Spending Spiritually

Building Wealth from the Inside Out“ is Lee Jenkins' trademark phrase. Literally. Its meaning is unpacked in the pages of Jenkins' Taking Care of Business. Written by a man who is both a financial advisor and ordained Christian minister, Taking Care of Business is an eminently practical mix of Jenkins' financial expertise and biblically grounded faith, all intertwined with the wisdom and anecdotal color that comes from years of experience with both realms.

Bringing these two realms together has been a specialized ministry for Jenkins for the last decade or so. Over time, Jenkins felt called to establish a ministry that would bring a third reality to the mix of faith and finance: the reality of culture. As an African American, Jenkins has a deep appreciation for the role that culture plays in the financial and spiritual lives of individuals and communities. He understands the historical strength of the Black church and the faith of African Americans, as well as the particular needs and temptations of his own culture when it comes to financial matters. This attentiveness to the cultural dimension is reflected in the subtitle of Jenkins' book, Establishing a Financial Legacy for the African American Family, as well as in his frank discussion of religious attitudes towards wealth, the legacy of slavery and the welfare state, and the tendency to engage in conspicuous consumption and to neglect the financial assets that can be passed on through the generations.

All of this is treated with a deft touch that is rare in the literature that explores the relationship between culture and economic life in the African American community. Jenkins believes he “was ordained to bring this message of financial freedom, wholeness, and empowerment to the body of Christ and the world at large,” and his text exudes this positive, hope-filled spirit, one grounded in the sure foundation of genuine financial knowledge joined with biblical faith. Jenkins has the confidence of a man who has made it in the financial world and who has known and loved the Lord as his personal Savior since his youth.

Though Jenkins writes especially for an African American audience, he treats his subject broadly enough to benefit anyone interested in a primer on Christian financial stewardship. Conspicuous consumption, rampant credit card debt, and an anemic propensity to save are hardly phenomena unique to African Americans, after all. They have, in fact, become the American way of life for many. Outstanding consumer debt in the United States rose from $355 billion in 1980 to $805 billion in 1990, and then went on to climb to $1.65 trillion in 2001. Credit card debt now averages somewhere between $5,800-$8,500 per household. According to the Federal Reserve, over 40% of all U.S. families spend more than they earn, and the number of consumer bankruptcies reached a record 1.5 million in 2001, while the year-end personal savings rate fell below 1%. Given this context, it is no wonder that the Department of Health and Human Services is reporting that 96% of all Americans retire financially dependent on the government, family, or charity,

In such a climate, Jenkins' Taking Care of Business is a welcome application of God's eternal wisdom to the perennial problems of personal finance. Take, for example, Jenkins' trademark phrase, “Building Wealth from the Inside Out.” In essence, it is based on a biblical principle: God is about transforming persons, developing character, and fashioning us into the image of his Son. He is not, in the first instance, about changing our outward circumstances but about changing us interiorly.

Jenkins maintains that this principle applies to our financial lives as well. He illustrates his point with numerous stories of clients with six-figure incomes who had gotten themselves into financial straits— needlessly and heedlessly. The same principle holds true for folks at the other end of the economic scale. Without belaboring the point or adopting a strident tone, Jenkins points out that the War on Poverty that began in the '60s has by now spent about $5 trillion on eliminating poverty—without success. In fact, the African American community is actually doing worse, with family breakdown, unemployment, and poverty rates now higher than they were in the '60s.

For Jenkins, this is not surprising. The same principle holds for rich and poor: “money problems can never be solved from the outside in, but only from the inside out … poverty is never corrected by a redistribution of wealth but by a transformation of people …. The government has tried to take people out of poverty. Jesus specializes in taking the poverty out of people.“ (27)

Jenkins goes on to develop a biblical notion of spiritual and financial “wealth” as opposed to “riches.” Although he admits the Bible does not convey the distinction by the use of these terms, Jenkins quite correctly identifies and explains two different realities described by the Bible, using these terms as a handy way of referring to the two realities. Riches are material, something we have. Wealth is more about who we are. It has a spiritual dimension. Wealth “is primarily achieved through the skills, obedience, spiritual knowledge, and character developed in obeying God's laws.” (29) Pimps, drug dealers, and unscrupulous businesspersons can have riches; they can't have wealth. Setting one's heart on riches will lead one astray and into endless discontentment. Rather, one should seek the wealth that is first and foremost an inner spiritual reality, a matter of one's person, developed under the discipline of the Lord.

Jenkins does not, however, simply leave it at that. He understands that Christians have tended to fall into two extremes regarding finances: the Poverty Gospel, which says that poverty is a sign of spirituality and the pursuit of wealth is ungodly; and the Prosperity Gospel, which says that wealth is a sign of spirituality and poverty is ungodly. Jenkins exposes the distortions in both ways of thinking and proposes a Stewardship model for guiding Christians' financial lives.

Essentially, stewardship recognizes the biblical principle that everything ultimately belongs to God. The earth is the Lord's and its fullness thereof. (Ps 24:1) We are the “managers of God's assets” and he holds us accountable for our stewardship. For this reason, Jenkins maintains, “whatever we do with what God gives us has a spiritual dimension to it. In other words, every spending decision becomes a spiritual decision.“ (51) But, he hastens to add, this does not mean God wants us to spend all our resources on church and charity. Church and charity have an essential place in our budget (see the chapter on tithing and giving), but the parable of the talents shows that God is pleased with the servant who uses his God-given resources in a practical and profitable way, increasing their value.

Much of Taking Care of Business offers practical guidance on how to be a good steward of one's finances, beginning with the big “D” word that afflicts so many Americans. In Jenkins' view, debt is a form of slavery and costly status symbols are its shackles. He cites numerous scriptures that warn against debt and the debtor's mentality, and describes the compounding financial burden of credit card debt and the emotional toll it takes on individuals and families. Jenkins then outlines realistic steps to freedom from debt: “The steps are simple, but following them requires hard work.” Building wealth from the inside out is, undeniably, about the hard work of transforming the person. And that, in the end, rests upon the daily choices that only the individual person can make.

God will help us develop a godly character, but he won't underwrite our preference for a lifestyle beyond our means, or one that sacrifices our children's future to our present enjoyment. In one of the many anecdotes that enliven his text, Jenkins tells how the Lord dealt with him in his early career when he celebrated reaching a six-figure income by purchasing a new Mercedes-Benz. “I sensed the Lord simply saying to me, 'Lee, do you want to look wealthy or be wealthy?'” Jenkins examined his motives, switched to a more modest car, and invested the savings in the stock market and giving to the Kingdom.

Taking Care of Business is an engaging mixture of faith, financial advice, and familiarity with African American culture. Jenkins believes that many Christians who love the Lord simply don't know how to be good stewards. In his view, teaching good stewardship “is primarily the job of the family and the church, and we have failed miserably at it.” (48) Taking Care of Business is intended to fill that gap, covering such topics as financial planning, spending and investing, giving back to God, personal integrity in the marketplace, and multigenerational financial planning.

His chapter on work draws together a number of scriptural themes: work as God's first commission to Adam; the dignity of all kinds of human work; work as a God-ordained necessity as the means for supporting oneself and one's family; the intrinsic, personal value of work in developing virtue and strength of character; work in the world and the marketplace as a calling from God. Jenkins is also convinced that his own community is overly dependent on government employment and insufficiently entrepreneurial. While he understands the historical reasons for this situation, he insists that “strongholds need to be broken, and attitudes need to be changed …. to empower Black families to leave poverty, we must embrace God's Word, self-sufficiency, economic independence and entrepreneurship.” (103—104).

Taking Care of Business is intended as a practical tool (complete with planning charts) for a popular audience. It combines an upbeat, easy style with sound advice that will challenge and encourage any Christian who needs to hear what God ordained Lee Jenkins to teach.