Pastors and the Psychology of Scarcity


This is a guest blog from Susan Mettes of Thrivent Financial:

During an Exponential East workshop by Thrivent Financial on Money, Stress, and Ministry, a pastor arrived several minutes early, sat heavily in his chair, and said, “I need this.” He’d just received bad news about his church’s finances. In fact, most of the workshop attendees were there because they were concerned about the effects of too little money and too much stress on their ministries.

According to recent research in psychology, these pastors are right to be concerned. Researchers have been exploring the physical and emotional impact of financial strain.

More than a year ago, Chris Kopka at Thrivent realized that many church planters were in a tough financial position. He initiated work with Barna to dig deeper into their personal and church finances. In the course of that research, Barna found a number of reasons to believe church planters were at risk of a series of financial and psychological hardships—due to their finances.

The average person, when feeling pinched for time or money, will focus too much on the thing they’re missing and too little on the future. Their strategy for getting back on their feet and living past the crisis is faulty or missing. They borrow from the future, both by literally borrowing money on unfavorable terms and by thinking they can delay the undelayable (for example, spending time with their children).

When feeling rushed or pinched, people also tend to be less kind and caring. They can also lose control over how hard they are trying; that is, they are likely to try too hard and to have difficulty lowering their stress for better performance.In the research Barna conducted on church planters, they found evidence of these problems. The emerging picture of church planters under financial strain—which is about a third of them, according to their own, subjective ranking—shows that 35 percent of them have had trouble in their marriages, and nearly half (47%) of the church planters in the lower income bracket report the same.

(Interestingly, at the Exponential workshop, attendees ranked the average person in their church at a higher level of financial distress than the church planters felt personally.)

As for the symptom of borrowing from the future, almost all of the church planters (91%) in this research have given money to subsidize the church plant. Of the church planters who don’t earn a salary from their church plant, about a third subsidize the church plant regularly. The tradeoff of making such gifts to the church plant may be the ability to retire comfortably, pay off debts, maintain property, or fund a child’s college education.

So, how can the rest of us help them to recover from the effects of financial stress?

Of course, more money often helps, as does protected non-work time. Is your church or sending organization paying your pastors adequately? Is it providing for them with future benefits (helping with home ownership or retirement) and by making sure they don’t have to gamble with their wellbeing (good medical coverage and insurance)?

To undo the psychology of scarcity—the culprit behind short-term, non-strategic thinking—people need to be refreshed. They also need some of the weight of decisions taken off. For example, scheduling auto payments so they don’t fall behind, or putting exercise on their calendars, rather than just making a mental note to do it later.

To recover from scarcity, it’s also important to make sure to do things that refresh and renew a sense of perspective on life. Things like walking outdoors instead of sitting in a windowless room can be invaluable. So can frequent prayers of thanksgiving, good nights of sleep, getting out in nature, moderate exercise, experiencing joy and gratitude, and having the weight of the work lifted every now and then.

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