Seminar offers help to Christians feeling rising debt crunch

FULLERTON, Calif. — Resolved to become more financially fit this year? If so, you're not alone, not even close. A sluggish economy, creative lending and easy credit have many people trying to dig out of a financial pit.

The bleak picture isn't any different in Christian homes. Many churches are seeing the impact of money woes and are trying to help their members turn their situations around with seminars, programs and classes on debt management.

"Of the three biggies—sex, communication and money— that take a marriage down, we're seeing that money takes a marriage down faster than the other two," said Kevin Downing, founder of Debtfree.com, a debt relief ministry that is implemented in more than 30 churches in Southern California. "You can go without sex and talking, but you can't do without money."

Downing, who started his company 10 years ago, said that the number of people in debt and their amount of debt is rapidly increasing.

"We are seeing higher debt than we've seen before, higher interest rates on credit cards than we've seen before and credit card companies are having less mercy than ever before," he said.

He said that the average person turning to his company to help them pay down debt has about $25,000 in credit card debt on six to seven cards. Just a decade ago, Americans owed $285.5 billion in credit card debt. It has since stretched to $696.7 billion.

According to the Federal Reserve, last year consumers overspent their income and for the first time since the Great Depression, Americans have a negative personal savings rate of -0.5 percent.

 "It's a much more desperate situation that it was several years ago," Downing said.

At least seven seminars are planned in Southern California over the next few months: Yucaipa, Feb. 9; Huntington Beach, Feb. 16; Rancho Cucamonga, Feb. 23; Fontana, March 3; Palm Dessert, March 29, Fullerton, May 10 and Torrance May 17.

"What individuals will get out of our seminars is how God needs to be in the middle of our finances and we also give biblical principles and practical information on how to get out of debt," said Kevin Dodge, a frequent seminar speaker with Crown Financial. "We hope that people leave with a new sense of hope."


Looking to the Scriptures
Dodge, who has led seminars all over Southern California and will lead the upcoming sessions in Huntington Beach, Fontana and Fullerton, said that more and more churches are offering financial seminars to help their members learn how God wants Christians to use and think about their money.

This seminar isn't just for people in debt, Dodge said, it's for all Christians who want to understand how to deal with their finances in a biblical way.

Lisa Harris said she sees these types of seminars as being helpful—especially in this economy. She said that she has seen the current economic climate affect many people around her, even at her church.

"We've seen the mortgage issues affect so many people here—we're just so glad that we have a fixed-rate mortgage and know what our payment is going to be from month to month," she said. "The cost of living here is so high already; I can't imagine our house payment going up."

She doesn't have to look far to see the effects of the mortgage crisis. Her sister-in-law and brother plan to move to Arizona, since his job as a window and door installer has slowed way down this year. She said they had an adjustable mortgage and now they can't get the credit to refinance into a fixed rate loan, making the existing payment unmanageable.

Downing said this scenario is all too familiar. One of his financial colleagues in the mortgage foreclosure business said that he used to see three or four foreclosures a month and now gets three or four a day.

Now it's not just low-income homeowners living on a financial edge losing their homes, but the epidemic has spread to wealthy suburbs, where delinquency filings have exploded over the past year.

The situation has become so dire for so many Americans that President George W. Bush recently announced a plan, negotiated with lenders and investors, to freeze interest rates.


Beware of scams
Others are joining the bandwagon to offer "help." Legitimate financial companies say they are seeing more and more clients come to them after being scammed by so-called "Christian" debt relief companies.

"People should be wary when it comes to people who offer debt relief services," Downing said. "People in debt can be preyed upon easily because they are often desperate."

But Downing said that people in debt can find relief by making smarter choices with their money and by contacting companies such as his to renegotiate interest rates with credit card companies.

"We tell people that you also need to "save to pay," which means saving cash for the expected unexpected," he said. "You know your car is going to break down; it's just a matter of when. You need to save for those irregular monthly expenses because that is what gets a lot of people."

Being a good steward also includes tithing, he said. He tells clients to tithe even when they are in debt.

"It may not be 10 percent, but start with 1 percent or 2 percent," Downing said.

"The secret of wealth is living on less than you make and saving the difference."

For more information, visit www.crown.org/seminars. The cost is $25 per person and can be prepaid on the Web site.