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From his column It’s Your Money

its-your-money-03-14-1My friends seem to increasingly understand “debt” as a four-letter word to be avoided. A student came to me for assistance in creating a plan so she could graduate from seminary debt-free. It took an extra year, but she accomplished her goal. I talked with a man who had served in pastoral ministry for 13 years but had not made much headway on his student loans. At his wife’s insistence that something had to change, he searched for new employment that would provide compensation proportionate to their debt load. Just last week I corresponded with a man about a ministry opportunity that perfectly fit his personality, experience, and training. He turned it down because he first needs to take care of significant financial obligations.

Every three years the United States government conducts the Survey of Consumer Finances. The 2010 survey reported some startling statistics. For households with a head 75 years or older, the median value of debt was $30,000, compared with $4,700 in 1989 (in 2010 dollars). This 638 percent increase in household debt of those least able to generate income is alarming. For households with a head less than 35 years of age, the median value of debt was $39,600, compared with $19,200 in 1989. On average, households in this younger group carried $89,600 in debt. Often, student loans are the primary culprit. In 2010, 40.1 percent of households with a head younger than 35 had education installment loans compared with 17.1 percent in 1989. For young and old, and every age group in between, the value of household debt increased substantially between 1989 and 2010.

Social, Mental, and Physical Health

Pastors have long recognized the social stress caused by personal finance issues. I’ve heard numerous pastors say that money is often a factor in the marital counseling they do. Jeffrey Dew of Utah State University analyzed data from 4,500 couples. He found those with no savings and $10,000 in debt face twice the likelihood of divorce compared with couples with $10,000 in savings and no debt. A study in the UK made a correlation between the recent recession and an uptick in the divorce rate. Certainly, debt adversely affects the well-being of families.

Two recent research studies expand the understanding of the debilitating impact of debt. One, published in the European Journal of Public Health, looked at debt in three categories: utilities, housing-related, and shopping-related. Persons in this study also were assessed for “common mental disorders,” such as anxiety, depression, phobia, and panic. The research showed adults in debt had a three times greater chance of experiencing a common mental disorder than those without debt. The source of the debt did not matter. The conclusion? Debt is a major risk factor for mental distress.

In 2013, researchers at the Northwestern University medical school reported on a study involving 8,400 persons ages 24 to 32. In an interview with Tim Grant of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, lead researcher Elizabeth Sweet said, “We already know from other studies that being in debt is associated with stress, depression and even suicide. Our study goes beyond that to show that debt is also associated with worse physical health—including worse overall health and higher blood pressure. Debt doesn’t just make you feel bad, but can actually make you physically sick.”

Implications for Pastors

The Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School provides helpful research, recommendations, and remedies for health concerns of pastors. To date, this work has focused on physical, mental, and spiritual health with proposed practical steps like regular exercise and healthy eating. Future attention by those concerned with clergy health should take into account the role personal finance may play in physical and mental well-being. With congregations increasingly feeling financial pressure that affects clergy compensation and with young pastors often carrying the burden of student loans, we should carefully monitor clergy health and be ready to respond quickly if need be.

In providing pastoral care, clergy should consider the role debt or other financial concerns may play in the difficulties faced by parishioners. Depression, for example, may be the exihibited symptom. In this situation a pastor might ask about money worries, and then try to help the person find both emotional and financial assistance if needed. In the UK, an intentional effort is being made to make social workers and health care providers aware of the connection of health issues and debt. Clergy need to nurture a similar attentiveness.

Researchers acknowledge the difficulty of untangling the issues of debt and health. They conclude that depression can contribute to financial problems just as financial issues can exacerbate depression. It works both ways. So management of life’s difficulties must be multidimensional, too, and attention to personal finance issues must be part of the holistic care pastors provide.

Keith Schwanz is a writer and publisher from Overland Park, Kansas, who has served as a pastor, church musician, and seminary educator.

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