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How one church helped families secure stronger finances in tough times

When Blackshear Place Baptist Church offered a family finance program, 1,200 people signed up, and trimmed thousands in personal debt.

By Ronald E. Keener

Trent and Jennifer Sexton are living on a budget and using the “envelope system” in managing their expenditures.

Each month Trent goes to the bank and withdraws the month’s budgeted amount in $20s, $10s, $5s, and $1s. Trent, 31, is a classified sales manager for The Times newspaper in Gainesville, GA, and Jennifer, 30, is a treatment coordinator for an orthodontic office in nearby Lawrenceville. They are expecting their first child in November.

At the bank, the teller made the change for Trent and asked, “Are you doing Dave Ramsey?” Ramsey, widely known for his books and DVDs on family financial management, is a proponent of the envelope system in his program, Financial Peace University.

The Sextons this spring finished the course at Blackshear Place Baptist Church in Flowery Branch, a congregation where 1,200 people participated in the program, that includes 80 percent of the congregation’s regular attenders and others from the community.

The bank teller had earlier gone through the FPU program at her own church. Says Trent, “Whether it’s going to the store or getting your budgeted money out at the beginning of the month, it gives you an opportunity to tell others what you are doing when they see you pull out your cash envelopes.”

Jobs were lost

Hall County, where Blackshear Place is located, is a fairly prosperous community with a mix of white and blue collar industry. It’s home to 47 Fortune 500 firms, more than 300 manufacturing and processing concerns, and 35 international companies representing 15 foreign countries.

But residents have had their issues with the recession as have the rest of the state and country. Another family in the church who took the FPU course, Ken and Chris Smith, observe that in “every other house on our street someone has either lost their job, foreclosed on their home, getting divorced, or has a serious illness.

We are counting our blessings as we both have stable careers, a stable marriage and good health.” Ken, 42, power lineman at Georgia Power, and Chris, 36, an RN at St. Joseph’s Hospital of Atlanta, and their three children, 20, 8 and 6, plus Grandma, have been attending Blackshear Place for three years.

Never knew how much

While the Sextons had a mortgage and “medical bills stemming from confirmed skin cancer the previous year with Jennifer,” they had paid off a car a year earlier and were paying off credit card balances each month. Still, in the way they were managing their money, “we never really knew how much or where our money was going.”

For the Smiths, it was a different story, with some $80,000 in credit card debt. “Before FPU, all the money we made just seemed to disappear,” Chris says. “We never understood why as soon as I paid one credit card off, we seemed to run up another credit card.”

In the course of the 13 week FPU program at the church the Smiths paid off $13,000 and now have a financial plan “that we both agree on.” Says Chris: “We also have set up boundaries for things we want. Now we have one car payment and only one credit card to pay off.”

Both Ken and Chris saw the need from the beginning. “I expected my husband to come kicking and screaming, but to my surprise he ‘drank the Kool-Aid,’” Chris says. “We worked together and it was quite painless.”

Getting smarter with money

With the economy in turmoil, senior pastor Jeff Crook saw a need in helping families in crisis, and those who just needed to be smarter with their money. The church sold more than 800 kits for FPU.

There were many stories of how the program made a difference for those in the program. “We heard of families who were able to pay off their house and weeks later lost their job,” says Grady Sutton, minister of church programming. “They were prepared and able to make it on their spouse’s income.

“We had a number of families lose jobs but they had an emergency fund and were OK. We heard of marriages that were mended when husbands and wives got on the same page financially,” Sutton reports.

FPU has been offered in more than 17,500 churches since Dave Ramsey began teaching it in 1994, involving 750,000 families. The Ramsey organization says that the average family pays off $5,300 in debt and saves $2,700 in the first 91 days after beginning FPU, and is out of debt — except for the mortgage — in 18 to 24 months.

Nathan and Mary Robertson, he 30 and she 27, have four children between the ages of 4 and 1. He is an electrical designer for Southern Company and she is a stay at home mom. They’ve been at Blackshear for a year.

While they never believed in credit card debt, they used the card to buy what they wanted and paid if off at the end of the month. “We had a car loan, which we thought everyone had to have, and were not saving any money each month,” Mary says.

Paying off the loan

Because of the FPU classes, the family paid off their car loan of $9,000 — selling the car and buying a cheaper one — and put $3,000 into savings. “We have also stopped using our credit cards and are sticking to cash and our debit cards,” Mary says. “We have started saving around 15 to 20 percent a month to establish our six months of expenses in savings.”

The couple is also using Quicken to keep up with their expenses and stay on budget. “Together we are checking each other and not allowing frivolous expenses to break our budget,” she says. Their goal is to speed up payments on their house.

The Robertson family says they have learned that God’s perspective about debt is different than that of the culture. “We learned that God does not approve of debt and that even though our society condones and promotes debt, God does not have the same view.

“When we saw what God’s word said about debt, we then realized that our hearts and minds had to be changed to better have a heart like God,” Mary says. Both of them have taken every opportunity to share with friends, co-workers and “other moms” the wisdom of living debt free.

Grady Sutton says the church “is committed to the principles of tithing taught in the Scriptures.” Tithing is taught each fall from the pulpit and within small group ministry on Sundays.

Working with a $5 million budget, the church has seen nearly a 10 percent growth in its giving during the first six months of the year. Says Sutton: “We can’t explain why our church is financially blessed, or with so many large churches suffering, how is it that we are so blessed.

“We can’t say for certain that it was FPU, but we do believe that it has greatly helped our people. God has been good to give a vision for financial peace to our pastor, good to provide for our needs in a tough economic time, and good to guide and direct our steps,” he says.

Blackshear Place began another wave of the FPU teachings in September [2009].

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