RLC recently highlighted the work of the Chalmers Center’s Curriculum Specialist, Mark Bowers, through his piece on Flipping the Script on Financial Education. In January, we featured the transcript of Michael Rhodes’ talk at CCDA – Gleaning Towards the King Jesus Economy. These gentlemen have both been working from various angles on two programs for churches to run in their communities: Faith & Finances and Work Life. These are faith-based tools designed to equip churches and non-profits launch transformative, relational ministries around financial education and job readiness. We sat down with Mark and Michael to discuss this important work.
The curricula that you all have helped develop focus on financial education and job training. Why should churches get involved in these areas?
MR: There are a couple of levels on which this is incredibly important work. To begin with, Jobs for Life says less than 2% of churches do anything about jobs. The vast majority of church outreach is charity. Work is one of the primary means by which God has designed every person to be able to give their gifts to the community. So, when the church allows large segments of the population to be unemployed or underemployed, we are not fulfilling what Jesus and Paul called us to. Work is so important.
Additionally, there is something funky when we talk about the church helping the poor, because the church is supposed to be OF the poor. It is now so common that marginalized communities are ostracized from mainstream society, and churches are segmented by class. Relational programs like these are an important on-ramp to bridge these divides.
MB: Churches are perfectly situated to engage in more long-term, developmental processes with low-income folks. Relationships over time and across economic lines allow us to be the church and reflect the Kingdom of God – the haves and the have-nots in community together. As part of God’s new community, we’re called to be in relationship with folks that have far more resources than us, and far less resources than us. These programs provide an honest context where these relationships can be built and social capital redistributed.
Additionally, these relational economic development ministries are mutually transformative—they are not just for the low-income person to gain skills and employment. We’re shooting at something larger. We are aiming for the Kingdom of God made manifest. And it’s a long-term process. Sometimes people are first attracted to this work because they think, “What a great way to help poor people manage their money or get a job.” But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. They soon get drawn into relationships, and learn the value of being together—which is as important as any other outcome.
What are specific distinctives of the Faith & Finances or Work Life curricula?
MR: We wrote the Work Life curriculum with neighborhoods of concentrated poverty in mind – places where work has not worked, people are coming out of incarceration, or have previously been involved in the drug business.
Resumes, job interviews, and the things you would assume are central are actually about 25% of what we do – and it comes at the end. In Work Life, we have allies (similar to mentors) who work with participants through many different topics. We spend a significant time talking about people’s gifts and the way they are invited to give back through work. Workplace culture is another main focus. Our participants need to learn code-switching – how to move back and forth between their neighborhood culture and the culture of the workplace. And Work Life is about more than just work, our program teaches essential life skills as well. Communication and conflict resolution are essential skills for the workplace and at home, and necessary for stable relationships. So we spend time on that, too.
We also have participants share and dissect their stories in order to understand how their past is affecting them. This gives them the opportunity to identify their trauma. And they can see how my story might be broken, but God’s story is about re-creation. Every time, people from the same neighborhood and similar backgrounds say, “I never knew that other people suffered these same things that I’ve suffered.” It creates community.
MB: Most of the church’s exposure to financial education mirrors the Dave Ramsey mindset, which aims primarily at wealth building. But like we’ve mentioned before, we’re reaching for a much larger goal – the Kingdom of God made manifest. At the end of our classes, if our participants only become self-sufficient middle-class people, purchasing assets, growing an emergency fund, and escaping material poverty, then we have failed. We are aiming at restored community, where people see money as something larger than just a resource to be leveraged for self-help.
MR: Middle class people are tempted to think that the system works and that finances are for current consumption or future planning. On the other hand, low-income people are tempted to feel totally powerless to save, powerless to adjust their future, and see work as a curse. We sit in a middle space that is critical of both sides. We ask: What does it mean to seek first the Kingdom of God and trust that He will add everything else?
One of the key aspects of both of these curricula is a certification requirement for facilitators. Explain what this is about.
MR: Instead of just selling the curricula on Amazon, we require people who will lead these ministries to go through specific training. We do this because a successful Faith & Finances or Work Life community requires knowledge and skills that is not in the written curriculum – human capital, post-class follow up, pre-class recruiting, etc. There is so much involved. We’ve also heard common narratives whereby facilitators actually harm participants if they use the material to without understanding the entire economic and social context of participants. Pushing a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “just work harder” narrative on participants rarely leads toward restored relationships with finances and work. The training equips facilitators to consider a Biblical view of poverty, the causes of poverty, and our corporate responsibilities in light of the reality of economic poverty. It also covers best practices of in facilitating with low-income adults and setting up the infrastructure for a successful course.
Facilitator trainings consist of a 4 week-long online discussion, followed by a 2-day training. These are held in cities around the US.
What are some powerful stories of change resulting from Faith and
Finances or Work Life?
MB: One of our Faith & Finances sites is an old church in downtown Atlanta. This church used to be suburban, but with the expansion of the city, they are now in the thick of downtown.
The church decided to tie their benevolence program to their Faith & Finances course. Jose (name changed) came to be apart of the class. Jose was living on the streets and struggled with addiction. The church was able to help him get clean, with a lot of help from their allies, and Jose finished Faith & Finances. Jose shares about the deep affection and sense of community he felt in Faith & Finances. “You don’t just got finances” he declares. “You got love.” He now attends that church and has even taken a leadership position as a deacon. Not only has Jose’s journey been shaped, but the church community is starting to look different – more like the Kingdom of Jesus. Jose now equips the allies and church know how to navigate the world of homelessness and addiction, even helping new Faith & Finances participants cut unhealthy ties and move toward God’s design for all of their lives.
How can my church community get involved?
MB & MR: For more information about Faith & Finances visit chalmers.org/finances. To learn more about Work Life visit chalmers.org/work-life. And if you don’t see a training near you, and want to explore the possibility of bringing one to your city or region, reach out and let’s talk about the possibility.
We would LOVE for people to grasp the vision and begin these new communities! You don’t need to have a financial or business background to do this – the ideal facilitator is someone with people skills and a sincere concern for their community.
What Scriptures drew you into and keep you coming back to this work?
MR: Isaiah 61- This passage prophesies that the ransomed poor will be called oaks of righteousness. When I am frustrated or discouraged, I remember that we are creating an empowering strategy for the marginalized. The poor are the ones who will restore our cities. “They will rebuild the ancient ruins, repairing cities destroyed long ago.”
MB: Isaiah 58 – True fasting and authentic worship is to spend yourselves on behalf of the needy. The work is hard, and results can be slow. But this is not outcomes-oriented work. We are building into people, not creating widgets. In this work, Yahweh promises we will be refreshed. When we draw on the abundance of Him, there is enough. “You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.”
Michael Rhodes is the Director of Community Development and an Adjunct Professor at the Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies (MCUTS), where he heads up The Oaks Project. Rhodes spent the previous 5 years serving as Director of Education at Advance Memphis, a faith-based economic development non-profit serving the South Memphis community where Rhodes currently lives.
J. Mark Bowers writes and trains for the Chalmers Center, a church-equipping organization that spawned the When Helping Hurts series. An ardent advocate for friendship across socioeconomic lines, Mark spends his time after hours community-generating, social-enterprising, and church-mobilizing in his under-resourced