Wealth = Responsibility. Generosity = Freedom

Published: January 28, 2015

The School of Divinity is committed to financial well-being and forming ministers who engage finances responsibly. With support of a grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Theological School Initiative to Address Economic Issues Facing Future Ministers,  we have created a program, Financial Well-Being for Pastoral Leaders, to create a culture that shapes the habits and skills of pastoral leaders by promoting financial well-being for themselves and the communities they serve. One of the foundational elements of our program is formation, which aims at enabling students to focus on building financial competency through annual assessment meetings with the Office of Financial Aid, workshops and seminars, peer mentors, and technological resources. On the last week of every month, the Unfolding blog will feature posts from the student peer mentors. These are current students who have previous experience in the financial industry or who have made financial planning a significant part of their identity as a religious leader.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that I dissent from the capitalist monetary system. What might be a surprise is the ten years I spent living in the belly of the Wall Street beast. Before coming to divinity school I was a wealth manager. Can you believe that? People trusted me with untold millions of dollars. I rubbed elbows with powerful mutual fund managers, REIT principals, and seriously loaded software company clients. I’m just as shocked as you are.

I went into the field early in my twenties in search of financial security and status. I had bought fully into the idea that money = happiness and that our personal success could be measured by our net worth (assets – liabilities = net worth). I could have told you then that money doesn’t buy responsible-moneyhappiness, but I would have followed it up by saying “It sure helps!” My experiences of making plenty of money and managing boat loads more for other people is that wealth, and especially the pursuit of the accumulation of wealth, is a recipe for meaninglessness, loneliness, and anxiety.

To be sure, having enough money to meet our basic human needs is important. I am firmly against any race to the bottom where skepticism towards wealth becomes an argument for everyone going without. All people should have enough to pay their bills, live in a warm safe home, have access to entertainment and medical care, and eat healthy delicious food. And I know that my experiences are anecdotal, not representative of everyone’s response to wealth. So I can only speak for myself and what I saw over the course of ten years.

Money is a responsibility, not a privilege and certainly not an entitlement. Each dollar we make would not exist without an infrastructure and economic network. It is almost impossible to make money without some worker, some animal, or someone’s local environment being exploited. And every dollar in my pocket is one less dollar in the pocket of another, for better or worse. This responsibility, when it is ignored, becomes an illness, binding the wealthy to destructive greed. I witnessed the way wealth, especially new wealth, tends to breed a desire for more, becoming a central value in the lives of the wealthy. I saw lives change as need to preserve wealth came to occupy people, making them anxious and cynical of motivations of others. I was frustrated when clients would receive raises only to spend exponentially more because they perceived themselves to be entitled to an increasingly luxurious lifestyle. Divorce. Illness. Depression. Wealth = responsibility. But generosity = freedom.

We can’t avoid living in a capitalist system, but we can avoid the trap of wealth, greed, and anxiety. We do this by living responsible, generous lives. The most important way to accomplish this is to avoid debt, especially consumer debt. Many of us, myself included, have needed to take out student loans. These loans represent an investment in ourselves and the interest on these loans is tax deductible. But auto loans and credit cards represent a very different kind of debt. It is not tax deductible and unlike our education – a source of future income – the goods purchased are likely to depreciate the moment we purchase them. Further, most credit card debt comes from the purchase of goods we don’t actually need. And many of us can attest to the emotional burden of dragging around heavy credit card loads. Each unnecessary purchase, each extra dollar on a credit card, is our buy-in to a system of greed and exploitation (and who among us has not felt the sting of financial exploitation in a low-wage job for a company with millions in profit?) Each dollar we save or give away is our buy-in to a generous life of financial freedom.

We have a choice. Let’s choose to invest in responsibility, generosity and financial freedom.

Third YearPage and Watermelon

Page, a native of Washington state, now lives in West Salem with her beloved, Kristin and dog, Alice. Page is passionate about living well through simplicity, intentionality, and community.