Culture At Large

Public discussion of personal finances

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

No sooner had 29-year-old Graham Messier joined a small group at his church earlier this year than he found himself breaking an American taboo: Talking about how much he earns, and where it all goes.

Others in the group did likewise as they kicked off an eight-week program called Lazarus at the Gate. The curriculum is aimed at reconciling personal finances with Christian rhetoric about economic justice. It's countercultural, they said, but it works.

By the eighth meeting, Messier's group had raised $1,800 for three non-profits simply by cutting back on gourmet coffees, dining out and other non-essentials. Talking about household budgets isn't "the most comfortable thing in the world," Messier said. "But talking as Christians about the reality of our money situations should be more of a focus than it is generally if we're going to be real about loving, giving to the poor and taking care of our fellow man."

Since inception in 2006, the Lazarus at the Gate curriculum has guided some 400 people in more than 30 groups to give away a total of $200,000. Using the biblical story of poor Lazarus seeking help at a rich man's gate, the program teaches participants that ordinary Americans rank among the world's richest five percent - and that a few dollars go a lot farther in the developing world than they do at their local Starbucks.

What began as a Boston-based pilot has grown into an open-source curriculum. The ecumenical Boston Faith and Justice Network shares Lazarus materials upon request with college groups and churches in other regions and countries.

The Boston group recently received funding from Episcopal City Mission and the Presbyterian Hunger Program to encourage the curriculum's use in their respective denominations. For small groups in U.S. churches, intimate sharing is familiar terrain, but few go so far as to probe spending practices. This "special kind of discipleship" is rare, in part, because it entails true vulnerability and people often don't want to "disclose family secrets," according to Max Stackhouse, a retired Princeton Theological Seminary theologian and co-editor of the book, "On Moral Business."

Discomfort notwithstanding, Lazarus has proven a compelling challenge in various religious sectors, appealing to both evangelicals and mainline Protestants, according to Ryan Scott McDonnell, executive director of the Boston Faith and Justice Network. College students seem especially interested since Lazarus campus groups have attracted interest from non-Christians who sense a portion of their money could be used in better ways for greater impact.

"People are looking for a framework for social justice or something, and they have a hunger for it in their heart, and they don't know how to articulate it or interpret it," said Mako Nagasawa, co-author of the Lazarus curriculum and an advisor to the Asian Christian Fellowship group at Boston College. "We want to say it comes from being made in the image of God and being redeemed by Jesus."

As a Lazarus group gets started, participants share household budgets with the assurance that others won't judge them or break confidentiality. Subsequent meetings place those budgets in larger contexts. Participants explain how money was (or wasn't) discussed at home during their childhoods. Together, they unpack biblical passages that address money and responsibilities.

Would you be comfortable discussing personal finances in a small-group setting? Would sharing your economic decisions make you more accountable in your Christian walk, or should this area of faith life remain private?

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