The Money Trap

Instead of leading men and women of God into a truly abundant life, churches often get ensnared by a few major traps. Here's how you can not only avoid these common pitfalls, but also free your congregation to become outrageous givers for kingdom work.
Picture a church filled with passionate, loving, outrageous givers. Sadly, that requires some imagination. Surveys tell us that only 3 percent of evangelical Christians tithe—meaning 97 percent don't. Does that mean that 97 percent don't love their church, don't love God, don't love Jesus? Does that mean they are greedy and swallowed up in consumerism? I used to think that. But after working with hundreds of thousands of families across the globe for decades, I've discovered that just isn't the case. They aren't greedy; they're broke.

To make matters worse, I've found that churches don't always know how to help people get on their feet financially. Instead of leading men and women of God into a truly abundant life, churches often stumble into a few key money traps. Let's take some time to identify what these traps are and how we, as godly church leaders, can help turn this ship around.

Trap No. 1: Preaching the Standard Giving Sermon
A while back, I was in Washington, D.C., speaking to several hundred pastors. I opened with this statement: "Quit preaching on tithing and giving." You can imagine how well that went over. You'd think I had told them to stop preaching sermons altogether. They just looked back at me with blank stares, almost like they were waiting for the punch line.

The Wall Street Journal says 70 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Guess what? These are the people who are sitting in your pews. While they're stressed out and trying to figure out how to make ends meet, we step up and preach a sermon on tithing. Then, when giving doesn't go up immediately, we're left scratching our heads and wondering what happened. We think, Well, it must not have been an effective message. That's not it at all.

We're going about this completely backward. We've been telling people to give, but we haven't been showing them how they can give. That's like a farmer trying to reap where he hasn't sown. We can say "give, give, give" all day long, but if Mom and Dad are sitting in the pews worried about their retirement, credit card debt and the kids' college fund, they won't hear us.

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Proverbs 22:7 says the borrower truly is slave to the lender. A slave doesn't have any choices. A slave can't give because he doesn't own anything. He may want to give, he may have a generous heart, but at the end of the day, he has a master who is calling the shots. For those in our pews, that master is Visa or MasterCard or Sallie Mae. If we want our people to give, we've got to lead them out of slavery.

Trap No. 2: Lingering in the Land of Slavery
In the book of Exodus, Moses leads the children of Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. These people had lived their entire lives as slaves. Their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had been slaves. Slavery was in their bones. In Numbers 13, we find 12 spies commissioned to go in to check out the land of Canaan. Ten of them come back with the spirit of Eeyore. I can just imagine their report to Moses: "We can't do it. It's too hard. Don't worry about us ... nobody ever does." They couldn't conceive of taking hold of such a rich land. They had a slave's mentality, so they made slavelike decisions. It's all they knew.

That's how a lot of our church members are today. They've been in slavery to debt for so long, they can't even imagine stepping into a rich, prosperous land where they would have more than enough for their families, more than enough to give to others. It's hard for them to even envision having enough to regularly give toward kingdom-building ventures.

Instead of preaching another giving sermon, what would happen if you helped them get their finances together? What if you, like Moses, led them out of their slavery? Think about it: What could the people of God do for the kingdom of God if they were debt-free?

The bottom line is that people give when they have money. I see it all the time with the families we work with. When people get control of their money, they start to give like never before. You can count on it: Giving is a natural outgrowth of winning financially.

But when someone has to choose between giving to the church and paying the light bill, the electric company wins every time. This isn't selfish behavior at all. The issue isn't generosity; the issue is resources. A family that is living paycheck to paycheck (even if that paycheck is a large one) just doesn't have the extra resources to give.

If you want to get your church back on track financially, if you want to see the average giving skyrocket in your congregation, you've got to change your approach. The people in the pews need to catch a vision of freedom.

In our live events all over the country, I often ask thousands of people to close their eyes and imagine what it would feel like to have no debt—no car payments, no MasterCard, no American Excess. The spirit that fills the auditorium at that moment is incredible. Do you want to know what peace sounds like? I hear it all the time in the collective sigh of 10,000 people picturing themselves ... free.

Over the years we've helped millions of families get out of debt by challenging them to catch this vision of freedom. Now, in a new program we offer called Momentum, we're doing the same thing for churches. We're showing them how to lead their congregations in a Total Money Makeover—you could call it a "Total Member Makeover." By freeing the families from debt, these churches are unleashing incredible, joyful givers to do remarkable work for the kingdom.

A church can experience real momentum only when it gets focused and intense about creating and executing a healthy budget, and keeping that focus and intensity going over time. We call it the Momentum Theorem:

Focused intensity over time, multiplied by the power of God, will create unstoppable momentum for the church. (For more information on how your church can experience Momentum, check out

This isn't a new plan. All we've done is applied the 800-plus verses of Scripture regarding personal finance. Neither is this a microwave solution—it's a Crock-Pot cure. Behavior change takes time, and slowly but surely we're helping God's people go from tippers (tossing God a "tip" here and there), to tithers (giving a true tithe week in and week out), to lifelong, generous, outrageous givers.

Trap No. 3: Keeping an Unhealthy Budget
The key to making this stuff work, however, is the dreaded "B-word"—budget. A family simply cannot win with money without doing a budget on paper, on purpose. The same is true for churches. I often think of the church budget as the elephant in the room—everyone sees it but no one talks about it. Well, it's time to talk about it. I run a good-size company made up of three divisions and 14 profit centers within those divisions. Trust me, I know something about putting together a budget and making a team accountable for it. It's absolutely essential for a business, and it's essential for your church. So let's look at some fundamental issues surrounding a healthy church budget.

Budgeting requires critical thinking. Many churches figure out their average monthly expenses and giving from the previous year—or previous 50 years—and use that to scratch out a loose monthly operating budget. This is a disaster. No two months are ever alike. You've got to look at each month individually and see what is expected right then. For example, you may have a "summer slump" in giving as many church members are away on vacation. That's normal. Most churches experience a dip in giving during the summer months and an escalation in giving in December for end-of-the-year tax reasons. Your budget and cash planning should anticipate that.

Your budget should be dynamic, not static. That is, the budget changes as you go along. You can't do a budget once a year and set it in stone. Things will change, so you need to do monthly reviews and course corrections. If you wait until there is a crisis, you'll have to do an emergency budget freeze because you've run out of cash. Or you'll have to stand in the pulpit and make a frantic plea for more money. What message does this send to your church members? I, for one, do not want to stand in front of the congregation and admit that I handled their money poorly.

Get your church leaders involved. Talk about it in your staff meetings. The budget is a team project. Leaders have to be held accountable every month for their budgets. If you have a staff member consistently blowing the budget, that is a job performance issue and needs to be dealt with immediately.

Saving money is biblical. Many churches think they're poor stewards if they don't spend every given dollar in the name of ministry. That's just foolish. Now don't get mad at me for calling this foolish. I didn't say it, God did.

Proverbs 21:20 says, "There is desirable treasure, and oil in the dwelling of the wise, but a foolish man squanders it." Did you hear that? The one who spends all he has is foolish. Say this out loud: "Wise people save money." Now say this: "Wise churches save money."

If all the money comes in and all the money goes out, there is no wiggle room. Some argue, "Well, Dave, we're just living on faith." That's great—but have the faith to follow God's Word. The Bible says wise people save money.

Why do we need to save money? First, for an emergency fund—Grandma called it "saving for a rainy day." In business, we call it retained earnings or retained income. It's perfectly legal, moral and biblical to have some retained income for different things. In fact, it is absolutely essential. In the book of Proverbs alone, God talks about saving money 22 times. Do you think that maybe He repeated it so often because He knew we'd need help understanding this point?

We should also save for a sinking fund, which is a commercial real estate term. This basically means we should look at big expenses in the future and start planning for them today. For example, if I buy a building that has a new 20-year roof, I know that I have around 20 years before it needs to be replaced. So every year I budget for 1/20 of a roof. That way I'll have the money to replace it when it's time and I won't experience a $50,000 crisis all at once. Most big expenses don't really sneak up on us. They may be subtle, but we know they are coming. Being ready for them later requires preparing for them today.

A sinking-fund approach is also ideal for preparing for the future growth of your church. If you think you'll need a new $3 million building in the near future, why not plan for it? If you plan $500,000 of savings every year for six years, you can pay cash for that new building and avoid the enormous drain of interest payments and decades of bondage for your church. That's a different way of looking at things, isn't it?

Your budget must be mission-minded and based in faith. Faith-based budgeting should reflect your vision for what God can accomplish in a given year. Consider things such as growth patterns and what's going on in the church. What do you need to be ready for? Think about the impact you could have on the world around you this year. For example, if you had some savings earmarked for "Emergency Mission Response," you could be prepared for unexpected tragedies around the world. Hurricanes, earthquakes, Sept. 11—these things can happen at any time. God's people need to be ready to respond to these emergencies, but we can't if we're broke.

In times of crisis, we usually stand on the sidelines while others bear the burden or we sacrifice crucial programs in our own churches so that we can send the money elsewhere. But what would happen if we had the resources on hand to spring into action without hurting our ongoing ministries?

Measure every budget expense and opportunity against your mission statement. A mission statement is vital. It provides a standard by which you can judge every potential opportunity for giving or service. In our company, we're faced with outstanding opportunities every day. We'd go broke in a heartbeat if we jumped at every one. Therefore, whenever something comes up—a chance to get involved in a ministry, an opportunity to help someone, a business partnership, etc.—we set it against our mission statement and can quickly tell if the opportunity matches up with our stated mission. If it doesn't, we say no—period. That's often a hard thing for believers, but it also gives credence to setting firm, God-given and prayerful guidelines that tell us when we're out of balance.

Are We There Yet?

None of the things we've examined here is particularly difficult. Over the years, I've found that the things I teach are easy to understand but hard to do. Otherwise, every family would be rich and every church would be overflowing with resources to impact the community. Obviously, we're not there yet.

Let me leave you with this encouragement, however. If you take these three things seriously, if you re-examine your sermons on giving, understand the slave mentality of your congregation and commit to a healthy operating budget for your church, you will see God do some amazing things.

We're not just talking about money here. We're talking about life and service and ministry. We're talking about hope—hope for your church, and hope for your church members.

Dave Ramsey is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, best-selling author and the host of The Dave Ramsey Show on the Fox Business Network. For more information, visit
7 Baby Steps to a Total Money Makeover

Step No. 1: Save $1,000 Cash as a Starter Emergency Fund (as fast as you can)
Money magazine says that 78 percent of us will have a major negative financial event in any given 10-year period. Life happens, so be ready. Stop everything and focus. Twist and wring out the budget, work extra hours, sell something or have a garage sale, but quickly get your $1,000—fast.

Step No. 2: Pay Off All Debt Using the Debt Snowball
List all your debts (except the house) in order of smallest payoff balance to largest. Then make only the minimum payment on all the debts while you attack the smallest. Every dollar you can find from anywhere in your budget goes toward the smallest debt until it is paid off. Once the smallest is gone, the payment from that debt is added to the next smallest debt. When debt No. 2 is paid off, you attack No. 3, and so on.

Step No. 3: Finish the Emergency Fund
A fully funded emergency fund covers three to six months of expenses. This is cash on hand to cover the big stuff that happens, like a job layoff or a blown car engine. You cannot depend on debt to cover emergencies anymore. A strong foundation in your financial house includes a big savings account, which will be used just for emergencies.

Step No. 4: Invest 15 Percent of Your Income into Retirement
The rule is simple: Invest 15 percent of before-tax gross income annually toward retirement. If your company offers a matching 401(k), start there and invest up to the match in a diverse portfolio of mutual funds with a good track record. Then, move to a Roth IRA. If necessary, go back to the company 401(k) to complete your 15 percent.

Step No. 5: Save for College
When you save for your child's college tuition, you must make at least 7 percent per year on your investment to keep up with inflation increases. I suggest funding college with an Educational Savings Account (ESA) in a growth stock mutual fund. The ESA grows tax-free when used for higher education.

Step No. 6: Pay Off Your Home Mortgage
Put all of the intensity and financial power you poured into your debt snowball toward paying off your house as quickly as possible. Imagine how good the grass will feel under your feet when it's paid for. Without a house payment, you have complete control of your greatest wealth-building tool: your income.

Step No. 7: Build Wealth and Give Like Crazy
Here's the payoff. After all your hard work, you are completely free. With all this financial muscle and some serious momentum, it's now time to have fun, invest and give like never before.

From Tippers to Tithers to Generous Givers

Do: Cash flow your building projects with generous giving over time.
Don't: Buy into the "manageable debt" scenario.
Do: Challenge your church members to join forces with you to change the way they think about giving, saving and spending.
Don't: Intentionally solicit major gifts only from wealthy members of the church.
Do: Teach your congregation to become generous, life-long stewards.
Don't: Encourage church members to give out of guilt or fear.
Do: Accomplish the work that God has given you with the support of the entire church.
Don't: Get left hanging with vision disappointment, unrealized growth projections, under-subscribing pledges and ballooning payments.

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