More financial advisors are discovering that for African-Americans the church can play a key role in fostering trust when it comes to investment decisions.

MetLife senior financial planner Jeffrey Benjamin says he works with several congregations in his New York City market to gain the trust of a few key leaders. “Typically, if some of the parishioners like our services, they will help me extend them to the rest of the congregation,” he says.

The MetLife Clergy Compensation plan is the usual door opener for this market, Benjamin says. That can lead to seminars in the church, along with other educational devices that will give advisors like Benjamin credibility he otherwise might not have.

Getting your foot in the door is really an opportunity to educate, says Benjamin, as well as other life sector producers familiar with the African-American market.

“The major difference I see between African-Americans and other consumers is the education gap when it comes to financial issues,” Benjamin says.

African-Americans in the past have never had much of a financial legacy to leave to descendents, but “now it is becoming a norm to use life insurance as that vehicle,” he says.

The Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, an anti-poverty group founded by Rev. Jesse Jackson, has sought to formalize that link with the “1000 Churches Connected” program that seeks to educate African-Americans that economic independence is the fourth and final freedom to win after slavery, segregation and voting prohibitions have been defeated.

In essence, it conducts the kind of seminars that Benjamin and other planners sponsor to try and inculcate the values of financial responsibility from people they can relate to. “I think people generally feel more comfortable to work with people in their culture,” Benjamin says.

Guardian Life producer David Eaton takes pride in the fact that for the most part he serves an exclusive clientele whose net worth totals in the millions. “Those who are in the upper affluent segment buy like affluent people. It does not matter what color they are or what their family background is,” he says.

While Eaton appears African-American, he is of mixed-race ancestry with an upper middle class background. “I knew, maybe, one black person until I was 18 years old,” he says.

“The problem now is there are very few minority agents used to dealing with people with money,” he says.

But such opportunities will arise, as he notes a new trend that those African-Americans starting to gain affluence want to deal with other members of their race. “I see this as a huge opportunity,” he says. “In fact, I was talking to this one private equity guy who said ‘you should create the first minority-owned ordinary life insurance company.’”

Ron Allen, a producer for a major multiline company in Chicago, says African-Americans fail to grasp the benefits of life insurance to the same extent that their white counterparts do.

He estimates that his customer base is 70% African-American.

“Many African-Americans have been able to raise themselves up financially, and they are very successful as they develop their own businesses,” he says. “But they have not taken the steps to protect those businesses.”

Earlier this year, LIMRA published a report on Selling to African-Americans that also stressed the unique role the church can play in marketing to this community. “When we sent out a survey asking in what venue they would be most likely to attend a financial services seminar, besides the local community center, they said the churches, which came up much more than other groups,” says study author Nilufer Ahmed, senior scientist for the Windsor, Conn.-based organization.

In addition, some companies are training clergy as licensed producers to capitalize on this tie.

One advantage for companies is that African-Americans have a life insurance tradition in the purchase of small face policies through the home service network. “But as their incomes go up, it is pretty obvious that they don’t have enough life insurance. So, it behooves the companies, if they want to increase their business, to go back to the people they sold to,” she says.

Some companies are training clergy as licensed producers to capitalize on this tie