Straight Talk on Tithing, Investing, and the Collision of Church and Capitalism
A conversation with
Ann Wiesbrock & Paul Hawkinson
Photography by Eric Staswick
As we approach the end of the year, churches and nonprofits are seeking annual donations, just as merchants and shopkeepers are hoping we’ll spend enough to keep them in the black for another year. In the church, we know our focus should be different, but talking about money can be a challenge for us too. So to begin the conversation, we sat down with Paul Hawkinson, executive director of finance for the ECC, and Ann Wiesbrock, president of Covenant Trust Company.
Why is money such a taboo subject? Do you think Christians are afraid to talk about money?
Ann Wiesbrock: People are afraid and churches are afraid. We all think that no matter what we’re doing, we’re doing it wrong. We’re not giving enough. We’ve got too much. We have too little. Whatever it is, we’re not doing it right. And we’re not even 100 percent sure what we’re supposed to be doing. What does the Bible say? I’m supposed to give it all away? Except I’m supposed to take care of my family. This is a complicated subject.
Paul Hawkinson: We’re scared of anything we don’t talk about. In the church we have a tendency to speak out against what is Caesar’s, or the risk of greed, or building up what moth and rust will destroy. And then once a year we have a stewardship Sunday. But inbetween we don’t talk a lot about that bridge. How do you balance responsibility and generosity in your life?
It’s somehow taboo even though it affects everybody. It affects pastors, it affects the wealthy, it affects the poor. And yet we don’t spend enough time in the common middle, talking about how to be generous and how to deal with these issues.
Ann: A 2014 Gallup poll shows that half of Americans have substantial financial worry. That includes people in the church. Clearly this is something we need to be talking about. How does a person live as a good, faithful steward in this world? What does that mean for how we use our time? What does that mean for how we spend our money? I wonder how much freedom we could find if we took out the fear.
The opportunity is this—that generosity combined with creative economic structures can greatly amplify and sustain ministry.
Paul: Biblical dialogue related to money can be polarizing, especially when the text is used as a hammer rather than as an instructive tool. The opportunity is this—that generosity combined with creative economic structures can greatly amplify and sustain ministry. Ignoring real financial pressures, or operating in inefficient ministry structures, always leads to decline.
In the U.S., we rely on capitalism to make our democracy work. Yet God calls the church to be counter-cultural—in the world, but not of it. What should be our relationship to money in the church?
Ann: One example of the power of capitalism is when we look at what microenterprise loans have done for families and communities in certain parts of the world. Small amounts of money are invested with individuals ready to work to provide something of value to the market—and the results are lives changed for the better.
Paul: The struggle with capitalism is at the heart of my story. I think even the question points to the discomfort that a lot of professional people of faith feel. We could say, “Automobiles are part of our democracy, part of our culture, yet the church is countercultural.” It’s quite valid to critique Wall Street when you look at the financial crisis, the chaos on Wall Street, income inequality—all the things we struggle with. But sometimes we are too quick to throw all of Wall Street under the cloud of evil.
When you work in that environment, you know that people struggle to be connected to something more than themselves—and you see the creativity and the minds that people have. We tend to recognize that scientists are creative, and that technologists are creative in developing apps. What many of them do is study data and look at relationships. Yet finance people and accounting people, who also study data and look at relationships, somehow aren’t identified as having creative potential.
Many people in our churches work in direct relation to capitalist enterprises. So how can we leverage creativity? How can we target profit—not in the sense of profit for us, but in making mission sustainable? How do we better leverage the expertise of people who are out in the world? I don’t think we have to run from that.
So can you serve God and Wall Street?
Paul: I could not serve the church the way I am today without the experience I had on Wall Street. Managing a group on Wall Street—how I could speak into their lives, how I could care for them, the hunger that they had for purpose—I felt that I could serve people quite well in that setting. But it is not easy.
When I left Wall Street, I didn’t really have a plan, and it certainly didn’t make any economic sense for me to leave. Yet not a single person said, “What are you doing?” They either said, “I wish I could do that, but I can’t because of my lifestyle,” or, more troubling, they don’t know what their identity would be if they weren’t part of a private equity firm or an investment bank. There’s such an empty hunger in the world for vocational identity.
But your question is really important. I think we allow people to cop out sometimes. In our churches, if someone is doing well economically, let’s say on Wall Street, it’s easy to say, “It’s okay. We need more Christian investment bankers.” Christian as adjective, investment banker as noun. What we really need is more investment banking Christians. Or attorney Christians. The identity is being Christian, the descriptor is what you do.
The Bible is filled with descriptions of God-filled “artisans and skilled workers” who use their gifts to build effective physical ministry structures. But sometimes we encourage people to just up and leave what they’re doing and show up on the doorstep of a ministry or a church instead. Yet that might be the last place of relevance for them. I’m excited about exploring how we can draw on their expertise. Rather than just asking them to sit on a board and have a cup of coffee and a cookie and then go home without engaging—how do we draw that creativity and expertise into real missional connection?
So yes, you can serve Christ on Wall Street. For me it came to a point where I wasn’t happy with the level of my commitment to the kingdom, so I needed to leave. But there are some wonderful stories of people who are finding ways to do that.
What are your thoughts on the current economic climate and the volatility of the markets? What does this mean for how we should be investing?
Ann: The volatility is not going away. The parable of the talents tells me how we’re supposed to act. The first and second stewards double the money for the master while he is away. The third steward was afraid. He buried his talent in the ground, and when he returned, the master said, “Why are you afraid, you wicked, wicked man?”
There is always a crisis. Four years ago we were talking about Portugal and Spain and how they were going to be imploding. Then there was the Greek exit. And now it’s China. There will always be turmoil in this world. We are called not to be fearful, but to be prudent and wise as serpents. So we will think long term, we’ll focus on the future, we’ll focus on the goals that we have. And we will live with the volatility.
Paul: Whether in faith or my personal life or in finance, I tend to make the best decisions when I use a long-term lens. Usually that means you need people around you to help save you from yourself. So when we think about managing assets for pastors or for servants within the church, one of the worst things we can do is force them to make these decisions without appropriate help, because you tend to be emotive and focused on the short term.
In my career, there have been any number of crisis moments. One wonderful statement I heard once is, “In periods of great market dislocation, don’t just do something, stand there.” That’s a wonderful image of an appropriate long-term focus.
Most people not only want their money to last to retirement, they want it to last through retirement.
So what principles should we think about in terms of investing?
Paul: We tend to look at someone’s age and quickly decide what their portfolio should be, based on their timeline. In other words, if you’re fifty-five and therefore you have a shorter-term horizon, we assume that the last thing you should do is be aggressively invested in the equity market.
The reality is, it’s more complicated than that. One principle that’s appropriate for everyone is a discipline of regular and recurring investment in the market. In other words, even if you’re fifty-five and you have a fifteen-year horizon, the irony is that market periods like today, even though they’re scary, are wonderful opportunities to continue to invest at ever-lower values. Fifteen years from now they likely will be much higher. So sustained commitment to investing, putting capital into the markets over a long period of time on a consistent basis, is one of the hallmarks of sound investment strategy.
Ann: Almost everybody—even if they’re seventy or eighty—still has a long-term time horizon. Most people not only want their money to last to retirement, they want it to last through retirement. So the chances are that an eighty-year-old could live until ninety or even ninety-five. That’s a long-term horizon. So let’s make sure that we’re invested prudently. Let’s have some stock for growth. Let’s have some bonds for stability and income. Let’s do all of that because we’re in this for the long haul.
In some circles we hear critiques of Christians who “simply” write checks or “throw money at” significant problems or needs. As people whose jobs is to encourage others to give, how do you respond to those critiques?
Ann: It’s hard for me to criticize somebody who wants to give. We ask our clients, What mission is on your heart? Is it children who need education? Is it camps? Is it your church? Is it making sure there are places in the world that will now have resources because you can give generously? We all feel the burden of some cause that we ourselves are not physically able to solve.
I love that Paul Carlson Partnership is working to get solar panels on every one of their clinics in DR Congo so that every clinic will have electricity. You would never call me to put on a solar panel on a clinic. That is not in my skill set. But I love being able to donate to that cause. There are other places, though, where I do participate in my local church, in my community. We can never understand what’s on somebody’s heart, so to say that someone is just writing a check or throwing money at the problem, we can’t make judgments like that.
Paul: We tend to make this distinction about wealthy people who write checks. Plenty of people who are not wealthy write checks and are equally important.
The challenge before us is to try to understand the passions of those who give at any level, and get them really, truly connected to ministries that resonate with them. That’s when the dollars flow. And that’s the high task, not for the wealthy, not for the poor—it’s for all who support engagement and sacrificial giving.
Is the concept of tithing out of date? Do we need to rethink our approach to how we give to church or ministry causes?
Ann: This idea of tithing is something I’m really struggling with right now. Not because 10 percent feels like too much, but because tithing seems to be an Old Testament concept. We don’t see Jesus talking about it. We see Jesus talking about selling everything we have and giving it to the poor and following him. We see the early church coming together and sharing all they have. They were still working—Paul was a tentmaker—to make sure they could fund ministry, but it’s a different kind of giving. If we are New Testament people, what does that mean for giving? What does that mean for tithing? Maybe we need to stop focusing on 10 percent and be more willing to say, “Anything I have is yours.”
Paul: I’m drawn to the concepts of first fruits. There’s real sacrifice to give in a way that makes a difference in your own economic life and causes you to engage to make sure that investment is cared for and stewarded and effective.
If we are New Testament people, what does that mean for giving?
What can you tell us about current giving trends—both in the culture and in the church?
Paul: To be honest I think there are way too many nonprofits trying to duplicate mission that others are already doing more effectively. So one core question is how do we steward resources well? How do we communicate with donors about the actual return on the investment that they are making in these ministries? A lot of nonprofit innovation talks about making an “investment.” But it’s just a word. How do we actually show data, to really prove that an investment in our denomination or in our ministry is fruitful and is advancing the kingdom? Donors of all generations want to see mission returns, and want to be more deeply connected and personally engaged in ministries that send a greater percentage of dollars into service. I think there is a lot of good work to be done there.
Ann: In many churches, the faithful, steadfast givers tend to be the old guard. I wonder if we are teaching the financial part of discipleship to those who are new to the church. The data tells us that millennials are a very generous group. They want to give to things they can believe in, and they want to make a difference. Yet there are many worthy causes competing for support. So what are we doing to make the case that the church is the place that can have an impact?
Can you tell us about socially responsible investing and why that’s important?
Paul: Historically in the church we’ve had a reactive, almost Old Testament approach to being socially responsible. In other words, here are the ten things we don’t invest in. Imagine starting a church with a list of the ten things you don’t do—it’s not a terribly effective strategy for driving new membership.
For me, the deeply encouraging work is in an area often termed “impact investing.” The simple concept is taking a creative approach to funding and business structure to develop platforms, which focus on both mission and return. Well-run, mission-minded businesses not only transform lives and communities but also can result in lower levels of litigation, built-in product marketing benefits, and many other intangible qualities that enhance returns. The market is still in its infancy, but it is encouraging that many wonderfully talented (and often fully secular) young professionals are entering the impact market out of a deep concern for the world. This trend is a prime example of the power of blended thinking between worlds—how do we meld the talent and innovation of for-profit structures with the missional heart of the church?
Within the church there are some delightful intersections of that trend. What can we do with our capital to show good stewardship, to create sustainable programs, and to advance the kingdom?
Ann: What happens if we want to invest in companies that are making a difference environmentally? Or companies that are committed to their community, to diversity, to gender equality—and they show that by having these different voices on their boards? In the industry, we’re seeing that by doing that, you can have competitive results. You’re not giving up anything. We’re hoping that we can find some great opportunities for our clients, for our institutions as we look to invest.
I find it staggering how much we can do in mission with the faithful support of our churches and individuals.
Who should have an investment adviser?
Ann: I think everyone needs an investment adviser, because they do more than just advising on investments. It’s a behavioral coach, an outside third party—it’s somebody who doesn’t have the emotional connection to your investments. I can’t tell you how often I hear people say, “But I love my AT&T stock.” And I ask, “Really? Does it love you back?” Perhaps they’ve worked there for forty years, so they can’t part with it, even to divest themselves of a huge concentration in their portfolio that puts them at great risk. The investment adviser can be the controlled voice of prudent decision making.
As you look at building up a portfolio that hopefully will take you through retirement, ask yourself some questions. Do you like to read stock writings and annual reports? Do you like to do research and make decisions based on that research? Do you know how to create an income stream during retirement? And if you have a spouse, does your spouse also share those skills?
If you answer no to any of those questions, an investment adviser can provide all of those pieces.
Paul: We often hear both pastors and laypeople say, “I don’t have an estate, I don’t have any assets.” But everybody has an estate. I would encourage people not only to have an adviser, but to stop thinking about an estate as having to be $1 million or more. Estates can be very, very small, yet it’s incredibly important to have everything in order for the family to have some sense of closure and to alleviate stress at a very hard time.
Is it important for churches to see themselves as a nonprofit business?
Paul: This is a loaded question for me. We have many for-profit businesses that are nonprofit—in other words, they don’t achieve a profit. And many nonprofit businesses generate enormous profits. What’s important is, how do we make investment in ministry sustainable? How do we reimagine financial models that lead to sustained ministry? That’s what donors want to see. So I don’t think about it in terms of nonprofit there, or for-profit over here. That’s polarizing. I ask how do we harness some of the creativity in the for-profit world to drive innovation and sustainability in ministry?
Ann: If the church holds itself accountable, if the church sets and measures goals, that’s what people are looking for when they make a gift. People want to know that their money is not being squandered. They want to see their gift used wisely for mission, whether that mission is paying the bills of the church or funding the soup kitchen in the church. That’s where a business lens can help local churches.
Paul: Because Ann runs an enterprise that is both missional and covers its costs and creates a little bit of reserve, her financial services representatives are able to offer training to every seminary student coming into North Park Seminary at no cost. In the Pension Plan or in Bethany Benefits, if we can build a little reserve, we can make life so much easier for pastors who are really struggling. So there’s a way to allocate a little bit of reserve to mission that transforms people.
Why should anyone give to the ECC or invest with Covenant Trust Company?
Ann: The brilliance of the thinkers that put together the Trust Company back in 1988 was that they didn’t do a brokerage, they put together a trust company. CTC always acts as a fiduciary—it’s the highest legal standard. We have the duty to put the client’s interest before our own, so clients never have to worry that we’re selling something that benefits us more than them. We don’t take commissions, we don’t have hidden fees or any of those imbedded 12b-1 fees. We are a fee-based money management company—that’s why a trust company fiduciary is a great answer for our clients. Perhaps you’d say, “Of course a faith-based company would operate that way.” But our clients have the assurance that it is the legal standard under which we operate.
Even more important is our alignment of values. CTC seeks to be a good steward of resources and to be generous toward our clients, toward our staff, and in giving back. And we know our clients share those same values. That’s why they’re drawn to us. We know our clients want to be generous with their families, with the causes they hold dear—they want to have an impact in this world. So when the client and the money manager are aligned, both facing out and saying, “What can we do and how can we be generous?” that’s very powerful.
Paul: If you ask a food depository what kind of help they need, they will tell you that while they love to have cans of food dropped off at their door, the scale effect of what they can do with a dollar is far greater. In my first year at Covenant Offices, I find it staggering how much we can do in mission with the faithful support of our churches and individuals. One example is that all of our long-term missionaries are funded through our operating budget because we want to make sure that their missions are not compromised if they only raise 95 percent of their support. Also, witnessing how Love Mercy Do Justice helps make local church mercy initiatives more effective is really powerful. So I get excited when superintendents or laypeople call and ask why I support the denomination. Having been here a little while, I see that more clearly every day and I think we need to communicate that much more clearly.
Special thanks to North Park University