One of the initiatives launched as part of the grant MMBB received from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. in 2015 is The Strategic Pastoral Excellence Program (SPEP). SPEP is a robust 3-year program designed to increase financial confidence and competency. The expectation is that the lives of clergy and their spouses who are accepted into the program will engage in a transformative experience that will strengthen their financial wellness and well-being.
When Rev. Jonathan Small and his wife Susan* attended the first SPEP cohort offsite in January 2017, they were in a financial state that they describe as one in which “money controlled us.” Susan, who handles the family finances recognized that she was perpetuating a negative cycle that was increasing their debt, but given their multiple financial demands, she had no idea how to break it. Jonathan explains that they had purchased a home and the market crashed while they were carrying two mortgages on their home. Within a very short time they found themselves financially underwater. Even though the house was a burden, they couldn’t decide whether to sell the home or fight to keep it. On top of the mortgages, they continued to accrue credit card debt. These were their financial realities coming into the Year 1 SPEP cohort. “I can honestly say that we were on the cusp of knowing we needed to do something, explains Susan, “and we had been praying about it. Little did we realize that SPEP would be the answer to our prayers. We had no way of knowing that after the first year of SPEP we would never again see our finances in the same way.”
The Smalls admit that the program forced them to be more intentional about talking to each other and hashing through their issues about money. “We came face to face with our patterns, observes Jonathan, “and that was not easy.” Jonathan admits that he is the frugal one who tends to oversimplify things and avoid talking. But their first real breakthrough came when they committed to doing the tough work of setting up a budget. MMBB financial planners who conducted the intensive sessions encouraged them to break down every single item on which they spent money, even the incidentals they spent for their children. Initially this was not an easy task. Using a worksheet to help them see how little income they were bringing in and how many areas it had to be allocated to was a bit painful. They agree that this was one of the most difficult changes they made. But Susan remarks, “MMBB also showed us how to make our financial goals part of our budget expenditures and how the budget could be a tool to help us think ahead. This was a step which totally had been missing from our thinking before.” Taking that approach, two goals that Jonathan and Susan built into their budget were reducing debt and building an emergency fund.
The Smalls now state with confidence that their budget allows them to “tell their money where it needs to go” and that money “no longer controls us anymore.” Within six months after taking part in that first 3-day SPEP cohort and working with the MMBB CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional who was assigned to them, the Smalls had completely wiped out their debt. “Being able to declare that we were debt free was incredibly liberating, exclaims Susan. “It felt like I could breathe, and I no longer felt like a failure. It was truly an amazing feeling.” Once the debt was paid off, Jonathan and Susan shared that it was as if they had gotten a raise since they no longer had a portion of money that was allocated for debt. They were able to set new goals with that money. Both acknowledge that working with the MMBB CFP® has been critical to their success. “She helps us to answer the questions about what to do now and what to do next,” Susan observes.
“For me the SPEP program has been a pathway to financial freedom,” declares Jonathan. “Especially for those in ministry, our first degree is usually not in finance. I now have greater knowledge to speak from when it comes to the financial issues at my church.” Although Jonathan had been a member of MMBB for many years, he realized that he had not been taking advantage of all they had to offer. He knew they were reputable, but he did not realize that working with a CFP® was available to all MMBB members at no cost. By the 2nd year intensive cohort, Jonathan reflects, “I met the CEO, Louis Barbarin and other staff and I understood that they were there to help us, not to grow MMBB, but they were committed to building God’s kingdom and helping us to be better kingdom builders.”
In Year 1 the curriculum covers Debt Management, Addressing Attitudes, Perspectives, and Assumptions about Money, Clergy Taxes and Financial Planning. Year 2 addresses Compensation Basics, Retirement Planning Basics, Investment Planning Basics and New Tax Law Highlights. Ania Norori, project director for SPEP, explains “SPEP is designed to help participants break bad cycles of money management habits that are sometimes unconsciously rooted in participants’ upbringing. We aim to shift their mindsets in order to intentionally positively impact pastors, their congregations and future generations.”
Jonathan and Susan admit that since their initial experience they have been open vessels for the information that MMBB has offered. The supportive and trusting atmosphere established within the cohort provided an opportunity to encourage other participants as they were all working to learn new skills, change their behavior and make better financial decisions. As they prepare for their 3rd year SPEP cohort, the Smalls urge others to learn more about how to apply for the SPEP program. “We are clear that God freed us from bondage and empowered us to see new possibilities and set new financial goals,” acknowledged Susan. Jonathan sums it up by sharing, “We are not trying to live lavishly; our finances should glorify God, but we are finally being good stewards of what God gives us.”
*The names have been changed to preserve confidentiality