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By Keith Schwanz
From his column It's Your Money Chart of naz pastors age distributions

The man gave me two options: I could give him a plane ticket to San Francisco, or I could buy him a car. Pick one, he said. He had a job with a roofing company waiting for him, and he needed to leave Portland ASAP.

This conversation took place at the door of the church, near the offices. The church staff kept the exterior door locked during the week for security. The building was on a major east-west street in the city. Scores of folks waited for buses just outside the door, moving to the side to let passengers disembark before climbing the steps to take the seats just vacated.

Because of our prominent location, we had numerous requests for assistance. Most people were not as specific as the man trying to get to California, but every person had an immediate need and inadequate resources to solve their predicament. So they knocked on our church door.

When I greeted the stranger, I had just a few moments to decide if and how the church might be able to assist. Out of the wide variety of pastoral tasks, I probably struggled most with requests for assistance from strangers. They came with pressing and specific requests, but it was left to me to discern the underlying problems they faced. Further, I had to mentally compare their needs with the resources available to me. Sometimes I followed the example of Peter and John when they told the beggar they could not provide what he requested (Acts 3). I offered alternatives when I could, but I could not and would not buy a plane ticket or a car for the man headed for the Bay area.

Financial Margin

Richard Swenson would say that folks asking for assistance at a church door lack financial margin (see Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives). Swenson says that just as page margins orient the eyes to the text and make it more readable, so space in a busy schedule will help a person fully engage in the most important things in life. And, financial margin allows a person to be nimble—to stay balanced when jostled by the unexpected circumstances of life.

Financial margin allows a person to be nimble—to stay balanced when jostled by the unexpected circumstances of life.

A financial advisor might call it an emergency fund. The rule of thumb is to have three to six months of living expenses readily available for life’s surprises: a broken spring that damages the right front tire; a clog in the sink that causes water to pour out of the dishwasher; a dental issue not covered by the insurance plan. Everyone should have an emergency fund.

The first step toward building an emergency fund is to spend less than you earn. The key to financial stability is disciplined spending. Sure, everyone would like to earn more, but the secret to success for any type of savings plan—emergency fund, retirement, down payment for a house—is controlling spending. A simplified lifestyle makes possible investment for tomorrow’s needs.

The Pastoral Household

I recently talked with a friend about his writing project on personal finance issues for ministers, both for the household and situations encountered in pastoral ministry. As we talked, I realized that the most common element of financial stress in my own experience could have been eliminated with an emergency fund. This was true for those within the congregation as well as those who came to the church for assistance.

I remember one man in our congregation who immediately needed $150. He didn’t tell me why, but assured me he was able to repay it at $50 per month. This man could handle the usual expenditures through his monthly cash flow, but it was the unexpected that revealed his fragile financial state. If he had owned a credit card, I might have known of his distress only if the minimum monthly payments exceeded what could be managed by his income. But he had a need. He told me about it. My wife and I decided to assist. My friend repaid the loan in three months as he said he would.

For the last several weeks, I have pondered Paul’s counsel to the leaders of the church in Ephesus. He urged them to be diligent in their livelihood in order to be ready to share with those in need (Acts 20:35). John Wesley said, “gain all you can . . . give all you can.” Richard Swenson might say, create financial margin so you can assist those without margin.

A pastoral household with financial margin will lead by example. They will embody the generosity of a gracious God as they assist those in need, even as they help others learn to do the same.

Keith Schwanz is a writer and editor who previously served in pastoral ministry and graduate theological education.

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