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The Strategic Pastoral Excellence Program: Looking Back at the First Three Years

December 01, 2019


By now, many readers are familiar with MMBB’s Strategic Pastoral Excellence Program (SPEP), one of the initiatives launched under the auspices of an Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders (ECFPL) Grant we received from Lilly Endowment Inc in 2015. In addition to helping participants gather tools and engage strategies for developing personal financial wellness, the program also focuses on working with pastors and their lay leadership to cultivate healthy conversations about church financial issues. As members of the first SPEP cohort prepare to graduate 3 years after their first meeting in January 2017, we thought it was a good time to review how the program has met our initial goals and some of the learnings that have evolved over the life of the program.

There are 6 SPEP cohorts currently moving through the curriculum. In addition to the first cohort which will complete the initiative in December with their final quarterly conference call, the cohort which first met in October 2017 will finish the cycle in September 2020. Participants across all cohorts have been able to accomplish so much not only by learning the financial and management concepts as well as best practices that we share, but by applying and putting them into practice. The dedication and commitment of each person/couple to the program along with the tools received and the individualized guidance and support from their MMBB CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER® professionals has allowed them to:

  • Build an emergency fund
  • Significantly lower or eliminate their debt
  • Put a stop to unnecessary spending
  • Negotiate lower fixed costs
  • Make strides toward their personal financial goals.

A total of 83 pastors are currently part of the program and there have been 55 spouses who have joined the sessions, a factor we consider critical to establishing long-term financial well-being. Spousal participation has often led to greater transparency and willingness to honestly discuss the financial challenges the households are confronting. The level of transparency continues to be a game changer for attendees and one of the qualities we are most proud of Rev. Dr. Perry Hopper, Associate Executive Director, and part of the team who designed the curriculum notes that, “Transparency is important to the goals of the program. We encourage an environment of ‘safe-space’ and ‘no-judgment.’”

Often, couples bring completely different childhood experiences about money to their relationships and helping them understand and navigate these differences is essential. Working with couples to unpack their money stories has been part of the curriculum from the start, but it has emerged as one aspect that allows couples to speak more frankly about their perspectives and emotional triggers surrounding money. This has led to real breakthroughs for many clergy couples. One spouse noted that “she was able to make a real connection within the private conversations between she and her husband.”

One of the most notable changes in the curriculum from the early SPEP sessions is the addition of Clergy Taxes and New Tax Law Highlights. Clergy Taxes in particular, was added in the second year in response to questions from attendees. It has since been included for all groups and was added to the second year of the earlier cohorts, to be sure that all participants received the information. As SPEP Director, Ania Norori indicates, “Clergy tax education continues to be a huge area that is a source of confusion which they are desperately seeking clarity about. As a result, content is offered on this topic during all three years of the program.” Staff has also learned to build in extra time for discussion when Clergy Taxes is scheduled to accommodate the volume of questions and “what ifs.” As one pastor put it, “I want to make sure I am tax compliant in all matters.”

In the second and third years of the program, each pastor and spouse can invite a lay leader of their choosing when the focus includes compensation and retirement planning. “Lay leader participation has been a huge plus for the SPEP structure and has proven to be a key element of this program,” Norori notes.” Over and over we hear feedback and amazing testimonies of how these offsite gatherings have built advocacy bonds between pastors and lay leaders. “We know that at times pastoral leaders and congregational leaders can communicate at cross purposes when it comes to financial matters,” Dr. Hopper points out. “The goal is to learn to have healthier conversations that are honest and yield results for both pastors and lay leaders.” We have found that the presence of lay leaders does not hinder transparency or vulnerability and has yielded very productive conversations. One pastor shared how his lay leader rebuilt the pastoral budget after attending a SPEP event so that he received a substantial increase in pay. When the lay leader was challenged by another member about the size of the increase, the lay leader was able to explain the change in compensation and mentioned how they were still underfunding the pastor. The pastor was relieved to know that he had an advocate.

“Transparency is important to the goals of the program. We encourage an environment of ‘safe-space’ and ‘no-judgment.’”

When CEO, Louis Barbarin requested we move toward a green solution that would rectify the massive amount of written material we were distributing to our SPEP cohorts, staff developed a customized SPEP App. As a result, we witnessed the engagement level of participant interaction soar. Participants embraced this new technology and regularly posted to our group feed and connected on a 1-to-1 level using this tool. They shared valuable resources as well as the occasional funny picture. One of the most exciting benefits of the SPEP App was that it also provided a solution for attendees that were not able to carry a heavy load of valuable resources, giving quick and easy access to all information that was needed and making it possible to take notes seamlessly.

Although our first cohort will graduate at the end of this year, the journey is just beginning. We will track their progress and the progress of all SPEP attendees as they continue to walk toward financial wellness. This will occur via longevity studies that measure participant progress over time, particularly surveying their debt level, which is one of the key indicators of financial wellness. This will take place 3, 5, and 10 years after completing the program. We are excited about the ways the SPEP program has grown and adapted since the first cohort gathering to witness how many participants have been able to change their circumstances and capitalize on their learnings.

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