Praying For Cash: When Religion Meets Personal Finance

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Rodney Ballance thought he was out of the financial world for good. He’d worked as a life insurance salesmen in the mid-nineties before stepping away to focus on his personal life and work as a part-time firefighter. But three years ago, he prayed to work with money once again.

Ballance works as a money coach for the Abundant Life Institute, a Christian ministry that pairs the word of God with pearls of financial wisdom. He travels from one church community to the next, offering tips that mix scripture, facts he learned working in finance, and “common sense stuff that my granddaddy tried to teach me years ago.”

There are more than two dozen other coaches at the institute, most of whom have strong financial backgrounds and securities licenses. Ballance, for his part, has published a book on the subject.

It may seem an odd mix at first. After all, can the Bible really tell you how much to set aside in your 401K? Or point out stocks in which to invest?

Ballance believes it can, and to justify this, he repeats Abundant Life’s motto several times in conversation. “Because it’s God’s dollar, not ours!” According to Ballance, God is the ultimate financial regulator.

“If Christians would remember why they have what they have and from where it came, they’d be more cautious and thoughtful with their money,” he said. “It’s the same as when a kid knows their mom is watching. He won’t be as reckless as he might be without supervision. Well, God is watching and we will be held accountable for our decisions, both moral and financial.”

Of course, congregants aren’t the only ones worrying in this economy; religious institutions are in financial trouble as well. MSNBC reported recently that because of the current economic situation many religious schools have closed, congregations have shrunk and temples and churches are struggling to keep up donations and endowments. This has increased the need for advice even more.


The Abundant Life Institute is not alone in this pursuit. With the recession pounding households across the country, some are turning to their religious communities for comfort and advice. This year, churches in Kansas, New Jersey and Illinois, among other states, have offered personal finance workshops. And other religions are joining in, too. The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan recently announced a series of business lectures including one called “Coping With Your New Financial Realities.”

But perhaps no one has capitalized as much on this demand as Dave Ramsey. Ramsey broadcasts quasi financial sermons to churches across the country and has been dubbed “the prophet of personal finance.” He preaches the value of debt free living, and advises listeners to put 15% of their income into 401ks and to invest large portions of their income to get richer.

Yet, some question how much this advice comes from his religious beliefs and how much is just motivated by his own desire to get richer.
Alexander Hill, author of "Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace,” worries that Ramsey blurs the line between profiting off people and helping the church serve its role as a real life counselor. "It's the potential confusion that is a concern,” he told the Associated Press.

Ballance criticizes Ramsey more bluntly. “It’s just stupid talk,” he said. “The biggest mistake I think people have made is listening to the one-size-fits-all advisors.” In particular, he disagrees with Ramsey over 401K’s, arguing that it was only designed for higher wage owners, and not the blue collar workers who may be listening to Ramsey.

But there is a larger fissure in the world of Christian personal finance, based around one question: Is it bad to get wealthy?

According to Ramsey, the answer is a firm no. “Wealth is not evil, and people who possess it aren't evil by virtue of the wealth,” he wrote on Beliefnet.com.  “There are rich jerks and poor jerks.”

Ballance is much more cautious. In his eyes, it’s okay to make money, but that’s not the primary goal. First, people should focus on building a solid financial foundation, with fixed assets like permanent life insurance and Roth IRA’s. Once that’s done, he says there is a right way to earn cash. He advises people to invest in “clean, morally focused companies.”

Ultimately, advisors like Ramsey and Ballance are attempting to capitalize on people in desperate situations. Ramsey benefits financially, as he and his company are worth more than $7 million, according to the Associated Press. But Balance seeks religious gain. He confesses that his goal is to get people to shift from fixing their bank accounts to fixing their souls. These days, however, many Americans would be very happy just to fix their bank accounts.

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