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Financial Shalom: ‘A True Blessing to the CRC’

November 1, 2017
Members of The River gather for a meal

Members of The River gather for a meal

Donna Hellenthal, The River Church

James Dykstra is using a grant from the Christian Reformed Church’s new Financial Shalom initiative to supplement his salary as a pastor at The River Church in Allegan, Mich.

Scott Van Voorst has used a similar grant to help pay off the student loans he incurred while supporting his family and attending Calvin Theological Seminary.

In both cases, assistance from the grants has made it easier to serve in ministry — and that is exactly what the financial assistance from the Financial Shalom program is designed to do.

“We know a lot of pastors make sacrifices to enter [and to remain] in ministry, and this program is a way to provide support to them and increase their financial acumen,” said Holly Small, project manager of the program.

Launched earlier this year, the three-year Financial Shalom project was made possible through a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders.

This initiative aims to assist pastors from a variety of denominations with immediate financial needs such as paying off student loans, paying for Christian day-school tuition, and covering unexpected medical expenses.

It also offers education and helps pastors work toward meeting long-term financial goals. Included in the program is funding to help pastors work with a financial planner.

These planners will be included in a directory they are creating, said Small. Meanwhile, she added, “We are still looking for more financial planner/accountants/tax lawyers who have experience working with pastors and churches to add to the directory.”

The initiative has funded projects through Catholic dioceses, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) Foundation, and others. The Christian Reformed Church joined these ranks when it received its $1 million grant from Lilly in February 2017.

“The grant is a true blessing to the Christian Reformed Church,” said Dr. Steven Timmermans, executive director of the CRCNA.

“We know that financial and economic struggles can often impair pastors’ ability to lead their congregations effectively. We are committed to addressing this need and improving the financial health and shalom of all of our pastors.”

These grants, he said, will enable pastors to grow and flourish in ministry, experiencing and promoting peace and well-being — that is, shalom — well into the future.

Before applying for the grant, the CRC surveyed its pastoral leaders in April 2016. It found that many CRC pastors struggled with anxiety about their finances, income, loans, and debt levels. They also expressed worries about the future because of their finances.

As a result, this program is an answer to prayer for those who have signed on so far.

When James Dykstra came to The River Church three years ago, it was struggling as it tried to do ministry in Allegan County, a lower-income, mostly rural county in West Michigan.

Although the church had dwindled in membership and the previous pastor had left, the remaining 20-plus people “met for prayer and discernment and came together, affirming that God had shown them he still had reason for them to continue as an arm of his work in this community,” said Dykstra.

Under the design of Calvin Seminary's Renewal Lab, the church called Dykstra but could only offer him a part-time salary, with the goal of boosting that to full-time within two years.

“In the meantime, I also continued to do some carpentry and painting on the side to balance our income,” said Dykstra.

Serving the community, he added, remained difficult, given that few people in Allegan County attend any church. Also, “there are a disproportionate number of broken people/families in the greater community.”

Despite these struggles, The River Church has grown in spirit, outreach, and numbers, and the council  agreed, by faith, to increase their pastor’s salary to full-time in July of this year.

“We were getting close enough, but still struggling with the numbers. In the midst of that, Financial Shalom became known to us,” said Dykstra.

The grant from the program enabled the church to reach its goal and keep a balanced budget for this year.

“It's just enough to enable us to say that God has met us in our time of need, and we are rejoicing in his providence,” said Dykstra.

In transitioning from seminary to the ministry, Scott Van Voorst assumed that some of the financial struggles his family faced while he was in school would diminish.
“Think about it, after years of supporting a family on a part-time income and financial aid, you would expect that the first years out of seminary would have the kind of cash flow that allowed you to catch up on all those things you put off because there wasn't money [while you were] in seminary,” said Van Voorst, who served a church in West Michigan and has now been called to pastor a church in Iowa.

But it didn’t take long for reality to hit. Having to pay taxes, as well as needing to set aside a hefty chunk of his salary for his student loan payments every month meant that his family had little left over to cover other costs.

“Our student loan payment was the size of many people's mortgage payment — and in case you are wondering, based on my conversations with fellow recent graduates, this is fairly common.”

His situation was made even worse by medical bills.

“The Financial Shalom project helped in one way by paying down a small portion of one of the student loans,” he said.

The ongoing reality, though, is that this project promises to help them even more in the future.

“The bigger thing is the financial coaching and the requirement to take a class that will provide better tools for financial management. That part makes a difference now so that the impact of having loans paid off a bit sooner can be multiplied down the road.”

Holly Small said response from pastors to the program has been encouraging, but she invites more pastors, whether they are new in ministry or have been serving for years, to consider learning more about the initiative and applying for assistance through the Financial Shalom project.

“We've had 24 pastors receive financial shalom grants covering Christian day-school tuition, critical financial needs, and student loan relief,” said Small.

“We have another three three pastors and churches participating in the salary supplement program. We strongly hope other pastors will take advantage of the project.”