A spiritual approach to money

One group’s formula for trying times: Live gratefully, spend less, buy justly, give more.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Lazarus at the Gate group members in Jamaica Plain, Mass., set budgets in order to live gratefully, spend less, buy justly, and give more.
Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
Gift list: Jasmine Beach-Ferrara identifies her preferences for nonprofits to receive donations from her Bible study group.

In turbulent economic times, the watchwords are usually: Cut back. Live frugally. Hunker down and put money in safe places!

But here in Boston, small groups of churchgoers have been applying a different message to money management. During the past two years, they have studied what the Bible teaches about money and wealth, discussed their personal budgets, and taken concrete steps aimed at four commitments: “Living gratefully, spending less, buying justly, and giving more.”

With gratitude as a foundational principle, the study groups follow a 12-session curriculum called “Lazarus at the Gate,” referring to the challenging gospel story about a rich man who persistently ignored a beggar named Lazarus at his gate (Luke 16). They discuss passages from the Old or New Testaments that consider wealth as a blessing, a potential idol, a resource for meeting needs, and to be justly distributed.

“Right now there are a lot of opportunities to feel fear when thinking about money. But if you start from a place of gratitude and abundance, it radically changes your perspective,” says Rachel Anderson, director of Boston Faith & Justice Network (BFJN), which coordinates the small-group program. “How we choose to spend our money – there are many justice issues there and room for change to steward Earth’s resources better and alleviate poverty.”

Many participants say the experience has been eye-opening and life-changing, as they explore the meaning of economic discipleship.

Each individual decides on ways to live more simply, such as not buying sodas or snacks during the week or selling a car and taking public transportation instead. At the final session, they commit some of the resources saved from new spending habits to charitable organizations they’ve researched and prioritized.

The first group to follow the Lazarus program met once a month for 12 months in 2007.

“It was a fantastic experience. The group of 14 people wound up giving $40,000 to five organizations dealing with poverty around the world,” says Mako Nagasawa, of InterVarsity Campus Ministry. He and Gary Vanderpol, a Boston pastor, initiated the program, and worked with BFJN to offer it to churches in the area.

For Jo Hunter Adams and her husband, Eugene, the small-group experience brought remarkable results in their own lives along with an increased capacity to give.

“Creating our first budget and sharing it with the group really helped us. We didn’t buy anything we didn’t need, and we didn’t eat out,” says Ms. Adams, a public health worker. “We stayed away from ‘lifestyle inflation.’ ”

Instead of moving into a larger apartment as they had planned, Adams and her husband remained where they were.

As a result, the couple managed over the year to reduce the $50,000 they had in student loans to only $3,000. “It was miraculous!” she says.

A step in the process that really opened her eyes, she adds, was checking their financial position in the global economy on the website, globalrichlist.com. After entering their annual income, she learned that they were among the top 0.7 percent in the world. While she had always thought she could give time and energy to good causes but not much money, “now I see I can give a lot of money, actually,” she says.

What she most appreciates, however, is being able to live her Christian values more consistently. "I tended to think that being saved was the most important thing. Now I’m more interested in reflecting God’s love as much as possible,” she says. “And God wants us to be involved in dealing with poverty and justice.”

For most people, discussing budgets is not easy, but the questions aim to be helpful, not judgmental. At High Rock Covenant Church in Arlington, Mass., the experience brought people together. “When we shared budgets, that vulnerability created a real bond,” says Austin Calhoun, director of a church ministry. “Everyone is much closer, and we continue to meet to support each other in this discipline of simplicity.”

Along with Bible study, the Lazarus curriculum guides groups through research on global poverty and development. Participants educate each other about specific organizations active in development, microfinance, and fair trade.

Earlier this month in Jamaica Plain, seven women gathered for Saturday brunch and their 12th meeting to select the groups that would receive their donations in the coming year. After sharing individual progress, each made a pitch.

Two were keen on an agricultural development program, one spoke for a small business initiative in Afghanistan, and others highlighted public-health projects. One was passionate about efforts to get bikes to African women who walk miles each day to gather water for their families.

Reaching consensus on four organizations, the women decided to divide their pledged pot of $6,000 evenly among them. As they joined hands in prayer, group leader Angela Letizia began: “Dear God, Your abundance is clearly felt today, and we are grateful for what You have given us and how You have opened our eyes to the world.”

Each woman will write four checks a month, giving her a chance to pray for those who will receive them, and for sustaining the changes in her own life.

“I think this is reimagining the body of Christ to include both those in rich and poor countries,” Ms. Letizia says in an interview. “Today, when we all have so much information about the world, Lazarus is at our gate, so we can’t pretend that we don’t see him.”

Many involved speak of the way the Lazarus process builds community, enabling each group member to accomplish more than he or she would on their own. For instance, Letizia was giving away 1 or 2 percent of her yearly income though she had thought about giving more.

“Doing it in community lends a different joy and excitement,” she says. “This year is the first time I’ve been able to give 10 percent, and it comes from doing it with others.”

The question for many is whether they can sustain the lifestyle changes and commitments – or build on them. Some groups decide to continue meeting weekly or monthly. A few participants are leading new groups to spread the message. So far, 18 groups have completed the Lazarus program in Boston, and 15 more are getting under way this spring.

The curriculum is available on the Web (click here) to encourage churches in other parts of the country to sponsor groups.

It’s now being used in La Jolla, Calif., and Colorado Springs, Colo., and perhaps soon in New York, Mr. Nagasawa says. He’s also created an eight-week version for use by college students. The Lazarus program is part of a broader BFJN initiative to encourage people to consider what it might look like to have a “gratitude economy.”

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