How Our Failure to Preach on the "M" Word Damages More than Parish Budgets

I got curious.

With stewardship season fast approaching and knowing many preachers feel uncomfortable talking about money, I wanted to know why. 

Why does preaching about money—or talking about money in just about any context—make us squirm with awkwardness?

I almost wished I hadn't looked because the answers I found gave me more than I bargained for. This blog summarizes the articles I read, listed at the end.

When Did Talking about Money Become Taboo?

Interestingly, while talking about money may be taboo for you and me, it isn't off limits for everyone everywhere, because talking about money—or avoiding it—is culturally specific.

For example, in some cultures talking about money is seen as genuinely helpful, and not discussing it is rude. If I'm paying a higher price for rent than you are, or I paid less than you did for a car, it's polite to talk about it so we can both pay what's fair.

In the United States, especially among the middle class, it seems we inherited the taboo of talking about money from early American colonizers from England.

In England, the wealth of others was easily estimated based on the amount of land one owned and all it required to build up and maintain it. A person's wealth, and the status, power, and prestige it implied, was self-evident.

People who had money didn't need to talk about it. Therefore, those who talked about money were the ones who didn't have it.

And thus the discussion of money was associated with those in a "lower class." 

To oversimplify hundreds of years of social development, to be "classy" (meaning to be polite, genteel, respectable) meant not talking about money—and so our social norm was established.

How Bad Is This U.S. Taboo? 

Bad.

Here are just three interesting findings to give you the gist:

  • According to Lizzie Post (of the Emily Post etiquette dynasty), the ranking of topics from easiest to most difficult to talk about is: weather, entertainment, food, hobbies, sports, politics, religion, and relationships/sex. And then money.
  • Another study in London revealed that people were seven times more likely to talk with a stranger about sex, affairs, and their medical consequences than to discuss their salaries.
  • Close to 3/4 of Americans think talking about money is rude.

The upshot for preachers?

It might be easier to preach a sermon about politics, tell that funny story about an affair as a sermon illustration, or reveal your favorite World Cup team than preach about money.

And I don't mean the polite and commonplace sermon about how it's "harder for the rich to get to heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle."

I mean really preach about money.

The money we all have.

The Cost of Avoiding the "M" Word

Forget about parish budgets for a minute.

Think about how much time, emotional energy, and relational labor is spent worrying about money in your average parishioner's life.

Practically speaking, this taboo around money talk traps people in ignorance, stress, and scarcity:

  • financial illiteracy leads to uninformed consent when we sign on the dotted line, leading to unwelcome surprises when the bills come due
  • as a country, we continue to amass the greatest amount of personal debt in the history of the world
  • financial distress is a factor correlated with domestic violence
  • immense unnecessary stress occurs when the spouse who managed the finances dies without leaving a trail of bread crumbs to the family's bank (or the computer passwords to the online accounts)
  • college grads amass student loan debt without calculating whether a chosen profession provides an adequate salary to pay it off
  • women and minorities continue to experience injustice in pay equity because ignorance of what others are paid makes it impossible to know if they're paid the same (even in the Church, my dear brothers in Christ, where you are typically paid more than your female counterparts).

What We Gain by Breaking the Silence: Shalom.

Many sermons deride money as a necessary evil (or just plain evil), so does it sound funny—even heretical—to connect "shalom" to "money"?

Money itself is amoral—neither evil nor good. But our perspective toward it can make it decidedly corrupt or benevolent.

As preachers, we have a responsibility to disrupt the "don't ask, don't tell" culture of silence around money to cast a sacred vision for money as a tool to usher in shalom for our neighbor.  

Shalom is a state of well-being for all: a state of freedom to serve others because we have what we need for body, mind and spirit.

When preachers avoid discussions of money, we forfeit an opportunity to promote a state of shalom where people are free—truly free and available to build the reign of God because they're not weighed down by the anxiety or shame of financial distress.

In service of shalom, we might preach about:

  • how to promote justice for our lesser-paid colleagues by advocating they receive the same pay we earn for the same work 
  • the need to teach financial literacy—beginning with our kids so they learn sound financial decision-making skills and grow up to sign with informed consent—leading to less stress and greater family harmony
  • the joy of living well within one's means with enough left over to give to those in need
  • the virtue of patience, so often missed with every purchase we pay interest on
  • the dignity and respect we can give our loved ones after we die by sharing with them the amounts and locations of our assets and debts
  • joyful financial giving because we no longer care whether we are "keeping up with the Joneses."

Where can you start to normalize the topic of money? What uncomfortable truths about money need to be preached to your congregation to lead everyone closer to shalom?

You might still claim that money is the root of all evil, but what seems even clearer to me is that not talking about money sure leads to a lot of it.


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Articles

    Cultural Norms and History of Speaking about Money

    • "Why Is Talking About Money More Taboo Than Sex?" https://www.makingsenseofcents.com/2017/06/talking-about-money.html
    • "It’s Not Rude to Talk About Money" https://free.vice.com/en_us/article/xwm353/its-not-rude-to-talk-about-money
    • "The Money Taboo: Why It Exists, Who It Benefits, And How To Navigate It" https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2015/04/14/the-money-taboo-why-it-exists-who-it-benefits-and-how-to-navigate-it/#7027b75d2f62
    • "Why Is Talking About Money Such a Taboo Subject? These tips will help you have those difficult conversations." https://money.usnews.com/investing/articles/2016-12-27/why-is-talking-about-money-such-a-taboo-subject
    • "Chinese Money Habits - How My Culture Influences My Attitudes Toward Money" https://www.wisebread.com/chinese-money-habits-how-my-culture-influences-my-attitudes-toward-money

    Financial Stress and Domestic Violence

    • "Associations of financial stressors and physical intimate partner violence perpetration" https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4771826/
    • "Are money problems and violence related?" https://now.uiowa.edu/2016/04/are-money-problems-and-violence-related

    Pay Inequity

    • "Gender pay gap among clergy worse than national average – A first look at the new national data" https://religionnews.com/2016/01/12/gender-pay-gap-among-clergy-worse-than-national-average-a-first-look-at-the-new-national-data/
    • The Pay Gap Is Worse for Pastor-Moms: How being married with kids complicates church compensation. https://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/august/pay-gap-is-worse-for-pastor-moms.html
    • "On Views of Race and Inequality, Blacks and Whites Are Worlds Apart"  http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/on-views-of-race-and-inequality-blacks-and-whites-are-worlds-apart/

    U.S. Personal Debt

    • U.S. Personal Debt - Statistics & Facts https://www.statista.com/topics/1203/personal-debt/
    • "Consumer debt is set to reach $4 trillion by the end of 2018" https://www.cnbc.com/2018/05/21/consumer-debt-is-set-to-reach-4-trillion-by-the-end-of-2018.html
    • "This Is How Much Debt the Average American Has Now—at Every Age" http://time.com/money/5233033/average-debt-every-age/