You might expect executives at a financial services company, especially one dedicated to helping customers make investment decisions in line with their Christian values, would be opening up their inboxes each pandemic-era day to find a deluge of emails from panicked clients. Despite the recent extreme volatility in the stock market, though, Russ Crosson—executive vice-chairman of Ronald Blue Trust—and his coworkers regularly find their inboxes brimming with messages of gratitude.
“Most of the emails and calls [Ronald Blue Trust] has gotten have been calls of thanks,” Crosson said. Client after client has reached out to state their appreciation for the way Ronald Blue Trust advisors are helping them weather the coronavirus era by steering them to accomplish specific financial tasks like establishing emergency funds and paying off their homes. Crosson said that one client emailed to thank the company for empowering him not only to pay his bills during a time of financial strain but to continue giving generously to his church and to charity.
One query that Crosson and his team have repeatedly fielded as the economy responds to COVID-19 with tumultuous swings in the stock market is a straightforward one: “Should I invest in the market ... now?”
It’s a fair question. The market has oscillated wildly in the past few months, and many people wonder if investing during one of its lows could benefit them in the future.
On February 19, 2020, investors in the S&P 500 felt that roller-coaster thrill as it jumped to a record high. Within just a few weeks, of course, it had become clear that the novel coronavirus outbreak in China was not contained, and fears of widespread disease took hold of the American consciousness. Suddenly we couldn’t wash our hands or go to the grocery store or oversee our children’s education without thinking about COVID-19. The repercussions were felt absolutely everywhere—including, of course, in the stock market. A mere six weeks after that February all-time high, the S&P 500 tumbled, falling a devastating 34 percent by March 23.
Does that precipitous fall mean an upswing is on the horizon? Perhaps. But that’s not really the best question to ask, according to Crosson. Better ones are: What’s your financial plan, coronavirus or not? Have you paid off your house? Does investing, or adding to your investments, fit your financial plan? If so, great, yes, invest. If not, don’t do it just because you think the market is about to surge. Live according to your financial plan, not in reaction to the dips and peaks of the Dow.
“Perspective is powerful,” Crosson said. “And principles equal peace of mind.”
This statement is a distillation of the Ronald Blue Trust approach, which encourages individuals to follow four biblical principles of financial stewardship.
First, they advise their clients, spend less than you make. This may seem like an obvious money management tip at first glance, but Crosson said that many people really do not know if they’re spending more or less than their income. A financial check-up may not be the most fun thing to do in a year of global pandemic, but if time and mental capacity allow, Crosson strongly encourages taking the time to start a simple spreadsheet or to try out the exercises in his recent Harvest House book release, Your Money Made Simple: The Key to Financial Freedom.
Financial stewardship, Crosson explains, can’t be about reacting to crises. Scripture makes clear that we will have trouble in this world (John 16:33). In fact, amid great suffering, Job asked his wife, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). In order to be among those who answer, like Job, “No, we will accept whatever the Lord brings,” Crosson said Christians need to determine that both in times of plenty and in times of want, they will live according to a principled plan of spending less than they make.
One way to keep expenses low, the Ronald Blue Trust team suggests, especially in this time of pandemic and potential income loss, is to seek out price reductions for necessities. Scott Figgins, senior vice president of insurance operations at Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, which insures churches and ministries, recommends that individuals ask their home and auto insurance companies about rate reductions or discount opportunities. Some insurance companies are providing policy credits without clients even having to request it—Geico, for example, with The Geico Giveback, which automatically reduces 6-month and 12-month auto, RV, and motorcycle insurance policy renewals by 15 percent.
Similarly, Allstate is providing a Shelter-In-Place Payback of 15 percent for April and May, while Progressive credits 20 percent. Most State Farm customers have seen or will see a 25 percent policy credit through the Good Neighbor Relief Program. Farmers automatically reduced certain personal auto premiums by 25 percent in April and 15 percent in May.
These credits may not cover your rent, but they’ll likely pay for a few trips to the grocery store, or perhaps a car payment or a medical bill. And if the automatic credit doesn’t help you enough to be able to pay for your insurance bill without accruing debt, it is worth calling your insurance agent to ask about deeper discounts for alleviating financial hardship. Hopefully, this request will lead to a concrete, financially positive outcome, but even if your insurance provider is unable to cut rates further, the act of asking can help you establish a habit of thinking in terms of cutting costs, spending only what you make, and finding creative solutions to practical dilemmas.
The Ronald Blue Trust team also advises their clients to live according to a principle of diversifying their investments, which they draw from Ecclesiastes 11:1–2 (“Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land”). For those who are in a position to invest, they suggest adopting an approach of wise diversification rather than reaction to the volatility of the market. A steadfast, long-term plan won’t lead to choices that feel as exciting and may not yield the highest returns in the short run. Temptation may strike when friends go all-in on a low-priced stock in anticipation of a surge, but faithfulness looks much more like a consistent, robust portfolio—even if the money you have to invest isn’t all that much—that’s better insulated from the negative effects of one company’s plummeting.
While most of the guidance Crosson and those at Ronald Blue Trust give their clients remains steady regardless of feast or famine, they offer one piece of advice that is specific to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We told our clients not to look at their April statements,” Crosson said. The market will bounce back, he explained, but far more important than that, focusing on a seemingly devastating dip only stands to skew a steadfast, long-term perspective into short-term panic that can easily devolve into a mindset of worry and greed.
“That same 401k [that dipped so terribly in April] was probably up 20 percent not that long ago. You can’t take good from God and not adversity,” Crosson said. “Keep perspective. The money in your 401k should be [thought of as a] long-term [investment], so it’s [predictable that] it’s going to move around.”
Giving is the goal
Crosson makes clear that Ronald Blue Trust doesn’t encourage clients to spend only what they make and diversify their investments simply for personal gain. They also want to see Christians empowered financially so that they can pay off their debts and be free to give to others. While fear may nudge us to clench tightly to our cash right now—hoarding all we have out of anxiety over the future—Crosson reminds us that Proverbs 6 exhorts us to prioritize freeing ourselves from debt. “Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids,” the passage says. “Free yourself, like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the snare of the fowler.”
When it comes to that final principle—be generous—Crosson’s voice harmonizes with many others who work at the intersection of Christianity and financial stewardship. “Those who give biblically understand that giving is something we do out of obedience to Scripture,” said Dean Sweetman, chief executive officer of Tithe.ly, which helps religious institutions through complete giving platforms, custom apps, event registration tools, and all-inclusive church management software and provides churches and ministries like Hillsong and The Salvation Army with tools to increase engagement and giving.
If you’re used to giving in-person on Sunday morning, tithing online may initially feel less spiritual or meaningful. But that doesn’t mean it is. “You’re still honoring God with your gift,” said Frank Barry, chief operating officer, chief marketing officer, and founding team member at Tithe.ly “The means [of giving] isn’t the point. You’re giving because you want to honor God with the first fruits. The means isn’t the issue. The question is, Is my heart in the right place?”
For some, gifts during the pandemic may be need to be smaller than normal because income has been reduced or expenses have increased. For others, savings have remained steady or even increased as travel, entertainment, and transportation expenses have lessened in recent months. Whether you’re looking for a few dollars you can spare or considering your ability to increase your giving percentage this month, as you analyze your finances, ask God to give you not a spirit of fear but of love, power, and self-discipline (2 Tim. 1:7). You’re not called to give begrudgingly or out of obligation. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:6–7), and in caring for the needs of your church, of the disenfranchised in your community, and of those negatively affected by COVID-19 itself or the resulting economic downturn, you may find your heart’s joy increasing.
It’s important to remember that none of these principles are promises. Not even the highest principles always bear out according to our hopes in this broken world. You may sit down to review your finances and see more bills than paychecks, less cash than expense. That doesn’t mean God has forgotten you, and it doesn’t mean that you should feel guilty.
Instead, take the steps you can take, however small. Tell your spouse, a friend, or a mentor that you want to focus on your finances in a new way as a form of faithful stewardship. Increase your giving by just a few dollars to a church or organization that cares for people well. Throw that monthly 401k statement in the trash until you’re able to read it with a steady heart that neither rises nor falls according to the number of zeros. Then trust that you’ve done what’s within your power to do and that, in times of health and times of global pandemic and recovery, a good God watches over you.
Abby Perry is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two sons in Texas. You can find her work at Sojourners, Texas Monthly, and Nations Media.