Education Beyond the Walls: Ministers Facing Money

Carrie Graham, Project Coordinator for the Ministers Facing Money program, is committed to helping pastors understand the importance of money management. She invites them to move toward freedom from captivity to money—for themselves, for the people they serve, and for God’s work in the world. 

Graham tells her story of how she found her way to the Seminary, why money management is so important, and offers details about the MFM program. You can find more information about the program here.  

Tell us a bit about your background and how you wound up at Austin Seminary.

At the end of my college experience I knew I was called to go to seminary. However, I was penniless, so I became a public school teacher for a year and a half. I saved half my paycheck every month to go toward my future education. I received additional help from various sources, including a scholarship to Fuller Theological Seminary and help from my hometown church. I worked at all times while in seminary and kept a careful budget. Thanks be to God, I graduated debt-free.

This enabled me to take on a pastoral role right out of seminary in a context about which I was passionate: a non-traditional plant setting. Pastors there raise support to work in a creative, highly missional context. I raised support for my salary for two years before becoming a consultant for the Austin District of the UMC.

Because of my personal journey with debt-free theological education, and thus experiencing the freedom to do ministry exactly as I feel called, this work with Austin Seminary really caught my attention. As I continue to pastor part-time, it is a privilege to work with students on theology of money, and on personal and professional practices with money.

What is the goal of the Ministers Facing Money program?

Ministers Facing Money, or MFM, offers resources to help seminarians navigate issues related to money, both professionally and personally. One major part of MFM involves a cohort of students that focus on theology and financial practices as a community for 1 academic year. These students are encouraged to practice leadership with classmates as their own theology and practices are influenced. Other resources include but are not limited to offering Financial Peace University to the seminary community, as well as one-on-one consultations with students seeking to a) further develop their theology of money, b) create and follow a budget or c) learn about resourceful practices that position money an agent of hope for others, rather than an idol to which we are perpetually enslaved.

MFM is the student-involving piece of a grant Austin Seminary has received, which is more formally called Addressing Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers. The grant, funded by a Lilly Endowment, allows us to explore money and theological education from a number of angles, including the Ministers Facing Money program.

Why is this so important?

Jesus talks more about money than love in the Bible. Yet if I gave most people the option of either projecting on the wall the details of their sex life or their financial decisions, it is likely we would hear more about the former. The topic of money has remained in a culturally acceptable darkness for far too long. Learning to practice more transparency with money can bring the subject into the light; it opens up a chance for a healthier spirituality and a stronger body of Christ.

Additionally we are witnessing a changing landscape for our denominations’ financial practices. As such it is more important than ever to provide education that allows students to dream resourcefully about their future ministry. Can they become full-time ministers if their debt repayment obligations are too high for standard pastoral salaries? What if following a call means getting paid little or nothing? Will future pastors be equipped to find ways to minister well and take care of bills? We must equip students to be good ministers in the context they will enter: a transitional era of denominational ministry that calls for flexibility.

Give an example of a practice you teach students that enter the program.

We hope students can understand a budget as a document reflecting spiritual health. Along with all other parts of our lives, we hope financial practices will increasingly work through a carefully considered Scriptural lens. As such, we work on our theology of money alongside our practices with it, both individually and in a community context. We ask students in the cohort to take the risk of trusting one another enough to be transparent with their financial story, and to experience transformation as that trust builds among community.

We educate students about creative and resourceful practices where money is used as an agent of hope, such as with organizations like Acts of Sharing or Common Change, or through trends like Advent Conspiracy or church-based group assistance in debt repayment. We let these practices, which use money as an agent of hope, stand in contrast with the common practice of our level of hope being influenced by money.

If students can both understand and experience money as an agent of hope, rather than money determining our level of hope, then we are equipping future ministers with some powerful tools that point to Good News.

Was there anything that surprised you as you got involved with the program?

Several surprises have come about, though few that should have surprised me. With a topic so long kept in the dark, welcoming transparency is not always immediately embraced. During the first semester of the program, and to a lesser extent now (the second semester), some students have avoided me. My office is difficult to ignore with its glass walls and central location, so this avoidance is sometimes humorous and at others, a bit painful to notice. Even though this initial year is explicitly an experimental one, and in spite of frequent evaluative measures, unsolicited criticism can at times leak into developing pieces of MFM efforts. This behavior has played an important role in MFM’s first year in that, among many things, serves as a reminder of the fragile nature of this topic. Money calls forth our vulnerability in a unique way. I am grateful my other employment is as a pastor; there is more overlap in the work than might meet the eye.

In contrast, the second delightful surprise has come in the form of retractions of that initial pushback. Several of those that initially struggled with certain aspects of Ministers Facing Money have had time to grapple with the reasons of their own resistance. Many of them have already come back to make progress by perhaps reducing their debt, cutting up credit cards, and/or making a plan for their debt repayment. Some meet with me to work one-on-one with their budgets. Many have a more robust theological sense as to why sound stewardship matters. I spend an increasing amount of my time giving hugs and high fives when students have “aha!” moments or reach milestones in their financial journey with God.

I am elated to get to be the one to cheer on students as they increase their transparency with money and let finances into their rightful place: integrated centrally into our spiritual lives. Watching others experience transformation on such a journey brings me great joy. And of course, the bumpiness of the experience shows me just how vital -and exciting- Ministers Facing Money is. May God continue to transform all involved with this journey.