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EMU Development Director Provides Financial Care for Local Church Congregation

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Recent family news took Phil and Loretta Helmuth into the future and the past at the same time.

Three more grandchildren are due to arrive in March, which led Phil and Loretta to talk about striking a new balance between work and family – and its financial implications.

Thinking about money and its role in life is nothing new for Phil, who was asked to serve in a newly created position of elder of financial care at his church in Harrisonburg, Va., because of his experience in financial matters and his willingness to share what he’s learned.

The Helmuths’ daughter, Laura, called in September to say she and her husband, Asa, parents of a 2-year-old girl, are expecting twins. Less than a week later, daughter Annette and her husband, Trey, parents of three children younger than 7, dropped in to say they’re expecting a baby.

News of the upcoming births reminded Phil and Loretta of the first major challenge they faced together, newly married and still in college. Loretta found out she was pregnant, two years earlier than they’d planned. They worked things out, with Phil waiting to finish college until mid-career, taking one class at a time.

Nearly 40 years later, Phil and Loretta enjoy life as nearly-60-year-old grandparents. An empty nest has offered time to bicycle, provide support for their parents and enjoy their four grandchildren when they’re not at Eastern Mennonite University, where Phil is executive director of development and director of church relations and Loretta works as secretary/receptionist at the physical plant.

“What if Laura needs to be on bed rest again during this pregnancy?” they wonder. “What if Annette’s family needs additional help in March? What can we offer them?”

The process Phil is using to figure out what their decisions will mean financially is one he’s become familiar with in recent years. The economic recession that started in late 2007 led Park View Mennonite Church (PVMC) to create the elder role in which Phil agreed to serve.

The number of families and individuals among us facing financial crises is increasing,” he remembers a member of the pastoral staff telling him. “We’d like to appoint an elder well versed in financial matters to assist in discernment and ongoing support in these situations.” Phil says he knew the question before it was asked. “Would you consider this ministry?”

The answer was “yes.” Phil is passionate about the ways in which spirituality and finances intermingle.

As the economy got worse, Phil became more aware of the need for financial mentoring as he listened to donors’ financial concerns in his role as a fundraiser. Many wondered whether they ever will be able to retire after their savings were depleted.

“I decided I needed to answer some financial questions for our own situation,” Phil explains. “I wanted to know what adjustments Loretta and I needed to make in our family budget to provide flexibility for unexpected life events.”

He decided to develop a spreadsheet. “I wanted to see the numbers,” he recalls. He looked at his income and projected to see what the numbers would look like when he and Loretta are 65. “I then did the same with savings.”

Phil then came up with a retirement budget to satisfy the question of whether he and Loretta could live off the amounts on the spreadsheet. Phil’s spreadsheet experience was an eye-opener, a new way of looking at life.

“In working with the spreadsheet,” Phil said, “I learned exactly what our current financial situation is, and I could estimate how much we’d needed if we wanted to retire.”

As elder of financial care, Phil invites people who seek his help to share their financial situations. For many people, the invitation demands something extremely difficult — laying bare the financial burdens they carry. Chris and Beth*, a couple in their early 30s who are active members of PVMC, had been married for 10 years when they realized they were headed for a financial crisis they couldn’t handle.

“The worst thing was the secrecy,” Beth says now. “Money had such power over us, and our lives were filled with so much shame and disappointment.”

Several unexpected events in their lives were compounded by a few decisions that turned sour. Beth and Chris fell into a pattern of trying to hide their financial problems from everyone, even from each other.

“We’d quit talking about finances,” Chris says. “It just wasn’t worth the fights, the blame and shame those conversations inevitably elicited.”

By the time they agreed to meet with Phil, they realized they needed someone to help them talk through finances in the same way some couples need a marriage counselor.

Phil is clear about his role – he explores with people their individual situations and identifies resources so they can make healthy decisions. He relies on using the spreadsheet, simple and clear. Another tool he’s used is counseling provided by LSS Financial Counseling Services through Everence.

For Beth and Chris, the confidential, anonymous LSS counseling via telephone – along with Phil’s help – changed their lives.

“I’d kept hoping for something miraculous, a couple thousand dollars,” Chris smiles. “But I realize now winning the lottery wouldn’t have made a difference in our lives. We needed something deeper than a miracle.” Phil offered them suggestions for planning ahead and for budgeting, then ways to convert these concepts into day-to-day practices.

“He made himself available to us in a non-judgmental and caring way, which made it possible for us to communicate with each other,” Beth said. “He offered hope and affirmation where there was none.”

“Working with both LSS and Phil has been a bit like having cheerleaders,” Chris said. “They’ve been supportive, sending us notes, offering prayers on our behalf and checking in to see how we’re doing.”

Beth smiles as she sets aside the past to focus on the present.

“Living with accountability hasn’t been easy,” she said, “but we’ve made so much progress.” They’re now in the process of closing on their first house, their debt-to-income ratio looks good and their credit rating is solid. As Phil reflected on the couple’s progress, he said, “The thing I love most about my role is the opportunity to provide a voice of hope in the midst of despair.”

This is the miracle.

Article is courtesy of Everence. Gloria Diener of Harrisonburg attends Park View Mennonite Church, where she serves on the elder team with Phil Helmuth.

*Not their real names

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