Getting The Word Out On Managing Finances

Churches preach on the link between giving and prospering


August 07, 2005|By Barbara Evans | Barbara Evans,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Some years ago, the Rev. Robert L. Wilks took a look at his finances and decided to put them in God's hands.

Operating on faith, Wilks sold his luxury cars and gave $18,000 from the sales to the church.

He says he soon understood the spiritual link between gaining wealth and giving and has seen his ministry prosper: more members tithe, he received monetary gifts and his ability to give to others increased.

This message is being repeated throughout the Baltimore area as churches are expanding their ministries beyond Sunday services, Bible studies and prayer meetings. Ministers like Wilks point to the Bible's Scriptures, which say faithful stewards will prosper if they learn how to manage money or God's resource.

By focusing on pocketbook issues from a Christian perspective, the hope is that church members will use their wealth to help others, including tithing to the church, which is a biblical principle that requires followers to give a tenth of their income to the church.

"There is the Word [Bible's] system and the world system. We have allowed the world system to take charge of how we view our economics and our finances and because of that we have been poverty-minded," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III of Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which sponsored a free faith and financial empowerment seminar in June. About 2,000 people attended the two-day event, which was called "Power to Get Wealth."

"We want to teach all people the purpose of wealth and that it is not selfish and self-centered," he said. "The purpose of wealth is to build up your community and to build structures that will help the poor and the needy."

About 50 percent of his 18,000 church members are middle class and 50 percent are "people on their way up."

He said one way a church can help its members is by teaching them how to manage their money, set financial goals and show them the relationship between faith and finances.

"Once you sow into the man of God at this [Bethel] church, you will be blessed," said Wilks, pastor of Vine-Life Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif. He was among several speakers at the seminar. Its title was taken from Deuteronomy 8:18: "But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth."

The Bethel conference gave advice on everything from paying down debt to starting a business.

Historically, the African-American church has always taken such issues from the secular to the spiritual realm. There are some who believe that this type of talk is nothing more than teaching prosperity.

Ian Straker, a historian at the Howard University School of Divinity, said he has some reservations about the whole notion of the church's stepping into the personal finances of its members.

"Though African-American churches have historically related faith and finances [such as in discussions of tithing and stewardship], I worry that the current emphasis by some on 'economic empowerment' is linked to" prosperity gospel, Straker said.

"Those claiming that healthy bank accounts are the fruit of 'healthy' faith are preaching prosperity and not the historic gospel of Jesus Christ that has sustained the African-American community since antebellum times," he said.

On the contrary, said Michael Chitwood, CEO and president of Chitwood & Chitwood, a financial consulting firm that advises churches on financial matters. The church should be concerned with parishioners' total spiritual welfare, which includes financial matters, he said.

Chitwood, who led the Bethel conference, said, "Money is not there for [people] to have bigger cars and houses. It's there to do things like get your preacher on television to spread the word of God."

Churches don't necessarily keep statistics to prove that biblical principles are effective tools, but Chitwood has anecdotal evidence.

He manages the finances of 4,000 church clients, 65 percent of which are African-American churches.

"Tithes can go up between 18 and 30 percent the first year" after a parishioner gets his financial house in order, said Chitwood, who speaks nationally on this subject.

"There is a big connection between faith and finance. The Bible states that the people perish due to a lack of knowledge and vision."

The gospel of smart money management won over those in attendance at Bethel's conference.

Oronde Sharif, 32, who is the artistic director of the Shona Sharif African Dance and Drum Ensemble, traveled from Pittsburgh to attend.

"I wasn't really expecting too much," said Sharif. "I have attended these types of conferences before and they don't really give any new information. But [Chitwood] was giving usable information and not just talking. That was the selling point."

Sharif, like many others, purchased Chitwood's Wealth System product, a how-to guide on money management and gaining wealth. He planned to use this to build his business.

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