Tonight I was at the seminary for a stewardship event that welcomed new students and introduced them to the concept of financial coaches. I come home grateful.
I didn't balance my check book or keep my receipts. I didn't know what my credit score was or how to take out a loan. But I did come to seminary debt free and paid all my bills on time. I did know how to ask for help and knew that I'd need to learn something about personal finance and stewardship if I wanted to create healthy money habits in my personal and, eventually, my public life.
In 2004, eight of us signed up for a financial coach. I remember sitting down to lunch with Tom for the first time and handing over the truth: I don't have any debt yet, but I do have some scholarships. I'd like to think I'm thrifty, but I've never really stuck to a budget. Help me figure this out and hold me accountable. I don't think of myself as a money person - I don't think anyone thinks of me like that - so I'll need some validation along the way.
Our conversations were simple but fruitful. Here, in the presence of a stranger who did not judge my actions or let me off the hook, we formed the stewardship identity I wanted. Together we shaped the way I would relate my values and resources during seminary and beyond.
Internship gave me an opportunity to budget on a more fixed income and to practice the ups and downs of a financial year. I saved for flights home and future tuition payments. I shared with my congregation and causes close to my heart. I spent wisely and it felt good.
Senior year I worked in the Seminary Relations office. My job was to thank people. Seriously. 12-20 hours each week I wrote letters, called people and shared my gratitude at donor events. I was saturated with thankfulness and an appreciation for the simple joy of giving. I will always remember Dorothy Lee's words at the Women in Philanthropy Tea: I was confused when I learned that the seminary was calling me a woman in philanthropy, but I'm also tickled because if I can be a philanthropist, anyone can! And that day I decided to believe her.
Matt and I got married about a month after graduation. We sat down to talk about our finances, wanting to start with our gift to the church because we were taught to share the first fruits. We were quiet for a few minutes and then admitted that we didn't know what the first fruits would be! I was starting my first call later that summer and he was still in school, working his tail off for a stipend and paying off loans of his own. Then Matt said, I don't know what the numbers are going to look like, but I think we should give more to church than we do to Comcast. I hate Comcast and still shell out $105 for cable and internet each month. So let's start there and pledge that no matter the numbers, we're giving more to the church, something we actually like and believe in, than to the bill I begrudgingly pay each month.
We crunched the numbers and by September we were giving three times what we paid to Comcast. This was a joyful place to start and from here we began the journey of working toward a tithe. All year we have logged our income and payments on a simple excel program we store and share via Google Documents. This keeps the lines of communication open about our sharing, spending and saving and keep us on the same page - literally. Matt and I make plenty of mistakes and don't always see eye to eye about our financial choices, but our values align and that makes all the difference. I've come a long way from occasionally checking my account balances online.
Matt and I will never make millions of dollars in our professions, but it will be more than enough. We're flying high on good communication, healthy habits and the pride we take in our two year plan to be student debt free. The recession is woven into my prayer life everyday, but I am not swept away by the chaos and mania of scarcity that the media provides. The system I started to discover five years ago with a financial coach includes controlling what's controllable and believing in God's abundance.
The best news of all? Having a financial coach sparked a series of events that has led me to a congregation hungry for the gospel of stewardship and the true message of satisfaction in a world that preaches never enough. Stewardship became an important part of my public identity. I went from being a 23 year old girl who didn't think she was a money person to a woman and pastor who is brave enough to talk about money. And I urge you to take up the conversation. It's a worthy journey and an invaluable gift.
I'm grateful, Tom and Luther Seminary. I'm still writing my stewardship story, but this first draft is thanks to you.