Dropping the money bomb

By Phyllis Strupp
Posted Nov 30, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] Recently, a Saturday night at the theatre began in an unusual manner. Before the curtain rose, the artistic director of the established theatre company took center stage, revealing that unless they received $70,000 by the end of November, and another $170,000 by the end of December, and another $260,000 by the end of June, they would go under. Enjoy the show — and by the way, there’s an envelope in your playbill. During the intermission, everyone was raising questions about the theatre company’s management. Alas, they are unlikely to raise so much money so quickly since the artistic director broke the cardinal rule of fundraising: don’t sound desperate. Money bombs like this rarely work, because most people intuitively understand that cash will not save an organization from itself.

This situation stands in stark contrast to our town, which has successfully weathered the disastrous economic downturn in Arizona. A recent report to residents stated that “the town has been and continues to be conservative, solvent, and in the black.” The report contained many Finance 101 tips on how to avoid financial desperation, which include:

1.    Keep an eye on 20 years of financial activity (last 10 years, current, next 10 years).
2.    Keep some cash on hand.
3.    Don’t spend more than what comes in.
4.    Use debt only for capital goods in line with priorities.
5.    Pay off debt early.
6.    Keep insurance coverages up-to-date.
7.    Invest funds appropriately, considering risk tolerance and uses (short-term or long-term).

Since it is stewardship season, this is a good time to consider how congregational leaders can defuse any money bombs lurking in the parish’s books.

First, it’s important to understand what ignites money bombs. Oddly enough, it’s not money, but “UEA” (pronounced oo-we), which stands for “undesirable emotional activity.” While UEA can crop up any time about anything, money creates the most powerful UEA disturbances in the human brain, causing members of Homo sapiens to hoard or deplete resources, depending on personality.

UEA triggered by money is nothing new, as we see in this 2,500-year-old passage from Jeremiah 6:13:

“For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.”

Jesus commented frequently on UEA, referring to “the deceitfulness of wealth” (Mark 4:19), “worry” (Matthew 6:25-34), and “greed” (Luke 12:15). Paul deserves credit for this popular UEA quote from 1 Timothy 6:1:

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

In the 20th century, powerful insights about UEA arose from scientifically trained minds, to wit:

“We have grown literally afraid to be poor…it is certain that the fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.”

— William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

“I am absolutely convinced that no wealth in the world can help humanity forward, even in the hands of the most devoted worker in this cause…Money only appeals to selfishness and irresistibly invites abuse. Can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Gandhi armed with the money-bags of Carnegie?”

— Albert Einstein, Mein Weltbild (1931)

Economists have really hit pay dirt with UEA. In 1936, John Maynard Keynes coined the term “animal spirits” to describe emotions which influence human behavior and can be measured in terms of consumer confidence. Almost 15 years ago, the then-Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Alan Greenspan, raised concerns that “irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values.” More recently, UEA is front and center in “behavioral economics,” a popular area of research since Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work validating human irrationality as the driver of financial decisions.

Maybe someday we’ll have a “UEAometer,” something like a Geiger counter which will chirp loudly when it detects UEA about money. It could chirp slowly around the anabolic UEA of misers like Ebenezer Scrooge, and chirp quickly near the catabolic UEA of spendthrifts like the Prodigal Son.

In the meantime, we are left with low-tech solutions such as spiritual formation, self-awareness, prayer, discussion, skill-building education and organizational governance checks and balances.

The upscale Episcopal Church appears to be flush with financially triggered UEA. No wonder, since spiritual formation for the clergy about money and UEA seems to be missing in action. Perhaps there needs to be a CUO (Chief UEA Officer) to oversee how the church manages UEA, working with a seminary to develop EFM II (“Education for Money”).

Even so, the congregation needs to take action to protect its treasury from UEA. For example, clergy often have financial oversight responsibilities for a congregation, yet many seem to lack the formation, training and skills needed to do this. Congregational resources need to stand the test of time as clergy and lay leaders come and go. What parishes and dioceses have done well in managing UEA, and can serve as a witness and model for best Christian practices?

Yes indeed, a church budget should be treated as a moral document, and someone needs to challenge the idols of high finance in today’s world. And if the church would endeavor to do either, it’s time to expand the church’s cadre of self-aware money bomb defusers—especially in the clergy.

— Phyllis Strupp is a recovering MBA with 30 years of financial experience and a former member of the CREDO finance faculty.