Can We Talk About Money at Church?

Over the next few weeks, folks who attend churches following the Revised Common Lectionary (a pattern of readings following the church year) will be treated to a number of parables in Luke’s Gospel that have to do with money. Luke, more than any of the other Evangelists, seems quite interested in helping Christians think through the relationship between their faith and their finances. And so he shares a number of the stories Jesus tells about people and how they handle their money.

Of these parables, one of the most confusing is the one about the “Dishonest Manager” which is the reading appointed for this Sunday. It revolves around the fate of a manger who was caught mishandling a rich man’s wealth and was subsequently fired. Too weak, as he says to himself, to do manual labor and too proud to beg, he starts cutting the debts various people owe his master in half, hoping that they would then feel obligated to provide for him after his dismissal. Up to this point, it’s an interesting story, as we watch this guy wheel and deal with what remains of his influence to try to protect himself. But then the parable takes an unexpected twist, as the owner (often the character in parables representing God) finds out what his manager is doing and instead of chastising him further he praises him. More than that, Jesus also lifts him up as an example for “children of the light” to follow.

So this week, preachers all over the country — if the don’t flee to another reading — are going to try to answer the question of why the owner praises his dishonest manager and what we’re supposed to make of it. To be honest, while I and others can make some guesses – that he is now using his position not to gain wealth for himself but to help others – they really are just guesses. So I’ve suggested to preachers that they turn this parable over to the congregation and ask folks what they think. Moreover, I’ve suggested that maybe the confusing nature of this parable is an invitation to begin a discussion about the sometimes confusing relationship between our faith and our money.

But here’s the thing: most of us have been trained since childhood to believe that money is personal, private, no one else’s business, and that it’s something polite people don’t talk about. Which of course makes talking about money at church very, very hard. At the same time, one of the things many of us report needing help with is precisely thinking about money from the perspective of faith – how much is enough, how much should we share, how do we teach our children, grandchildren, and the emerging generation Christian values about handling money? In fact, my friend Nathan Dungan says that one of the most pressing questions of this generation of parents is how to pass on values about money. (Nathan is the founder of the wonderful organization Share, Save and Spend and the author of Prodigal Sons and Material Girls: How Not to Be Your Child’s ATM.)

So here’s my question: would you be open to your pastor inviting you into conversation with other members about our relationship to money? If not, why not? If so, what would be helpful? And if you are preaching, what keeps you from starting this kind of conversation?

I know this is hard stuff to talk about. We tend to derive so much of our identity – too much of our identity! – from the money we have and spend. But if we keep silent, we pretty much reinforce the idea that our faith really doesn’t have anything to say to the economic realities and challenges that we all face and can give us no guidance when we think about making, sharing, spending, and using money. Do we really want the coming generation to grow up in a church like that?

Let me know what you think. Trust me, it’s not just me who’s interested, a whole crop of preachers will be following this conversation closely as I’ll link your comments to my Working Preacher column this week. Thanks for your candor, your questions, and your faith.