Meet Rev. Philip Waite, a new friend of Criterion Institute, who has a passion for connecting faith and finance to do God’s work in the world. Rev. Waite is pastoral team leader of College Mennonite Church on the campus of Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana. If you are interested in 1K Churches and curious about the church’s engagement with economic issues, you will want to explore the reflections he shared in a recent interview with Phyllis Anderson of Criterion Institute.
How did this interest in faith and finance begin for you?
Some years ago, my wife, Beth, and I moved to a new city and sold our house. The real estate deal worked out better than we expected, and we were moving to a church with a parsonage. Suddenly we had to think seriously about capital resources and what to do with them. I began to pay attention to the world of finance with interest for the first time.
More recently I began to realize that many of the retirees in my congregation, who had been involved in church work, social work, and education (not exactly lucrative fields) were accidental retirement savings millionaires. Our collective capital would be hundreds of millions of dollars. This was a stunning discovery. I began to name this out loud and became interested in questions about what we do with our capital. How can the church develop new ways for members to work together, aligning capital around shared faith values?
Mennonites have a history of economies of sharing, including a kind of monasticism where congregations might insist on collective ownership of all property. You can think about Anabaptism as a movement trying to mainstream monastic life. We teach that all Christians can and should live each day with monastic rigor. Yet, even with this history, we have ceded our wealth to the world of secular finance. The best we can think of is socially responsible investing.
My hope is that by asking questions and starting a conversation, we might begin to work toward more creative ways to interact with the world of finance according to the values of our faith.
How were you introduced to Criterion Institute? Where did you hear about 1K Churches?
I had asked some people who worked with Everence, the stewardship agency of the Mennonite Church, for some help with a sermon on capital. I wanted to include in the sermon something specific that people could do. Everence let me know about Criterion and 1K churches. I was thrilled to learn about an organization committed to using finance to address issues of injustice, and even more thrilled to find an organization that recognizes the role of churches. As a pastor, I believe in the power of local congregations to impact their communities socially, economically, and spiritually (can these really be separated?).
What theological themes help you connect faith and finance? What bible stories have contributed to your interest and understanding?
Years ago, I served with Mennonite Central Committee in the Philippines working with tribal Filipinos. We worked with one hunter-gatherer tribe who could not imagine the concept of storage. Agricultural economies run on storage, and from our perspective, teaching this concept was crucial to helping the tribe survive. But as I paid attention to the ways the Mamanwa tribe engaged the world economically, I was struck by how much it lined up with biblical values. From manna in the wilderness, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the parable of the rich fool, to commands to give all you have to those in need, the biblical economic vision resonated with this hunter-gatherer tribe. I discovered that middle class ethics of frugality, savings, and financial security are at odds with a biblical economic vision and I’ve been trying to come to terms with this dissonance ever since.
More recently, reflection on creation theology has informed my thinking. God has imbued creation with purpose and intent. It is also inherently social. So much of my thinking historically about money was rooted in purity models. “I don’t want to spend money on this” and “I don’t want to invest in that,” because these things are tainted somehow. This is not a bad approach in and of itself, but it limits creativity. It also desacralizes wealth. If all wealth ultimately has its source in God, then we should see wealth as a sacred gift. But instead of looking for ways to sacralize wealth, to make it sacred, to make it one with God’s intent (to store up treasure in heaven, if you will), our churches cede wealth to a secular economy, provided it meets certain standards of purity. What can we do with our wealth? How can we re-sacralize it? Together we are powerful.
How has this interest affected your preaching?
I am more attentive to the need for agency. At College Mennonite, we generally know what we should not be doing, and we know of grave injustice in the world. We want to be led in taking action. We need a recovery of agency, a sense that the church and local congregations especially are uniquely positioned to address the major crises we face today, such as income inequality, housing, healthcare, debt, and climate change. It begins with starting conversations and with early wins. So that is what I am trying to do more in my sermons: start conversations and point to early wins.
How do you see finance and faith showing up in congregational programing? Do you see a place for 1K Churches in the life of your congregation?
College Mennonite is just beginning to engage finance in a programmatic way. As I get involved in conversations with others, I am encouraged that we are not alone in asking questions and engaging. One place we are working is housing, trying to assist people in our church purchase housing through congregational financing. For a variety of reasons, often related to structural injustice, some people do not have credit or access to conventional loans. We have a number of unique resources to help us. I am excited about congregations that have worked with microloan models, or even started their own credit unions.
What excites me about 1K Churches is that it fits the concept of start small but prepare to scale. It is big on conversation, encouraging people of faith to think differently about capital, to be conscious of their own resources, and to think creatively about what they can do (again, agency). We have families in our church with interest in starting a business. A large number of immigrants in our community could use a shot of modest venture capital. I could see several of our small groups going through the 1K Churches study and participating.
What kind of response are you getting from your congregation? Where do you see sparks of interest?
Congregations have been trained to think of financial wealth in terms of a tithe, or a portion of the earned income of church members. Most church members, upon hearing a phrase like “our capital resources,” would assume that means our physical plant, or perhaps an endowment. It’s a new concept to think of capital resources as the collective wealth of our community or to consider that these resources might be leveraged for the mission of the church if we work together. It’s also true that we are not aware of other kinds of capital that could be useful in the world of finance, such as social capital or entrepreneurial energy. One of the things I like about 1K Churches is the emphasis on the relational aspect of finance. Our people are well connected in Goshen, a fact we often take for granted.
Church members are interested in the idea of becoming a mortgage lending institution because we personally know people who are in desperate need of stable housing and the opportunity to build equity and credit. This interest in using capital comes in the midst of relationships that already exist. This seems like a good place to start developing new models of supporting ministry. Funds to start a new business are likely to grow out of such a relationship.
Where do you see this emphasis fitting in with developments in your town or wider community?
Goshen is a vibrant community where public, private, and nonprofit sectors are working well together. We are a diverse community whose economy is unusually skewed to manufacturing. We also have a small Mennonite liberal arts college. Our small size means a church can make a difference. It also opens up avenues for connecting resources and opportunities. I find that people in need in our community are often isolated and lack the connections they need to achieve stability. Churches are natural places to forge those connections if we are open to diversity. The combination of spiritual vitality, social connection, and financial capital is powerful.
How is your denomination using finance to influence social change? How did the Mennonite Church come to be a leader in this area?
Anabaptist emphasis on sharing economies has been central in this process. We do not have to ask if it is appropriate or not for us to put our energy into social impact, using the resources we have. The answer is clearly yes. Organizations like Everence and Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) have been leaders in helping us to think about, and act on, ideas like investing and social entrepreneurship.
What are you doing to deepen your understanding of finance and economics in light of your faith?
I recently began a course of study at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Courses in particular that interest me relate to economics, finance, social entrepreneurship, the intersection of for-profit and nonprofit ecologies, and the intersection of finance and Catholic social teaching.
Who are your conversation partners on this topic? Would you like to have more?
I am grateful to Everence, based here in Goshen, for their openness to engage these questions. A number of people here at College Mennonite have expressed interest. I am eager to have conversations with anyone interested and active in working on these questions at the congregational/parish level.