falls to the ground actually belongs to the poor, it’s not yours,” he said referencing the scriptural practice outlined in Leviticus 19 and 23, and Deuteronomy 24. “If you take it, you’re actually stealing from the poor; it’s part of the system. It’s not optional. It’s justice, not charity.”

The last two pillars pull from the New Testament, where wealth is taught to be dangerous and easily corrupted, and Jesus mostly instructs others to give their money to the poor.

Lazarus at the Gate is open-source — meaning it can be distributed, used, and modified without violating the copyright. This has led to various iterations of the course, as local groups morph it to better fit their time and place, VanderPol said. While he’s the primary author, others have contributed through the years to the program’s content and design.

“I do think a limitation of it is that it is focused on people who can, after reflection and discernment, identify as wealthy,” VanderPol said.

After grappling with Ramsey's grip on evangelical ideology, Mayfield included Lazarus at the Gate in her book. She told Sojourners she appreciated Lazarus at the Gate’s focus on community and communal discipleship, adding that Christians needed to recapture a collectivist mindset, with a strong critique of the injustice in our capitalist system.

According to Mayfield, Ramsey’s teachings build a cycle of self-congratulations for those who have enough money and self-doubt for those who don’t. She said that churches would be better off equipping their congregants with budgeting software like You Need A Budget, rather than Ramsey’s work.

“What we have in our houses, what we have in our bank accounts, it belongs to the poor, it belongs to our neighbors,” Mayfield said. “[When we hoard wealth] not only are we not being wise, judicial, managers of our money, we are actually people withholding blessings from our neighbors.”

‘I couldn’t find a lot of people writing on that’

Mike Little, the director of the Faith and Money Network, agreed saying churches need to believe that their money practices are tied to whether they are good neighbors. The network invites participants to write a “money autobiography,” which asks questions about their money practices, but also what they’ve been taught about money and how they conceive of it.

Discussing the issue of systemic poverty, Little said churches and pastors need to realize that the opportunity to build wealth has been denied to Black Americans and other minorities through racist policies.

“We try to encourage people to spend more time with the city zoning commissions … That’s where the church needs to be,” he said. “That’s where decisions about where sidewalks go, and where busses go [are made]. The city gets carved up to benefit those who have more than they need in the first place.”

Another program mentioned in interviews for this piece was Saving Grace: A Guide to Financial Well-Being, which utilizes Wesleyan teachings to help people develop money management practices.

However, when looking for resources on progressive, Christian money-management, the options are limited. Beside the aforementioned, interviewees came up blank when asked to name programs designed for everyday budgeting.

“There’s such an absolute dearth of study, and talks, and Christian financial literacy curriculum that target the affluent, and the moral sickness that happens when you’re affluent in an unequal and unjust society,” Mayfield said. “Honestly, I couldn’t find a lot of people writing on that.”

Bryan Stone, associate dean for academic affairs at the Boston University School of Theology, agreed. While helping create a “Faith and Finance” course geared toward future ministers, he and his colleagues struggled to find quality resources; they decided to make their own course available online for free

All sources for the piece emphasized the importance of community in the process of developing just economic practices. For some, the most important thing they learned was how group accountability can strengthen individual commitments; for others, it was an emphasis on changing community values.

“What we need, as a culture, is to say our economic system is not working for everybody,” Mayfield said. “Especially if it works well for you, you have a moral and ethical responsibility to do something about this system.”

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