Path out of debt

Sunday, February 20, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:46 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 3, 2008

John Beverstein led the group in prayer, then picked up a hatchet. In his left hand, a credit card.

“We don’t need these,” Beverstein said as he set the plastic on a board. Bringing the hatchet down, he chopped the card in two. “Credit cards reek.”

Beverstein, a member of Missouri United Methodist Church, is leading a 13-week seminar called “Financial Peace University,” which is based on the books and syndicated radio broadcasts of financial guru Dave Ramsey. John Shrum, who attends United Church of Christ, also leads the meetings, which are held every Thursday evening at United Methodist.

Both men have used Ramsey’s advice to get out of debt, and FPU, as the seminar is known, is a ministry of sorts by the two churches to offer practical programs from a Christian perspective. Diana Moody, United Methodist’s Christian education director, said FPU is as important as the church’s other outreach efforts, which include a singles’ ministry, a book club, a single-parenting class and aerobics.

“If it is a situation in your life, the church needs to be involved,” Moody said. “We want to be where you are in your life.”

Ramsey’s financial kit, “Total Money Makeover,” preaches the elimination of debt and the importance of savings to a family’s financial well-being. To Ramsey — and many of his estimated two million listeners — using debt as a tool to build wealth is almost sinful. Ramsey said that 59 percent of U.S. families have credit card debt yet do not have enough money saved to survive a month without income. The average American family carries $5,800 of credit card debt, and paying it off sucks up 92 percent of a family’s disposable income, according to the Federal Reserve.

FPU has programs tailored for corporate, military and church settings. Although he is preaching financial instead of spiritual salvation, Ramsey’s simple, conservative financial advice lines up well with biblical teachings on managing money. He often supports his advice by quoting scripture. One of his favorites is Proverbs 22:7, from the Old Testament: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is a slave to the lender.”

And then there’s a recurring favorite from the New Testament. “The Bible doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil,” Ramsey said. “It says that the love of money is the root of all evil.”

Moody, of United Methodist, echoes this sentiment. “There’s nothing wrong with a Christian being rich; it’s what you do with the resources and the wealth that you have,” she said.

David and Robin Dorth, members of United Methodist, went through FPU when the church first offered it in fall 2004. On a recent Thursday evening, the couple stood before a group of about 30 people and offered a testimony about how they got out of debt. Following Ramsey’s advice, the Dorths have eliminated $25,000 of their debt and recently managed to make it through their first Christmas without going into debt.

After they spoke, others stood to give a short introduction and summary of their financial situation. Most were young parents hoping to build up their savings and prepare for their children’s college education. Others were middle-aged men and women planning for retirement. All were hoping to wean themselves off their dependency on credit cards.

Ramsey also draws heavily on Christ’s teachings about charity, encouraging those who become financially stable to give generously.

“What could the people of God do for the kingdom of God if it were debt-free?” Ramsey asked on his Web site.

Shrum, who hosts a home-repair radio show, said getting out of debt has allowed him to be more generous with his money. For the first time, he said, he has been able to tithe, the biblical practice of giving a tenth of one’s earnings away.

“I’ve always wanted to,” Shrum said, “but I’ve never been able to do it.”

Beverstein said that many of the church members who have gone through FPU experience a similar feeling of Christian generosity.

“Before your mortgage, before anything else,” he said, “you learn to give first.”

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