Coming to Terms with Financial Practicalities

The Pension Boards interviews the Rev. Laura Folkwein, Pastor, Pilgrim Congregational UCC, Bozeman, MT, and participant in the Ministers’ Financial Vitality Initiative (MFVI) program, on navigating and addressing personal finances and debt.

What experience(s) led you to participate in the MFVI program?

When I began MFVI, I was in a stressful financial situation. My spouse and I had a considerable amount of debt, and we had student loans to pay. We were basically paying the amount of a second mortgage in student loans. We felt very shackled by that debt and we did not see a way out of it. We also had other debt resulting from a move across the country, taking care of our pets, and caring for our own health needs. For the past few years, I was working part-time as a grant writer at a local homeless shelter and part-time for a local United Church of Christ congregation, which was wonderful work, but neither salary was large, and neither job offered retirement benefits. For a long time, I had been piecing jobs together to make ends meet, and not putting money away in a pension.

“MFVI has given me the opportunity to know that I am not alone.”

How has the MFVI program helped you in navigating your finances?

MFVI has given me the opportunity to know that I am not alone. There are a lot of clergy and people involved in serving churches who are in similar situations, struggling with educational debt and other debt.

As clergy, we don't get into ministry because we want to be financial experts— I’m certainly not an expert. I have spent a lot of my life being overwhelmed by finances. I haven't made great decisions with credit card debt. I have placed groceries on a credit card because I wasn’t making enough to do anything about it, or so I thought. But also partly because I was in some denial about even dealing with it at all.

MFVI, along with having a really wise partner, who's better with money than I am, has helped me get a hold of that aspect of denial. I've been very grateful for the resources that MFVI has offered in the packet. Taking the time to sit down and read the resources or listen to a webinar is time well spent. To know that other people are in the same boat and that we can help support each other really made a huge difference for me.

What role has shame, fear, or anxiety played in your financial journey?

“I spent a long time in denial about my personal financial reality.”

As I mentioned, I spent a long time in denial about my personal financial reality. I carried the embarrassment of my personal financial situation, and the stress and difficulties in dealing with money as a household. I even bring that into my church work occasionally. But, what's fascinating to me is that most days I am actually fine reading a church budget and talking about money at work. I almost enjoy it. But, then I go home and just hang my head and say, “Why is this so different in my work than at home?” That's still a question I have. MFVI resources can really help us delve into some of those questions in ways that are removed from the emotion, and just bring practical wisdom.

How has debt impacted your ability to give to community needs or other worthy causes?

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There was a moment about six months ago when our financial situation changed for the better, and I got very excited about giving - it’s just who I am. It’s a value I grew up with to want to give back to my community. But then something else changed, and we weren’t able to give at the level at which I had always been dreaming of. That was really sad for me. But I realized that for now, instead of giving at a high level, we made the choice for my spouse to have more flexibility in their employment. This has really been good for us as a couple and for both of our health— spiritually, mentally, and physically. We will have a chance to share what we have, but we’ll need to do the math to figure out what's really going to work for us.

What words of inspiration or wisdom would you like to share with other UCC clergy struggling with debt?

The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Any small step that you can take is worth it, whether it’s starting a conversation at home, writing out a script about how you're going to advocate for health insurance benefits or contributions to retirement at work— anything that would be helpful to you. Also, I suggest getting help from your conference minister, your pastoral relations committee, or from anyone who can support you in this process.

“The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”

I would also advocate for programs like the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. While the application process may be tedious, it is well worth the time and effort if it means your loans will be forgiven. Most clergy are not drawing huge salaries, so having programs like this one is really important. I would encourage anyone who even thinks they might be eligible to pursue it, and to set aside the time to find the support you need to get it done.

Relationships and cheerleaders really help motivate me. Find somebody who can be that for you. If it's the loan forgiveness application, just do it. Then, do something to reward yourself that feels really good because you've done something really hard.

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Rev. Laura Folkwein, MSW, (she/her) grew up in Montana, as a United Methodist preacher’s kid involved in camping and youth ministry. After trying to avoid a formal call to ministry for many years, Laura earned a dual Master of Social Work from the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver and Master of Divinity from Iliff School of Theology. She was ordained at The Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, Arizona in 2014, and was recently installed as settled pastor at Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Bozeman, Montana. Laura is passionate about strengthening communities, treating all people with dignity and respect, and connecting people to care for, learn from, and advocate with each other. After twenty years living out of the state, she moved back to Montana in 2014 with her spouse. Together, they enjoy music, hiking, camping, gardening, caring for their pets, and working on a Montana family history project together.