We met with Lisa Brown to hear more about her work with our clergy.
Certified Financial Advisor
Lisa Brown, MBA, CPA, CFP, is a fully accredited Financial Advisor at Highfield & Associates in Indianapolis. She personally meets with clergy and their spouses/partners to help them develop custom action plans for achieving financial health. Lisa is a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis.
Lisa: I do comprehensive financial planning for clients. I analyze their resources, their desires and goals, and put a strategy together that will allow them to meet their goals – if they start taking action today.
I see myself as someone who is helping people make their lives better. I can’t do it for them, but I can give them the tools and the support that they need along the way.
Do you only accept clients with a certain amount of money in the bank?
Not necessarily! I work with people at all stages. Many people have financial problems; I show them solutions. Some clients may not have enough money to cover emergencies, so we start by accumulating a cash reserve. With some clients we begin with a plan to pay down debt. Some are just buying their first house. Others want to retire at a certain age, or fund college for one or more kids.
How are household finances different for clergy?
Clergy have a unique tax situation. Clergy are considered self-employed, which means they are responsible for paying 100% of their own Social Security and Medicare taxes. Clergy are also permitted to designate a portion of their income as a housing allowance, which is not considered taxable for federal and state income tax purposes, though it is still subject to self-employment taxes. Clergy are responsible for calculating and paying their own (quarterly) tax estimates for state and federal income taxes. And for many priests, their seminary debt is very high.
What special circumstances might affect how a priest deals with personal financial matters?
I do think clergy are under a particular amount of stress. They feel responsible not just for their individual parishioners, but for the financial well-being of the church as well. I think their life is about putting other people first. They are taught to serve others. They give so much, and then they may not pay enough attention to their own financial situation.
And how can that affect the health of the church?
Clergy are the same as anybody – they have bills to pay every month! And if people have financial concerns, they carry that with them all the time. Financial stress is always there. Sometimes it manifests itself physically. It can become all-consuming, just like it would be for anybody.
The goal (with free financial advising services) is to help clergy become more financially stable, to help relieve that stress. We want to relieve the financial worries cluttering their minds, so they can actually serve better, be more present with their parishioners and others.
Clergy and their partners attend three meetings with you during the course of 12 months. Tell us about the process.
I have a financial worksheet that they fill out. It’s a good exercise. The worksheet goes through everything that they own, everything they owe, what they make, what they spend, what kind of insurance protection they might have, if they have a will, a retirement plan. In a lot of cases, it will be the first time anyone has ever sat down with them and taken an inventory of their financial life.
After we’ve talked, I produce a comprehensive financial plan. It can be anywhere from 25 to 50 pages depending on what they want to accomplish. The plan looks at what they’re doing today, and where they’re likely end up if they continue doing this. Then it shows how, if they change two, three, or five things, how their financial situation can improve. Then we say, “Okay, do you want to change those things?”
Is that sometimes overwhelming to clients?
It can be. I take it in small steps. I’ll say, let’s look at these two items right here, these are where I think you need to concentrate first. It’s my job to break it down.
We talk about steps they need to take to save more money, pay off more debt, or consolidate debt, or refinance their house. Many different strategies could be available. It’s all about what’s important to them.
What might make clergy members hesitate to seek help with money problems?
I think there’s a bit of shame or guilt that can get in the way. I think they feel like they have to be a good example for their parishioners, so they’re hesitant to acknowledge their own financial challenges.
Is it hard for clients to talk about financial hardships?
Most people feel comfortable opening up to me. I’m always just present with whoever it is. I tell them I’m here to listen. I think my clients know that I’m on their side.
Is there a personality component to all this?
A lot of it doesn’t have anything to do with being a priest. It has to do with how you were raised, and how your parents thought about finances, how they treated money, and what conversations they had with you about money. That’s universal.
What do you wish more people understood about personal financial management?
You have to be willing to give up something in order to improve something further down the road. Most people need to adjust their lifestyle to become more secure financially. You have to cut some discretionary expenses, whether it’s a big cable bill, or going out every weekend. And again, that’s universal with everybody!
The purpose of personal financial planning for our clergy is to help free them from the strain of money worries and setbacks, so they can better serve their congregations. Any active clergy who wish to take advantage of this benefit should email Melissa Hickman at firstname.lastname@example.org.