Churches reach out with financial literacy classes


By Kara Witherow, Editor

Nick Fletcher, a father of two with one on the way, says he’s never been financially stable. Elsie and Daniel Widener, parents of 16-month-old Evelyn, were stressed and had given up on budgeting.

Cheryl Howell, a registered nurse whose new home seemed more like a burden than a blessing, felt overwhelmed.

They are among the hundreds or so participants that gather each week at one of a handful of South Georgia United Methodist churches that offer biblical curriculum to teach financial well-being.

At Gateway Church’s Pooler campus, more than 100 people are participating in Financial Peace ChurchWide, a nine-week financial counseling program created by Nashville-based personal-finance expert Dave Ramsey.

“We knew this was a major need,” said Jeremy Crosby, Gateway Church’s Executive Pastor of Operations. Through prayer requests, conversations, and statistical data, church leaders knew much of the congregation was suffering financially. “We know that so many families are living paycheck to paycheck. So many families can’t cover a $1,000 emergency. So many families are consumed by debt.”

The church decided to pause all other small-group offerings for nine weeks and focus on biblical financial literacy.

“We knew from people who have been through this (course) that it not only improves finances, but if you’re married it improves communication and helps give people a purpose and a focus,” Crosby said. “It’s not just a financial thing. We knew it would be great for the whole congregation, it would give us all a common language, and would be something we could all do together.”

Fletcher and his wife, Brittany, want to become debt free so they can give generously in the future.

“We both have generous hearts, but we were not paying bills to be able to help somebody,” he said. “And that’s not what God intends.”

Using Ramsey’s tried-and-true principles – what Ramsey calls “The 7 Baby Steps,” they’ll be debt free in a few months and will have a small emergency fund in place, Fletcher said.

They’ll be on “Baby Step Three” then, saving towards a fully funded emergency fund.

Howell attended a nine-week Financial Peace University (FPU) course last fall when it was offered at Savannah’s Trinity United Methodist Church.

She and her husband were living paycheck to paycheck, not using a budget, she said, and falling behind.

The biblical principles, the group discussion, and the applicable financial tools she gained from the class gave her hope.

“It’s been very freeing,” she said. “I feel like I can catch my breath now.”

Before taking FPU, Howell thought she and her husband may have to sell their new home and move back into an apartment.

“When we started the class, I felt helpless; I felt overwhelmed,” she said. “Now I love my house instead of hate it. I feel so much better about everything. I’m very hopeful for the future and really excited to get everything paid off and start saving for retirement.”

Rev. Ben Gosden, senior pastor of Trinity UMC, lives the FPU principles in his own life and has led two classes.

“We’re big believers in FPU and I preach those principles when I preach stewardship too,” he said.

Keith Miller completed FPU nearly 15 years ago and now leads a class of 19 at Albany First United Methodist Church. The basic, biblical principles about how to live, save, tithe, and live on a budget are simple but profound, he said.

“There’s nothing magical, there’s nothing new. They’re just basic steps.”

But what FPU does, he said, is give people basic tools and a much-needed dose of hope.

“This isn’t something that’s taught in high school or college, and to me it’s important that we help people focus and see that it can be done. You can live within your means. You can pay off debt. It can lead to a different life.”

Miller, who is currently coordinating his fourth class at Albany First UMC, says that the classes are also an important avenue for the church to reach out and minister to the people in the community.

“We’re all in different stages of life, different seasons, but these principles apply to all of us and it will help. It’s something we can all gain from.”

For the Wideners, who attend a FPU class at The Chapel in Brunswick, the sense of community they receive in the group setting is crucial.

“It feels like a safe place to talk about the mistakes we’ve made,” Daniel Widener said. “We’re not the only ones going through this. It makes me feel like we’re not alone, like we can do it. We can find strength in each other.”

Ramsey doesn’t preach the “prosperity gospel” or that wealth is a sign of God's grace and favor. Lessons focus on budgeting, getting – and staying – out of debt, and living beneath one’s means. There are sessions dedicated to investing, college planning, insurance, and the importance of stewardship. Scripture is used liberally throughout the lessons.

“I used to think I was teaching people about money, but it’s a lot more than that,” said Chris Hasson, who leads a FPU class at Waterfront Church in Richmond Hill. “It’s all about the hole in your soul being God-shaped and what you try to fill it with.”

Life change doesn’t happen in nine short weeks, she admits, but behaviors can change and new habits can form.

The importance of the class, she said, is not to help people achieve financial prosperity, but to reach those in need.

“Reaching the lost should always be our mission – and to serve people where they’re hurting.”