Free Financial Planning for UMC Clergy


check bookThe topic of managing personal finances can be daunting, and even depressing, for many pastors, particularly those who are just trying to stay afloat. On the United Methodist Communications website, there are some good tips on how to assess your church’s financial health, but what about your own?

I have some good news: the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits is offering free financial planning services to all active participants, surviving spouses of clergy, and retired clergy with an account balance.

The General Board has partnered with Ernst and Young Financial Planning to offer support in the areas of:

  • making investment decisions
  • planning for retirement
  • managing debt
  • understanding your taxes

When I read about this offer on the General Board’s website, I admit that I was a little skeptical. Free financial planning in a time when everything costs you something?

However, I mentioned this resource to a pastor who had named financial health as an area she would like to work on as she plans for retirement. She came back with a glowing report:“The financial planner has been so helpful. I sent in my financial documents, and his encouragement and professionalism has really put my mind at ease about the future,” she said. The pastor also said that “taking action has given me something to work toward, one small step at a time.

piggy bankYou can call Ernst & Young directly at 1-800-360-2539, Monday through Friday between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., Central time.

Their brochure contains additional information.

To log onto the program website, visit the Ernst and Young Planning Center, using the login info below:

  • company code: gbophb
  • company program: gbophb

I encourage you to take advantage of this free opportunity to alleviate some financial stress and take care of yourself.


–Kelli Sittser

Seeking Perspective


One of the central issues with stress is perspective. No matter how many times we’ve survived a flat tire, a disgruntled congregant, or a cluttered house, these troubles feel like epic challenges, threatening to unravel the fabric of our worlds. Our fretful mountains often turn out to be nothing but molehills, and so we miss the true mountains. We don’t pay attention to what’s truly majestic and encompassing. Our problems become the text of reality, and everything else is relegated to a footnote. As said long ago, we fail to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

Next time you need your perspective recalibrated, check out the web-program The Scale of the Universe. It’s an incredible representation of the wonder of creation, how there’s so much to life that’s bigger and smaller than us humans. Between the one nanometer Buckyball (composed of sixty carbon atoms) and the one million kilometer star Alpha Centauri B (the second largest star in the Alpha Centauri star system), the problem of next Sunday’s sermon might not seem as significant.

How do you put things in perspective?

–Tommy Grimm

(Image by Flickr user Lanzen /via Creative Commons)

Book Review: Total Money Makeover


See if this sounds familiar.

We navigate the beautiful, busy Christmas season, with its joy, excitement, reminiscence, gifts (and possibly negatives too, but that’s the subject of another post).  After the holiday festivities settle back into normalcy, and we sit down to balance our checkbooks like the responsible adults that we are, the cold hard numbers staring back at us are daunting. As it turns out, we went slightly over budget this year.

If that’s been your experience, you’re not alone.

Finances continue to be the number one stressor in households, and we feel the pinch most acutely over the Christmas season.  That’s when the combination of daily expenses (day care, tuition, utilities and/or car maintenance) and holiday gifts and/or travel delivers a one-two punch that can do a real number on a pastor’s sense of wonder and holiday cheer.

Despite housing allowances and other UMC benefits, some pastors still grapple with concerns about (1) mortgages on family homes not occupied due to very distant church appointments; (2) college tuition; (3) retirement planning; and (4) personal funds used to subsidize a church’s financial needs. And what if you have to deal with a sudden pastoral move and  associated costs that may or may not be covered by the denomination?  Below is an image courtesy of that shows how these financial issues can cause fear, embarrassment and/or stress:

Given that those pesky household bills don’t take a well-deserved holiday themselves, Dave Ramsey’s book Total Money Makeover can provide helpful insight about how to get wayward finances back on track.

Although Ramsey is also creator of the highly recommended Financial Peace University program, Total Money Makeover is a much more accessible reference tool for beginning financial resuscitation. This book can be purchased, but can also be checked out at your local library if you want to skim through it before making a purchase. One item included in the book is Ramsey’s Seven Baby Steps that provide a general road map that can be followed.

Below are some pros and cons about the book:


• It’s very simple to follow — there’s no financial jargon.
• Ramsey is upfront and direct about what his book is about and what it’s not.
• It’s motivational.
• It includes true life stories, including Ramsey’s own.
• It includes many worksheets.


• He seems to put an emphasis on mutual funds, although he does state that his book should not be treated as an investment book.
• You may or may not agree with the theology included, depending on your hermeneutic or understanding of the Bible.

Theology aside, Total Money Makeover offers a logical approach to financial fitness, therefore stress reduction.

– Angela M. MacDonald

(Images courtesy of and



 “Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you; they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.” -Bernice Johnson Reagon

 Great, but what do you do when this happens?

Some things we can control and some things we can’t. What do we do with the things we can’t control? Hopefully, some humor can help.

What helps you deal with the lava flows in your life?

–Kelli Christianson

Can you take anything off your plate?


Amidst the frenzy of gearing up for the holidays (food preparation plans, gift giving, holiday travel), many pastors are also juggling overloaded church schedules.

In addition to the regular activities of the church, the weeks leading into Advent bring charge conferences, capital campaigns and/or ordination papers, plus an influx of denominational retreats and unexpected pastoral emergencies, not to mention daily family life.  During other parts of the year, a pastor might be able to prioritize action items or delegate some duties to willing church or family members, depending upon the tasks. But what about those times when it seems as if absolutely NOTHING can be delayed, delegated or outright removed from the list of duties?

That’s exactly when stress moves in.  And as the pressure rises, it can be all too easy to return to old habits of choosing unhealthy (though very convenient) foods or eating to relieve stress — habits you may have worked really hard to change.

Through our Spirited Life program, we offer pastors the Naturally Slim healthy eating program, and countless clergy have seen it make a real difference in their lives. But the stress of the holidays can put the program’s tools to the test.  The Naturally Slim ‘hunger savers’ or the incredibly popular H2Orange may not feel like enough to get you through the long and stressful days of the Advent season.

So: some reinforcements…

Stress is a known trigger for cravings, so planning ahead is key — especially when craving foods that are either salty, sweet, crunchy (or all of the above!) In addition to packing the recommended Naturally Slim hunger savers, here is a useful chart from that helps you match up your unhealthy craving with healthier food options.

May God continue to strengthen you to add healthier food to your physical plate, even as you juggle the duties piling up on your pastoral plate.

– Angela M. MacDonald

(Images courtesy of &

Meditate, Move, and Breathe Stress Away


Whether we’re concerned for a loved one’s health, rushing around because we’re late for work and can’t find those darn keys, or have a deadline looming, we all experience some form of stress every day.

To a certain degree, stress is an inevitable part of life, but how we approach and manage the things that make us anxious can make a big difference in the effect stress has on our well-being.

If you’re like me, you are eager to find relaxation methods but ironically find yourself stressed(!) about how long they might take. Well, my fellow relaxation seekers, I have good news!  It truly is possible to fit in one or two simple stress-relieving practices each day.

As I was looking through the Duke HR website this week, I came across a section with information on a few techniques that I found helpful — mindfulness meditation, relaxation poses, and breathing exercises. I also found a series of videos on YouTube that demonstrate three simple stretches you can do almost anywhere to help prevent or relieve stress and pain.

One of our wellness advocates also leads a session of simple chair exercises here.  After trying some of the breathing and stretching exercises, I will definitely be making them a part of my daily routine from now on.

Let us know if you try any of these relaxation techniques or would like to share some tips of your own!

Melanie Kolkin

(Photo by Flickr user Alan Cleaver)

Can We Be “Good Busy?”


How many conversations have you encountered that go something like this:  “Hello friend, how are you?”  There is a pause, the shoulders sag, and the universal answer is exhaled: “BUSY!”

“Busyness” seems to be ubiquitous in American culture today.  It is often even claimed as some kind of twisted medal of honor–Who’s the busiest?  The strange thing is, for all our embracing of busyness, there still seems to be a great deal of unease about our frantic schedules.  Every January, stores fill up with calendars and products designed to help YOU take control of your time. Oprah magazine articles and myriad self-help books pile up promising the secret to time management.  And yet, if it were as easy to manage our time as buying the right product or reading the correct article, wouldn’t we have it all figured out by now?

North Carolina author, Ph.D. candidate, and mother of two, Julia Scatliff O’Grady, set out on a bold adventure to see if she, and the people in her life, could have a different relationship with time than the push/pull of “never-enough.”  She wondered: if busyness is an inescapable part of modern life, is there a way to be GOOD busy?  She interviewed 10 people, and found that while each had a slightly different take on how to relate to time, all had something to offer her.  They also encouraged her to find her own path to good busy.

She put her findings together into a new book, Good Busy: Productivity, Procrastination and the Endless Pursuit of Balance, which is generating some interesting conversations already.  If you’re in the Triangle, come to one of her book signings that include a reading and discussion with one of the people profiled.  She also participated in a fascinating NPR show reflecting on how we use time in the modern age, which you can listen to here.  Even if you don’t have time to read a new book, perhaps just thinking about the question of your relationship with time can bear fruit in your life.  After all,  as Ecclesiastes reminds us, God makes all things beautiful in their time,  and God has placed eternity in our hearts.  (Eccl. 3:11)

–by Caren Swanson

Pastor Spotlight: Andrew Brown – the Faster Pastor


Wellness advocates repeatedly remind one another that their work is not about themselves, but about providing space to pastors that do not otherwise have a sounding board of their own. With just a simple opening question, we never really know how a conversation will flow until it flows. Of course, the talks can run the gamut…and then there is the occasional surprise.

“Hello Pastor XYZ! What’s new? What’s exciting? What’s different?” That was my admittedly corny opening for calls on this particular day. Before I could mentally rapture myself to the unemployment line for such a clumsy opening, the pastor says, “Well, I raced a school bus yesterday!”

As it turns out, Rev. Andrew Brown, senior pastor of Hawthorne Lane UMC in Charlotte, happens to be the winner of the 2012 “Faster Pastor” race, an annual spectacle in which “local men of the cloth wheel 13-ton monstrous machines…

Pastor Andrew was kind enough to grant an interview to Spirited Life about this incredible experience.

ME: What made you decide to enter the ‘Faster Pastor’ race?  How did you hear about it?

ANDREW: I received an email from the district office saying they needed pastors to drive in a school bus race. It sounded interesting; who wouldn’t want to drive a bus around a race track when someone else is paying for the gas!

ME: Describe your bus – who painted it?

ANDREW: I rallied some of our church members to get a pit crew together. They were responsible for the design and painting of the bus. The pit crew consisted of children, youth, and enough adults to make it legal. We had an artist and an interior designer on the crew. The final design was created by one of our church’s fifth graders; “Jesus Take the Wheel” was the theme. Everybody really got into it.

ME: What was it like to get behind the wheel?

ANDREW: Getting behind the wheel was a rush – a four-point harness, a full face helmet with radio receivers, and a couple of track mechanics explaining how to drive the bus.

ME: Did you do a donut in the grass after you won the race?

ANDREW: [Laughing] No, the engine wouldn’t go fast enough.

ME: What was your winning strategy, and what did you do to celebrate?

ANDREW: I don’t think I really had a winning strategy. I was surprised to win. I just went back to the lessons I learned in childhood driving go-carts. Go fast and stay upright.

I wasn’t really sure how to drive against a bunch of pastors. I mean, I didn’t know if they would drive aggressive or not. Then, when we went into the first turn, one of the other drivers nailed me in the back fender and I thought, “OK…it’s on!”  I did my best to keep it together, and everything worked out great!

We had about 30 people from our congregation come to watch the race, including my wife and two of our children. The Faster Pastor race was a novelty race between the real [NASCAR] races that night.

Also my parents, who have both gone through some serious health issues lately, were there, and that really meant a lot. They rode from their home, about 2 hours away, with my oldest brother and his wife. After the race (and the win) I went with my family to Cracker Barrel to celebrate. We brought the trophy in [the restaurant], sat it on the table and had a great time!

ME: Are you in again next year?

ANDREW: I don’t know if I will be able to do it again next year. But I would love to do it again.

ME: Assuming this is one fun way to let off some steam, what are some of the other ways you try to reduce stress?

PASTOR: I didn’t enter the race to reduce stress. I did it to have fun. I believe there is in each of us a kid who “had to” grow up. It is important for us to let that kid out from time to time and have fun! Maybe that’s what Jesus was getting at when he said you must enter the Kingdom as a little child.

As Pastor Andrew enthusiastically described his experience, he said, “I’ve gotta take more chances in life!” It sounded as if he had rediscovered some laughter and adrenaline that he had been missing. It seems that this experience gave him an opportunity to channel fun memories from his childhood, while creating lasting memories for his congregants and family members in the stands as supportive witnesses.

As men and women of clergy who are dealing with countless stressors spiritually and professionally, it can be easy to forget or bypass those hobbies, those moments that give us a chance to have fun. Have you put a hobby on the back burner? How long ago? Maybe it is time to think about reconnecting with something fun that will give you joy, laughter and some great memories.

— Angela MacDonald

(Pictures and YouTube video provided by Jami Brown and CMS/HHP Photo)

Vacation Deprivation


A 2011 Expedia survey about time off from work concluded that Americans are “vacation deprived.” Here are the results, comparing vacation time given and taken among various countries:

Vacation deprived indeed! In half of the countries surveyed, the average worker received more than twice the number of days off than we do in America. In a Time article about European vacation policy, economist John Schmitt said, “The U.S. is the only [industrialized] country in the world that does not have statutory requirements on employers to provide paid holiday, paid parental leave or paid sick days. We are enormous outliers.”

But before we shake our fists at our national lot, we have to own up to the fact that even with our paltry supply of vacation, last year on average we left two days of vacation unused. Sixteen hours when we could have been at the beach, in the mountains, or under a blanket, we chose the office instead.

What gives?

Expedia asked participants why they don’t use all their vacation time. 15% of Americans said “they don’t schedule far enough in advance,” while another 15% simply said, “Work is my life.”

“Vacation deprivation” isn’t just a fabricated condition to help Expedia sell more plane tickets. Vacation is linked to improved relationships with coworkers and enhanced quality of work. It grants us perspective and motivation to achieve our goals.  And it may even make us live longer.

So why is it so hard for us to take a break?

–Tommy Grimm

(Image by Flickr user Via Tsuji/via Creative Commons)

Read more on the importance of vacation

Decluttering to “Lift the Spirit”


The other day, my coworker and I were talking about the feeling of joy we each had recently experienced after taking respective carloads full of last season’s clothes, long-forgotten (and mostly unused) kitchen gadgets, and random household decorations to local thrift stores.  I mentioned to her that when I returned home from the thrift store and noticed the space in my kitchen cabinets and the ease with which my desk drawer now slides open, I felt liberated; I felt ecstatic; I felt good for having helped people in need with my donations; I felt…. like I needed to fill that empty space with more STUFF!

Why is it that if we have an attic or garage or freezer, we somehow fill it to the brim with items for safe keeping when we know that some of those things will be the first out the door when the next inspiration for purging sets in?   And, more importantly, what is this clutter doing to our lives? To our sanity?

In a series of blog posts on The New York Times’ The Well, writer Jane Brody describes her journey to declutter her home and ultimately her life.  Brody’s first post references the recently released book The Hoarder in You by Robin Zasio as her guide to throwing out and reorganizing things in her home.   Some of the main points Brody highlights are:

  • Pick one area (geographic area or a specific project) to work on at a time and be satisfied with your work when finished.  And, go for the low-hanging fruit.  What seems manageable?
  • Put decluttering on your calendar and do a little most days until you’ve reached your goal.
  • Make three piles: “Keep, Donate, Discard” and separate each item into one of those categories.
  • Get the items in the donate and discard piles out of the house as quickly as possible.  Select an organization or an individual to whom you’d be excited about giving some of the items.

Brody’s second post is a follow-up to the first, a progress report, if you will, in which she shares her decluttering victories.  Yet this time, Brody takes the idea of too much stuff one step further:

“Most of us have little idea how many things in our lives keep us from enjoying life more. But one’s life can be cluttered by more than household objects. The irritating extras can include activities that are no longer rewarding but are continued out of habit or guilt. Perhaps it’s time for a more extended kind of housecleaning.

Mr. Dennis [Barry Dennis of The Tchochky Challenge ] cites several ‘tchotchkes’ I might never have thought of: electronic equipment that keeps us from living in the moment; people who are an emotional drain instead of a joy; piles of CDs and DVDs that are never watched or listened to; food that gets stuffed into an already satiated body; and unwanted or unloved gifts from people you nonetheless care about.”

Ultimately, Brody says, “Lightening one’s physical load can brighten the mind and lift the spirit.”

When was the last time you took a minute to think about decluttering… your office drawer, a closet, your schedule, your mind?

-Katie Huffman

(Image by Ivetta Fedorova; copyright 2012 The New York Times Company)