Look Up America!

Unpublished interview for the June 2012 issue “Church Executive,” with Gary Moore, founder of The Financial Seminary and author of the new book Look Up America! Reprinted with permission. This new book is published by Austin Brothers Publishers

“We might need to consider the Mennonite model of having lay ministers run our churches”…Gary Moore

By Ronald E. Keener

Gary Moore recalls growing up on a tobacco farm in Kentucky where his aunt ran the tobacco program for the state and his family was in the industry. “We were devout Southern Baptists. We lit up at the mention of the Golden Rule, but allowed others to light the fruits of our labor,” he jokes. “In fact, The Wall Street Journal once said the five primary industries in Kentucky were marijuana, tobacco, bourbon, horse racing and religion. We were also devout Republicans who nevertheless appreciated governmental price supports.”

Today Moore is an Evangelical Lutheran and president of The Financial Seminary in Sarasota, FL. “In essence, we were experts at ‘compartmentalizing’ our religious views, our political views, and our financial views so they never touched one another,” he says. “I now believe most Christians are more irrational about money than non-believers. As an investment advisor, I often have very conservative clients tell me they only want to invest in U.S. Treasury bonds, which finance deficit spending in Washington just as surely as higher taxes might. As in the large Wall Street firms I worked in years ago, our sense of right and wrong is now largely determined by whether something makes us money or costs us money.”

He says that pollster George Barna has estimated only one in 10 “born again” Christians actually integrate their faith into their daily activities. “The world watches as we say one thing but do another and it judges us as being hypocritical. We’re not. Hypocrisy is when you do something and know you’re doing wrong. We actually need more hypocrisy today. We’ve been taught, by both secular and religious teachers, to compartmentalize, so we don’t even understand we’re not living what we’re preaching.”

Church Executive pulled upon Moore’s strong understanding of finances and financial planning, and his devotion to the church, in a recent interview with him:

Q. Do you find that larger churches have monies for investment or are they living hand to mouth in this economy?

A. As with individuals, it’s a mixed picture. Some of the older mainline churches are heavily endowed, which, ironically, may be contributing to their decline. Others are struggling to conduct capital campaigns to repair the roofs and air-conditioning as they haven’t established the most basic of reserve funds.  As Peter Drucker liked to say, it’s not that most non-profits are badly managed, they’re just not managed at all. That’s usually because we rely on committees, and after being the president of two churches and serving on too many boards, if I had room on my desk, I’d put one of those paperweights that say, “For God so loved the world, God didn’t send a committee.”

Q. What should a church be considering when investing, when coming up with an investment strategy?

A. As with an individual financial plan, develop a long-term plan, put it in writing and stay with it. In churches, strategies tend to change each time the board or investment committee changes. That’s deadly to a retirement or endowment plan, as well as it creates unnecessary tensions between interested parties.

Q. One part of a strategy is “socially responsible investing.” Do you find churches doing this?

A. I define SRI as “managing God’s wealth according to the second part of the Great Commandment,” or for “neighbor as self.” We usually invest for ourselves and give for others in a most compartmentalized fashion. But SRI holistically involves avoiding harm, a la the Ten Commandments, or actually doing good, a la Jesus’ commandment to proactively love. SRI adherents have historically avoided alcohol, tobacco and gambling companies, as well as companies manufacturing abortificients, weapons of mass destruction, and so on, depending on world view. Anabaptists are pacifists so they actually avoid Treasury securities as they finance the Pentagon.

C.S. Lewis said that God may have told us to feed the poor but God didn’t give us recipes. So tastes vary. Increasingly however, SRI adherents are seeking to actually do good by financing affordable housing, jobs for the poor, even the construction of churches. Most mainline churches are faithful to the concept, which was actually instituted by Moses (Exodus 21:28 and 23:11), but Boaz allowing Ruth to glean is later example.

Ironically, many conservative Christians believe SRI is a “new age” concept. That’s largely due to politics.

Almost by definition, conservatives are slow to any social movement. But the losses from the financial crisis that preceded the Great Recession seem to be refocusing many investors on the concept far more than all the preaching I’ve done. Still, the most visible evangelical financial celebrities resist the concept, despite a major Merrill Lynch study saying SRI has come of age as the evidence is that it doesn’t hurt an investor’s returns. I also believe it lowers an investor’s risk, so it is probably going to be mainstream during my son’s career.

Q. In the larger picture in this economy, what concerns, counsel, or cautions might you have for congregations?

A. Avoid the unwarranted pessimism of politicians and the media. Everyone knows that we have a 15 trillion dollar federal debt, but no one knows the OMB in the Bush White House estimated our assets at 120 trillion dollars. America’s net debt was only seven trillion dollars, so America’s net assets were well over 100 trillion dollars. We are undoubtedly the “rich young ruler” of the world who’s going away sad as we refuse to let God touch our money. Many believe America is bankrupt, even though the economy is back to pre-recession levels.

Also, credit card debt is actually two percent of American’s indebtedness, but many pastors are told credit cards are why people aren’t giving.

Yet half of all Americans have no cards or pay them off each month. So the average debt per American is minimal, if burdensome to some. Most pastors believe that cards reduce giving as they graduate seminary with both educational and credit card debt.

In reality, two centers of philanthropy have recently concluded that when anxiety over the economic future rises one level on a scale of one to five, people give 32 percent less to charity. And many ministries are increasingly using credit cards to raise emergency funds, as do many small businesses. As Pogo counseled, the enemy may actually be us by dispiriting our people with misperceptions.

Q. Generally, are larger or mega-churches managed well? What should congregants expect from their leadership and pastors?

A. As a conservative, I believe any organization, be it a business, government or a church, grows more difficult to manage as it grows larger. Theologians have long discussed “moral man but immoral society,” reflecting the immorality of mobs, such as the one that preferred Barabbas to Jesus. When it comes to finances, I’ve learned not to expect much from pastors. It’s just not their gift, which is often one reason they go to seminary in the first place. The best we can hope for is that they are humble enough to find good laity, align their powers and responsibilities, install appropriate checks and balances, and get out of the way.

Relatedly, I believe the clergy are absolutely killing holistic stewardship, and therefore the future of the church in our money culture. They don’t know anything about holistic stewardship and they don’t trust the laity to do it. That’s often as they have unresolved conflicts about earning from the church and therefore are cynical in allowing laity to work. So the laity can do menial work around the church but not utilize their God-given talents for the church.

I occasionally have honest clergy tell me that they’d like for me to talk about economic morality but they’re afraid I’ll offend a generous giver. My view, after long consideration, is that if the professional clergy can’t deal with their hang-ups, or their salaries are preventing them from preaching the Gospel about the “root of all evil,” we might consider the Mennonite model of having lay ministers run our churches. If our clergy can’t trust the laity in our churches, how can they be trusted in the marketplace? And we should understand how many corporate implosions were led by very visible Christians. I even served with Ken Lay of Enron on one church board. So how can our faith be relevant to our money culture?  The best way to get someone to learn is to let him or her teach. But the pastor’s ego and/or insecurities have to be humbled.

Q. How do you see the near future of the nation’s economy? You are more optimistic than many, aren’t you? On what do you base that optimism?

A. The biblical prophets could always assure God’s grace for the future as they always remembered God’s great works in the past. Per capita annual income has been strongly rising globally since the Reformation. But we investment advisors read study after study about Americans not knowing anything about our economy, except the negatives, of course.

For example, manufacturing employment has indeed fallen since I was born in 1950. But manufacturing output has risen five-fold. Companies are just getting more out of fewer employees, which CEOs call “productivity.” CEOs are paid bonuses to increase productivity as that produces higher profitability, but it also produces higher unemployment. Still, ninety-two percent of us have jobs, and that includes an increasing number of women in the workforce who used to stay at home. As we say on Wall Street, numbers lie and liars number. But the big picture is that America is now a maturing oak.

We can’t grow as fast as we did last century. That’s for China, India and so on. And we should be grateful for that. It’s double-minded to send missionaries there so they might have a more abundant life but then fear their prosperity. Yet assuming the forecasted “fourth great awakening” occurs, our future will be fine. But that assumes we don’t imitate the Hebrews and grow so intimidated of the giants that we never get to taste the milk and honey in the Promised Land.

Q. You worked for a time with the Crystal Cathedral; given its bankruptcy and sale, how might you look at its leadership, management and the outcomes?

A. Beware success, even significance, and remain humbly faithful. I was there at the peak of the Cathedral’s influence. Bob [Schuller] could have been a corporate CEO. But coming from humble origins in the church, he was conflicted between capitalism, which is growth oriented, and Christianity, whose Way is quite narrow. That’s a cultural tension but it too often caused him to manage his corporate church in a way more appropriate for a family church.

Looking back, I believe the decline began the day he realized his long-time dream of getting his fourth building from America’s four greatest architects. We could probably afford it, but we didn’t really need it. He should have also looked the gift horse that made the building possible in the mouth, but didn’t as Bob was so passionate about the complex. Almost immediately, the board began to splinter. That heightened tensions among the Schuller family, as well as demoralized staff and volunteers.

Being asset heavy but cash poor, we could have imitated corporations by doing a “sale-leaseback” on some commercial properties when times were good. But rather than trim the sails, Bob waited until the economy and his ministry hit the shoals. If it could happen to the Cathedral, which was actually fairly well run in my opinion, and it served far more Christians than any other single church, it could happen to anyone. But I remember Jesus said something about the grandest building falling down. Avoid an edifice complex.

Q. Any thoughts about the financial management of mega-churches, and the teaching of stewardship and generosity to the multitudes?

A. Yes, get out of the box. Robert Wuthnow of Princeton did a major study for Lilly and specifically asked pastors to talk about stewardship “in its most holistic sense.” He noted they immediately began talking about giving money to the church, volunteering at the church, and so on.

That’s largely due to a myopic worldview that our pastors learn in seminaries. Too often, there are seminary ads in Christianity Today suggesting seminaries teach pastors to serve the church. But Jesus didn’t ask believers to seek first a church. In fact, most of the time he went to his mega-church and got in an argument or fight. We desperately need to be more Kingdom minded if we are to be faithful and relevant. And if we’re to be relevant to our money culture, we’d better learn something about the holistic stewardship of our members’ time, talent and treasure from Monday to Saturday. Today, I’d argue most pastors are like missionaries to China who don’t know how to speak Chinese.

Q.  So many people are deep in debt. As the church, what should congregations do to help? That, in the longer run, helps them too?

A.  Teach holistic stewardship, which includes debt management without being limited to it, but encourage prudence, not fear. Contrary to what we hear, debt is not unbiblical. Moses commanded lending (DT 15: 8), which meant lots of borrowing. On the Mount, Jesus said to lend to anyone in need and expect nothing in return. As the average person lived on about $1,000 of our dollars per year at Christ’s time, there was a lot of need, so a lot of borrowing and lending. He himself borrowed a donkey, upper room and tomb during Holy Week alone. What was actually forbidden was the charging and earning of interest and keeping people in debt for more than seven years. That would require a change in our laws to more reflect the laws of Moses, of which the capitalists among us won’t favor as we like our interest and getting our money back!

Q.   If you were the stewardship pastor for a mega-church, how would you direct the program for that church and engage the members?

A. First of all, I’d explain why Bruce Howard, the chairman of the economics department at Wheaton College, once wrote that the subject of debt has confused more modern Christians than any other topic. He’s quite right. The Protestant Reformers began liberalizing biblical economics for the development of capitalism by allowing the earning of interest, in some circumstances and with strict moral guidelines. That made banking possible, which made large enterprises possible, which made our material standard of living possible, regardless of what you believe materialism has done to our spirits.

Despite perceptions, capitalism is not biblical, even if the Bible provides instruction for living in all forms of economy. C.S. Lewis explained that very clearly in Mere Christianity when he wrote the earning of interest that drives capitalism is an experiment that ancient Greek, Jewish and medieval Christian leaders would have never allowed. All economic historians know that, but politicians and pastors, and particularly financial ministries, usually don’t. The resulting confusion makes us avoid the topic. So for the good of the church and world, we need a theology of capitalism that is built on some biblical principles, but primarily Reformed Christian principles.

Q.  What should conservatives and liberals know and understand about each other?

A.  Economic reality rather than political perceptions. A gentleman running for the U.S. Congress on the Republican ticket, recently attended one of my seminars. At the end, he told the audience that he was forming a more positive and hopeful campaign as he’d realized everything he’d been blaming the liberals for, was something he had been doing unwittingly, like instilling fear by focusing on the negatives of the economy.

I was so pleased as I strongly believe Alexander Solzhenitsyn was precisely correct when he said God’s line between good and evil does not run between nations or political parties but through the heart of every man and woman. That’s Gospel! But politics insists on taking specs out of the eyes of others before we remove the log from our own eye.

(Gary Moore has written five previous books integrating Judeo-Christian morality with political economy and personal finance. He has a degree in political science and thirty years of Wall Street experience. You can read more of his views at The Financial Seminary. His book Look Up America! can be ordered here.)  


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