LOUISVILLE, Ky. Doug Sweeney, a police officer, watched his credit card balance grow to $13,000, thinking he would never be able to pay it off. Renee Santiago had $40,000 in student loans.
When the debt got to be too much for them, instead of going to family members or financial professionals for help, they did what many Americans are doing: They turned to their church.
"You need a little help with motivation," said Sweeney, 47, who blamed years of impulsive spending for his debt. Recently, he joined two dozen others at Southeast Christian Church for Week 9 of a 13-week debt-reduction program called Financial Peace University. Since joining the group, he had disposed of his credit cards.
"A big part of it is that it has a faith component," he said. "God wants you to be good stewards of your money. The money's all his."
As Americans have run up nonmortgage debt of more than $2.4 trillion, churches and Christian radio stations are supplementing their spiritual counseling with financial counseling, often using programs developed by other Christian organizations and marketed in church circles or over the Internet. They offer a mix of basic budget planning, household cost-cutting and debt management, bolstered by scripture and with tithing as a goal.
"We want to be relevant and to scratch people where they itch," said Dave Stone, the senior pastor at Southeast, a nondenominational church. "For a church not to provide some service for people who are suffocating from too much debt would be burying our head in the sand."
Economists have recognized that the behavior of consumers often ignores their rational best interests. Church-based debt programs provide rules to force changes in spending and saving, then use scripture to motivate people.
More than 39,000 churches have used debt reduction programs created by Crown Financial Ministries, a group in Gainesville, Ga.
The programs resemble secular plans, with two exceptions, said Dave Briggs, director of the Good Sense Stewardship Ministry at Willow Creek. "A secular adviser might say it's OK to stiff your creditors through bankruptcy," Briggs said. "Biblically, bankruptcy is only an option if you need time and space to pay back what you owe."