Scott Neal was once asked to lead a church seminar that an organizer had dubbed “Christian Financial Planning.” “That’ll be one darn short seminar,” the Lexington, Kentucky-based planner, who is also a Baptist seminary graduate, responded dryly. After all, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a rich young man who asks how he can get to heaven to give everything he has to the poor, and it hardly takes a 55-minute PowerPoint presentation to say, “Okay, guys! Load up everything you’ve got into a big truck, drive it over to the Salvation Army, and donate it all!”

Money has long made an awkward bedfellow for religions of all stripes; take a religion with a central figure who, not long before having his life traded for 30 pieces of silver, proclaimed that “blessed are the poor and humble” and declared that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” and it’s easy to see why the relationship between money and Christianity could be uneasy at best. (And history has hardly helped soothe that uneasiness; there’s a great cartoon regarding the causes of the Reformation that depicts a poor, medieval peasant handing coins to a rich priest selling indulgences, saying, “Ah, yes, I’ll take two adulteries and a side order of lies, to go, please?”) British theologian G. K. Chesterton believed the Christian stance on money and wealth was crystal clear: “It may be possible,” he wrote, “to have a good debate over whether or not Jesus believed in fairies. It is a tantalizing question. Alas, it is impossible to have any sort of debate over whether or not Jesus believed that rich people were in big trouble–there is too much evidence, and it is overwhelming.”

Well, either there are a lot of people looking around for very large needles–and very small camels–or the Christian relationship with money is more complicated than it might seem. How else to explain all the financial advisors who are talking about Christian financial planning? There are 267 members of the National Association of Christian Financial Consultants, and 20-some members of the Christian Financial Planning Institute. And there are numerous firms who advertise themselves as Christian, including at least one firm, Ronald Blue & Company, that has 5,000 clients, more than $2 billion under management, and 16 branch offices scattered from Atlanta to Phoenix to Washington, D.C. If, for argument’s sake, the financial planning community mirrors the overall American adult population as measured by a recent survey of 50,000 U.S. adults by the City University of New York, more than 75% of planners would identify themselves as Christian (though many or most probably don’t advertise themselves specifically as “Christian advisors”).

But how, then, exactly, does one go about practicing Christian financial planning? The very question sends sparks flying from all corners of the planning community, and indeed, raises even larger and more controversial questions over whether there’s such a thing as Christian financial planning in the first place, and whether one should purport to offer such a service. Consider some of the issues and questions that crop up–and send the fur flying–when you start mixing Christianity and financial planning.

For one thing, if you plaster your faith on your business card, decorating it with a fish, a cross, and a mustard seed, one argument goes, aren’t you cheapening a deeply personal matter into a marketing tool? Aren’t you placing yourself just one step away from the slick televangelists wheedling Social Security checks from the innocent, wrinkled hands of white-haired shut-ins? (Ouch, huh? Hey, we warned you. Lots of sparks around here.)

Yet the opposing camp is just as feisty in dishing it back: If you consider yourself a Christian but keep that fact out of your professional life, isn’t your polite reserve just a cover for your fear that standing up for your beliefs will make people think you’re politically incorrect, or, worse, a religious wacko? Aren’t you just afraid that being openly religious will drive prospects–and profits–away? And if your faith is so important to you, isn’t disclosing your faith part of being honest with co-workers and clients?

Even if you agree that some form of “Christian marketing” is okay, what form should it take? Most people are uniformly against parading up and down the aisle during Sunday services wearing a sandwich board emblazoned with the name of their firm. But what about giving a seminar in a church? Is that inappropriate, or is it a service to fellow Christians?

And how about investing strategies? Should you invest Christian clients’ money in Christian mutual funds even though their returns may suffer? Ah, but shouldn’t you encourage clients to at least attempt to invest in accordance with their beliefs? And what constitutes a “Christian” fund, anyway?

There are even issues with the very concept of “Christian planning.” Picture yourself meeting with a client who’s stopped by your office on his way home from Wednesday night Bible study. The group has been studying the “consider the lilies of the field” verses in the New Testament (Matthew 6:25-34): “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will wear.” How do you talk about the importance of planning ahead for all financial eventualities, when one or both of you supposedly believe that “God will provide”?

Who Do Men Say That I Am?

These are difficult, complicated questions. Fortunately, the planners we spoke to were eager to share their thoughts. They were particularly outspoken on matters of identifying and marketing oneself as a Christian planner.

“I have a deep concern about business people, teachers, schools, etc., that bill themselves as a ‘Christian business,’ a ‘Christian’ this, a ‘Christian’ that,” says Scott Neal, mentioned at the beginning of this story. “What if the Terminix guy wanted to do that? Would we call him the ‘Christian Exterminator’?”

For David Anderson of the Baron Financial Group in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, the idea of marketing oneself as a “Christian financial planner” doesn’t even make sense. “It’s like looking for a Christian car mechanic,” he says. “It seems irrelevant to the need.” Marketing Islamic financial services, on the other hand, would make sense, he says; since Muslims are forbidden to invest in anything that earns interest, they have financial needs that are specific to their faith.

Jacking up the outrage meter a bit, Bonnie Hughes of Rome, Georgia, says she finds it “blasphemous” that a planner would use his faith to market his services. Advisors should feel free to discuss anything, including religious beliefs, in face-to-face meetings with clients, she says, “but as a marketing tool, such as in their written materials, Web site, the ‘fish,’ I think it stinks.” The worst, she says, is when planners, lawyers, or other professionals treat their faith as a badge they think they can flash to gain instant acceptance. “It’s as if it’s supposed to be a patent endorsement for some values that frankly [Christians] do not exclusively possess,” she says. “We have had many business contacts that, when pressed about prices, credentials, and references, give an answer like, ‘Well, ma’am, I’m a good Christian.’ I am not questioning their character; I am questioning their business practices before I hire them.”

Christians and non-Christians can be equally good planners, agrees Blaine Dunn of Dunn Financial Advisors in Winchester, Virginia; they simply disagree in their views on the divinity of Jesus. Like many planners we talked to, Dunn says he’s a Christian planner in the sense that he is a Christian and a planner, but he doesn’t believe it is right to market himself as such: “I try to implement my beliefs–practice the Golden Rule, treat people fairly, be Christ-like in my business dealings–but I do not wear my religious beliefs on my sleeve.”

Besides, says Rob Moody of Compass Advisors LLC in Atlanta, “Anyone can call himself a Christian, and there are a lot of unethical ‘Christians’ out there. What matters is whether the planner is ethical and competent.” Advertising one’s faith does nothing for the planner–or for the religion, he says: “I’ve seen Christian symbols used in marketing material, and in my opinion, it really cheapens the religion.”

PC Is for Pansies

Weighing in from the other end of the spectrum is Dennis Carpenter of International Wealth Management in Grapevine, Texas, who proudly displays the fish on his business cards and points out the Bible verses on his Web site. “[These things] might make someone say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to work with this guy’–and that’s okay,” he says. But religion is appropriate in the planning arena “100% of the time,” he says firmly, and he isn’t shy about his opinion of those who think otherwise. “I feel very strongly that anyone who says that ‘I’m a planner who happens to be a Christian, but I’m not a Christian planner per se’ is–how shall I say it–entirely misguided. And I would welcome their call, so that I could hopefully lead them to a change in their presentations to clients.”

Carpenter says he’s most baffled when planners purport to offer “life planning,” but aren’t willing to bring religion into the discussion. “None of the articles I’ve seen on life planning have to do with Christ, or the Gospel, or Biblical principles, at all,” he says. “How can you call this life planning if you’re not talking about what you believe in?”

Ironically, just as the don’t-ask-don’t-tell planners think that others play the Jesus card for the money, Carpenter believes that other planners keep quiet about their faith to protect their profit potential. “Everybody’s afraid they’re going to be labeled some flaming, far-right, crazy person, or they’re afraid that the client is going to pick up their money and walk out the door,” he says. “But in fact, the opposite is true.”

This Little Light of Mine

The planners of Ronald Blue & Company are also open about their Christian focus, though a bit more laid back than Carpenter. Company materials describe the firm as “committed to providing fee-only financial counsel from a Biblical perspective.” Bruce Williams, who manages the company’s Nashville office, doesn’t hesitate to bring up his firm’s spiritual values in conversations with clients. Still, the most important thing “is for us to be technically competent, and really lead with that,” he says. “I don’t market myself by saying, ‘You need to work with me because I’m a Christian.’ I market my services as, ‘We’ll be able to meet your needs and provide good technical competence.’”

William “Chip” Cox of Paducah, Kentucky, shares a similar philosophy: You will find one reference to his faith quietly tucked within his Web site, promising a commitment to the “application of Christian values in a business setting.” But when you log onto his site, you’re greeted not with mustard seeds and proverbs, but by the sight of three-inch-high blue logos of NAPFA and the CPA/PFS and CFP designations flashing in the center of the screen.

Ken Frenke is a little more forthright about his firm’s “Christian world view.” President of Kenneth Frenke & Company of West Palm Beach, Florida, Frenke includes references to Biblical principles and Scriptures in most company materials and mailings, despite the fact that a number of his clients aren’t Christian. He cracks up, though, when asked if perhaps he prints one newsletter for his Christian clients and a “religion-free” one–say, The Heathen Financial Update–for the rest. “No, no,” he says, laughing. “We send the same thing to everybody; we are who we are.”

Perhaps one of the most unusual solutions to the dilemma over whether to advertise oneself as a Christian planner was discovered–entirely by accident–by Mark Berg of Bloomingdale, Illinois. After deciding he wasn’t the type to name his firm “Mark Berg & Associates,” he decided to use his middle name, dubbing the firm Timothy Financial Counsel, Inc. “People who are Christian see the name and immediately think it’s a Biblical allusion, and people who aren’t Christian think Timothy is the name of one of my kids,” says Berg with a laugh. Berg is Christian, but hadn’t intended to market his new firm as Christian. “It was totally unintentional, but”–he chuckles–”it’s worked out real well!”

The Gathering Place

Wherever two or more are gathered in my name … is a great place to hold a seminar? That’s not exactly how the Bible verse goes–the real version ends with “there will I be also.” But let’s say you’ve decided you want to reach a Christian audience with your planning services. What better thing to do than hold a seminar in a church, right?

Not everyone thinks that’s such a great idea. “There are many ploys being used [by advisors] in churches to get people to buy things they probably shouldn’t,” says Brian Wruk, of Transition Financial Advisors in Gilbert, Arizona. “I go to church to worship God, not pick up business,” adds Scott Dauenhauer, of Meridian Wealth Management in Irvine, California. And indeed, churchgoers attending Bible-Based Money Management Seminars(TM) might be unnerved by the way the seminar company pitches its program to brokers: as a way to inexpensively land new clients. “Find out how you can build up your practice and reduce costs by working through the church to help Christian families!” says the Web site of the Indialantic, Florida-based company.

Even if your intentions are good, it can be hard to convince others you’re not just trolling for easy pickin’s and trading on the Christian name–especially when you stand to profit from what you’re pitching through commissions or fees. Ray Sanabria found that out the hard way. Initially excited about the idea of aligning his spiritual beliefs with his work, he earned his planning credentials and planned to launch his business by holding church seminars throughout the Tampa region. “But every time the door would open to what I thought was an opportunity, it got shut,” Sanabria says. “I felt that although I was [seeking out a church clientele] for the right reasons–wanting to help people be good stewards of the money God has given them–not everyone in the churches would believe my intentions were good.” As a result, he decided to pursue more traditional avenues to build his practice.

Sanabria says he doesn’t blame churches for being skeptical of his proffered seminars. “The church community has reason to be distrustful, due to many of the problems and bad investment schemes that have happened in churches over the years,” he says.

Bruce Williams’ solution, shared by a number of other planners, is to abandon the idea of the seminar as a marketing opportunity, and simply offer informational seminars as a service to the members of his own church. “I’ve done a number of seminars, but I do them for ministry purposes; I don’t expect to win clients out of them,” says Williams, who says that the dozen or so church seminars he’s presented have brought in only a sprinkling of clients. “I kind of like it that way,” he says. “I want to do that training just for educational purposes.”

In fact, Rev. David Woolverton, pastor of Hempfield United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, says that seminar presenters at his church are given strict guidelines before stepping up to the whiteboard: No soliciting, no selling, no marketing song-and-dance. Speakers must understand that “this is a ‘ministry,’ not a place to recruit business,” he says. And he prefers it when members are the ones leading the seminars: “We purposely use people within the congregation who are professionals in the field to offer programs of this nature.”

Where Your Money Is . . .

But beyond the issues of identity marketing and seminars, how do you proceed once you have a Christian client? Many of the planners we talked to, both Christian and otherwise, say that the planning and investment process remains essentially the same, perhaps with an increased emphasis on charitable giving. (“Without question,” notes Penny Marchand of Cambridge Financial Group in Tucson, Arizona, “it’s my Christian clients who give the most.”)

Not so fast, says Dennis Carpenter. According to Carpenter and a growing (though still very small) number of advisors and investors, investing Christians’ money should be a whole different ballgame. Just as socially responsible investors can invest in funds that screen out stocks associated with pollution or sweatshop labor, some advisors believe that Christian investors should invest in funds that screen stocks on the basis of Christian concerns.

Ah, but what exactly are “Christian concerns”? Put an evangelical Christian and a member of the United Church of Christ–which is pro-choice and has at least one openly gay ordained minister–in the same room, and you’ll get a wildly divergent list; toss in a Mennonite and a Christian Scientist, and you’ll probably end up with a free-for-all. (Well, except the Mennonite will sit it out, since Mennonites are pacifists.) In some cases, you’ll even get some denominations screening out precisely what others are screening in: Take, for instance, the response by an evangelical Christian and a UCC member toward companies who provide medical benefits to same-sex partners. And consider, too, that some Christians may be more offended by a company that does business with vendors running overseas sweatshops staffed by 10-year-olds than by a company that produces “anti-family entertainment.”

But have no fear: There are funds for everybody. Most screen out the traditional “sin stocks” of tobacco, gambling, and alcohol, but beyond that, advisors will do well to read prospectuses carefully. For Catholics, there are the Aquinas Funds (www.aquinasfunds.com), the Ave Maria Catholic Values Fund (www.avemariafund.com), and DEVCAP Shared Return Fund (www.devcap.org). For Christian Scientists, there’s the American Trust Allegiance Fund (www.amertrust.com), which avoids the “sin stocks,” plus all stocks associated with health care, since Christian Scientists believe that only God, not modern medicine, can heal them when they’re sick.

Conservative Christians can choose from the Shepherd Values Fund (www.amertrust.com), the Noah Fund (www.noahfund.com), and the Timothy Fund (www.timothyplan.com)–the latter described by manager Arthur Ally as “avoiding companies contributing to our country’s moral decay and decline into the pit of hell.” Toward the liberal end of the spectrum, the MMA Praxis funds (www.mmapraxis.com), run by Mennonite Mutual Aid, toss out stocks using criteria more typical to an SRI fund: weapons manufacturing, the environment, corporate citizenship, and employee discrimination.

Screening tools like Moneyandvalues.com and the eVALUEator (www.evalueator.com) enable advisors to “X-ray” any domestic fund they wish and check for objectionable holdings. Carpenter says he uses such tools to find funds that are “accidentally” pure, but aren’t labeled as Christian. Screening criteria for the eVALUEator include abortion, pornography, anti-family entertainment, non-married lifestyles, alcohol, tobacco, and gambling; screens for Moneyandvalues.com are similar.

Religious funds often get a bad rap for poor performance; indeed, that’s why Marchand says she’s pulled client money out of them. But the bad rap’s not true, says Carpenter–and besides, it’s irrelevant. “When we get to the pearly gates, God’s not going to ask us what kind of rate of return we got on our money; he’s going to ask us what we did with what he gave us,” he says. “If we say, ‘Well, you know, I got a 22% return!’ He’s going to say, ‘Yeah, but look what you did with it! You supported a company that makes the RU-486 abortion pill.’”

Either way, many advisors say that demand from clients for Christian mutual funds is quite low. “It’s not that they’re not concerned [about the issues], but it’s surprising how seldom it comes up,” says Marchand. “It’s actually my much more liberal-minded clients who care about screening.”

“I can safely say that there’s not a demand from our clients,” Williams concurs. “And neither do we push them.” Why not? Austin Pryor, editor of the Christian investment newsletter Sound Mind Investing, wins the prize from several advisors for most clearly explaining the Christian argument against Christian mutual funds. In an October 2001 SMI article, Pryor argues as follows:

If he invests $10,000 in the Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund, which includes Philip Morris as a holding, he will own one nine-hundred-and-thirty-millionth of the Philip Morris company. “Apart from the fact that none of my money goes to Philip Morris, such a microscopic ownership interest is, in my view, meaningless,” Pryor writes. “Am I saying that ‘if you can’t do [put your money to work for your beliefs] perfectly, then don’t even make an attempt?’ Of course not. I’m saying that it is helpful to make a distinction between the things you can do perfectly (or almost perfectly), and the things you cannot.”

What people can do (almost) perfectly, he says, is avoid direct financial involvement with companies they object to: refuse to work at the offending company, buy its products, or buy its stock directly. What they can’t perfectly do is avoid all indirect involvement: avoid buying all the products of all the company’s subsidiaries or its parent company, investing in it through a mutual fund, or working at any company associated with it. The key, he says, is for people to view all their financial decisions–including where they work, what they buy and invest in, and to whom they give–as a whole, and focus on making effective choices.

Small Camel or Large Needle?

But whether you invest in Christian funds or not doesn’t answer the Really Big Questions that Christian clients struggle with. Take that verse about how it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven. Many of the clients of the advisors we spoke to have seven- and eight-figure portfolios. If these clients–and for that matter, their advisors–are taking the idea of Christian financial planning seriously, what are they all doing with so much dough? Shouldn’t they have given it away?

Some say yes. It’s certainly been done, and in recent times. Sister Katharine Drexel, currently a candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, spent the entire multimillion-dollar inheritance she received in 1885 on schools and projects to benefit Native and African- Americans; Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller gave away his millions prior to founding his home-building ministry in 1975.

But having wealth doesn’t automatically give someone horns and a forked tongue, several planners say. “God is not opposed to wealth; he created it,” says Williams, noting that the Biblical figures Abraham, David, and Joseph of Arimathea were rich. The key to understanding money in a Christian context is the idea that “God owns it all,” he says. “This money is not ours. Wealth is a gift–and the ability to make wealth is a gift. The real question is, ‘What are we going to do with it?’”

“How much or how little God gives you is immaterial; what matters is being a good steward of whatever he provides,” agrees Frenke, adding, “I don’t believe the average person is called to impoverish himself and become dependent on other people.”

This doesn’t mean that Christians are off the hook, and have carte blanche to go breezing blithely past homeless children in thousand-dollar suits. While Christian stewardship does include managing one’s own money well, it includes an equally important responsibility to care for the less fortunate. Often, say planners, the message to clients is: Don’t feel so guilty about having your wealth, and let’s manage it well–but don’t be surprised when we start talking about charitable giving, either. Perhaps the gold standard is exemplified by one of Williams’s client-couples: They have calculated how much money they need to live a reasonable lifestyle, and every time their portfolio exceeds that amount, the couple writes a check donating the “overflow” to charity.

Consider the Lilies

The other dilemma plaguing Christian clients and advisors is the very idea of doing financial planning, while at the same time claiming to believe that “God will provide.” After all, what’s the point of planning if God’s already got you covered?

“God will provide” isn’t an invitation to put your feet up and wait for the manna truck to roll up, several planners say. When people say they’re not worried about retirement because God will take care of them, “I appreciate their faith, but I offer the suggestion that God already did take care of us: We live in America. We have the ability to learn, improve ourselves, work hard, and save money,” writes planner Gary Clark in Becoming Rich Toward God (FirstPublish, 2001).

“God’s not going to abandon you, but he also expects you to do things. It’s not a freeloader kind of thing,” says Marchand. “It doesn’t all have to come down from the sky.” Perhaps God’s way of providing, she suggests, is by giving people the strength to learn about their finances and helping them seek out resources that can help them.

“We’ve been given gifts and abilities and sound minds for good reason,” adds Williams. “Given the abundant resources in this country, I think we are obligated to do prudent planning.”