Religion

Financial ‘missionaries’ preach smart money

MIAMI

On a recent Saturday morning, Kevin Cross looked out at a sea of people filling the pews of a Fort Lauderdale church, and greeted the crowd of several hundred with a hearty “amen!”

But instead of delivering the gospel, Cross spent an entire day lecturing and instructing the crowd at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale on … personal finances.

Cross is a “financial missionary.” His calling: to spread the message of faith-based financial management.

“By definition, missionaries are people sent to where the need is greatest.”

These days, the need is apparently growing in the continental United States, where a steadily increasing number of churches and religious groups are ordaining “financial missionaries” and “stewardship pastors,” whose job is not the spreading of gospel.

Rather, their mission is to preach and teach money management and financial salvation in tough economic times.

“The Bible is very clear about being methodical and taking orderly steps to get our households in order,” says Cross, 42, author of “Building Your Financial Fortress in 52 Days: The Lessons of Nehemiah.”

Chris Lloyd was once chief financial officer for the North Broward Hospital District. He’s now chief financial officer and stewardship pastor at First Baptist Church Fort Lauderdale, where he oversees a group of 12 licensed, certified financial planners who plot out personal finance management strategies and offer one-on-one credit counseling to troubled parishioners.

Lloyd, who says few churches saw a need for such ministries 20 years ago, insists the most important component to religious-themed financial counseling is advising parishioners to not shirk their spiritual mandate to spend and save in a responsible manner.

Robert Katz, a Louisiana-based CPA and ordained minister, is author of several books including “The Solomon Portfolio: How to Invest Like a King.” He agrees that religious personal finance counseling requires an embracing of faith-based moral standards.

Violet St. Jean, 41, a home health-care technician who is divorced with two children and supports her elderly parents, first met Cross at Sheridan House Family Ministries in Davie, where he volunteers.

She thought that Cross, a semi-retired certified public accountant who lives in Hallandale Beach, was just going to tell her to cut her cable bill, use less electricity or shop with coupons.

Instead, Cross shocked St. Jean when he told her she also needed to give her late model Toyota Sienna back to the dealership. Her budget simply had no room for the $500 monthly payment.

“I cried, I begged. I insisted that I couldn’t make it without that car,” St. Jean says.

“I told Kevin it just wasn’t possible. And he told me if my faith was big enough God would make a way for me to live within my means.

“So I finally gave in and returned the car.”

A couple weeks later, she saw him again at the Calvary Chapel event, when Cross addressed hundreds of Christians and the curious who came to hear how religious-tinged financial advice could help them battle the bad economy.

Cross shared scriptures with the crowd, along with his personal story before getting down to business.

“As a younger man in college, my plan had been to use my talents with numbers in the FBI,” he said. “That was my dream.”

That dream ended when Cross embezzled funds from a college employer and found himself behind bars for several months.

He bounced back, married his high school sweetheart, settled in Broward County, founded an accounting firm and eventually had a spiritual conversion. He realized, he says, “that at some point I’d have to set aside making profit and use my time helping people.”

After 17 years in business, Cross closed his CPA office in 2006, then launched Cross Stewardship Ministries, a religious counseling outfit through which he ministers about money.

On this particular Saturday, Cross’ message was simple: “Most of you are slaves to debt. You don’t own things. They own you.

After nearly eight hours of lectures covering everything from negotiating payment plans with creditors to the Christian responsibility to pay one’s debts, Cross told his audience they could take the first physical step to recovery.

“It requires surrender.”

Cross gives an old-fashioned altar call, except he isn’t inviting people to come pray for their souls. He wants them to bring the credit cards they’ve maxed out.

And dozens do.

What follows is 20 minutes of humming and whirring, tears of relief and even laughter as the audience watches the folks at the altar use Cross’ assembly of tools — including a blender, microwave and frying pan — to destroy the burdensome cards.

St. Jean was at the back of the auditorium when Cross called her name and asked her to come forward.

St. Jean shyly approached the altar and greeted Cross like an old friend. He asked her if she remembered how big her God was.

‘I’ll never forget the question, ’cause I just blurted out, ‘He’s immeasurable,’” St. Jean says. “And that just put the biggest smile on Kevin’s face.”

With that, Cross reached out his hand and dropped into her palm a set of keys — to a Saturn SC1 coupe.

The car had been donated to him just weeks earlier, he says. And he had been waiting for the right person to “bless with the car.”

“It’s yours,” he says.

“You trusted God and rearranged your finances to fit your budget. And God blessed me in a way that I could bless you.”

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