Laura Ullrich and David Brown: Why pastors should understand economics
Economists live in a world of scarcity. Christians believe in God’s abundance. In this conversation, an economist and a pastor talk about the ways in which that tension plays out in ministry and life.
In their long friendship, economist Laura Ullrich and pastor David Brown have talked a lot.
“We like to meet for coffee and talk about deep things that other people may not find as exciting as we do,” Ullrich said.
Ullrich, who is the senior regional economist for North and South Carolina for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, met Brown when she moved to Rock Hill, South Carolina, and he was the pastor of the church she attended.
Brown worked as a pastor for two decades before becoming a consultant and coach as well as a registered representative with New York Life. He also is the founding pastor of a community of disciples in Rock Hill called The Welcome Table.
So when Brown began teaching in the D.Min. program at Duke Divinity School, he invited Ullrich to come to his strategy class to talk about economics.
Ullrich talked about trends and data; Brown put the information in context as a pastor.
Following that model, Ullrich and Brown share their thoughts on economics, ministry and Christian life in this interview with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Why do you think pastors should understand economics?
Laura Ullrich: I would argue that economics can explain just about anything, because it explains how people and firms and organizations — which could also be a church — make decisions in the presence of scarcity. Scarcity of resources, scarcity of time.
How are people making their decisions [about] where they attend church, whether they attend church, how often they attend church? When they’re making decisions about how to allocate their time, that’s economics.
Another issue is the racial wealth gap. I personally think this is an important topic for everybody to understand — that some of the structural foundations of the economy since the founding of the United States prevent some families from growing the same kind of wealth that other families have.
David Brown: I would add to that, I think that theology can be a lens through which a lot of how we experience things can be understood.
The sort of economics that Laura deals in from day to day is built on that idea of scarce resources. From a Christian point of view, we worship and follow a Jesus who was inaugurated in a kingdom where the bottom line was abundance.
It’s not an economy, perhaps, that we will experience on this planet. But our calling as Christians is to move our lived experience in this world toward that ideal.
That interplay between the scarcity that we actually experience in our economy versus this vision of what human flourishing might be — I think that’s the tension in which we live as followers of Jesus.
F&L: How can pastors or congregants or Christian individuals use this information?
DB: I would say that for those of us who are Christians, and Christian leaders, it’s a spiritual crisis as well. How do we respond faithfully to the volatility that’s going on around us?
What do we actually learn from in times of volatility? Can we sense new directions of God’s spirit that are moving us into new ways of being through disruptions? Are disruptions actually a learning opportunity for us?
Moving into the future, all leaders are going to have to intentionally increase their capacity to deal with change, uncertainty, volatility.
I think the other way to come at it is through the best of our tradition and heritage and history. How can we not be paying attention to economics and the situation in which our neighbors are living?
I think Jesus talks more about money than just about anything. The law and the prophets really talk about how we order society to lead toward human flourishing.
Our goal, our telos, our end goal in Christian leadership, what sets us apart from other types of firms or businesses or other types of leaders, is that we’re framed by the beginning and the ending of the biblical story.
We’re framed by the goodness of God’s creation in the beginning, and we’re framed by the re-creation we believe is in process and will come to completion one day.
F&L: What would you like people to understand about economics?
LU: I think that leaders of churches have a responsibility to try to make people aware of what the world looks like outside the walls of their particular churches, because even on the same street, it can be very different. And data can help with that.
A big part of my job is educating people about what’s actually going on. It’s really easy to get tunnel vision. If you live in a community with people, including in your church life, that look very much like you, have income levels that are about where yours are, you really can be in a place where you do not realize what the data actually show.
Has the wage gap between men and women or Black individuals and white individuals narrowed? Yes. But what are the data around what’s actually going on in terms of wealth?
The most recent data show that Black families are 20 times more likely to have zero or negative wealth than they are to have a million dollars in assets. That comes from the Institute for Policy Studies.
So a church that relies on white membership might have a pretty constant stream of money from people leaving money to them in their wills and things like that. They’re also getting regular large gifts from people as they start giving away assets as they get older.
A church with predominantly Black membership may struggle from a financial point of view in a way that’s likely different from a white church simply because of that statistic.
On the behavioral economics side, there are things that leaders within churches can do to encourage tithing or increase tithing. There are ways that they can practically impact the financial viability of their churches by thinking through how people make decisions.
What engages people at a deeper level than they might be giving otherwise?
So I think there’s a practical side of it, too, just from actually funding your organization. I’m sure it’s something pastors don’t feel as comfortable talking about, but it’s a very important part of running a church.
DB: I think No. 1 is the ability to look up from trying to preserve our institution and to see what God is up to in the world around us. And to believe that the Spirit is already at work, that God is already on a mission in the world outside the institutions of our churches.
Listening, asking questions, really assuming that we have something we can learn from our neighbors who are similar to us in some ways and different from us in other ways.
Take an asset-based approach to our neighborhoods, and to our ministry alongside our neighbors. Instead of focusing on problems we might solve — especially white, resourced churches — really look at what assets are in the neighborhoods around us. How can we invest out of our resources in those assets?
And when we share those things that we have with one another, and when we build on the assets that God’s planted in the community, that’s really where this vision of God’s kingdom begins to take root and bloom.
F&L: Does a policy focus make sense, or do you see other ways to effect change?
LU: Churches and all organizations have to be careful with policy, because you don’t want it to be overly political.
But there are certain policies that really aren’t political in nature. There are some policies where it’s pretty clear that if there were relatively small changes, it could have a big impact.
An example was the GI Bill. When the GI Bill was passed, years ago, on paper it looked like it was this amazing opportunity for all veterans.
But then when you actually dug in, there was a major push in the South, specifically, in Congress and the Senate, to get the GI Bill to be locally administered versus federally administered. And the impact of that ended up being pretty significant discrimination at the local level.
And so the reality was the GI Bill could help you buy a house as a veteran, but those opportunities were not equal across race and gender. Redlining was in place with banks, so you couldn’t get a mortgage in a lot of the predominantly minority neighborhoods. And in the South, many of the white neighborhoods had covenants that said minorities couldn’t live there.
So the practical application of this local policy, the fact that it was locally administered, resulted in some pretty significant discrimination.
So that’s an example of a policy where decisions that were made led to generational outcome differences. At the time, if people had been more aware of how these decisions were made, maybe something could have been different, right?
DB: There’s a good bit of variance across denominations in this area. There may be specific ways in which denominational structures either encourage or discourage that.
You can hardly read Scripture and not be called to act for, not just the common good, but the flourishing of all people. So I think our faith requires us to be political but not partisan.
I think there are two things that are helpful here. One of them is oriented toward the past; one of them is oriented toward the future.
Oriented toward the past, I think that particularly white Christians and churches who have been a part of the power system in the United States can acknowledge and repent. And repentance isn’t just something you say; it’s something you do.
And then the forward-looking piece: I’m teaching strategy, where the rubber hits the road for ministry. There’s this interplay between theology and economics and Christian practice.
One of the ways we define strategy in the class is “what we are doing in the present.” Everyone has a strategy; how well thought out, how intentional it is, is the question.
I think that to be more intentional about that would be to say, “Who is it that we are as churches? What are we called to do? What is God’s intention for us? And how are we living into that?”
I think that’s more than just, “How do we keep the lights on in the church building or pay down the mortgage or increase our budget?”
F&L: What is your advice for folks struggling with whether there is going to be a recession?
LU: There are a lot of people that were literally taught in school that the definition of recession is two quarters of negative GDP growth. That’s not true. There’s no true definition of a recession. However, because so many people believe that definition, that changes how they make decisions, right?
I think people are right to feel unsettled right now. We have the highest inflation we’ve had in 40-plus years. The last time inflation was this high, David and I were in preschool.
And for a large percentage of the population, this is truly causing them stress. It is difficult for them to maintain their lifestyle right now compared with how it was six months or a year ago. So the discomfort is understandable and real.
On the more positive side, for most of us, the only recessions we remember well are the COVID recession, which was a bizarre situation, and then the Great Recession, which is called the Great Recession because it was so significant.
A lot of people who are working today don’t remember the recession in 2001, or in 1992, 1993. They were recessions but were not as significant. So when a lot of people hear “recession,” they think of something more extreme than it might be in the end.
As of right now, employment remains very strong. We are adding an impressive number of jobs in the U.S. each month. Until that pattern changes, it is less likely that we will officially be in a recession.
F&L: David, what do you think church leaders should do in this period of uncertainty?
DB: Pastors and other church leaders have to intentionally cultivate a sense of hopeful realism.
As pastors, part of our calling is to be companions and shepherds of our congregations as we move through life together. You can’t do that with either a Pollyannaish sense of optimism or a sense of cynicism.
The place that I would start is with a core belief statement, that the God that we believe in is a God who has guided God’s people through all sorts of times of uncertainty and challenge. God invites us to be active participants in that story of ongoing redemption. God’s grace and love will sustain us no matter what.
Even in the midst of all that’s going on, and the real actual pain and uncertainty, God is still present in the lives of God’s people. And so we can find reasons for hope.
When we share those things that we have with one another, and when we build on the assets that God’s planted in the community, that’s really where this vision of God’s kingdom begins to take root and bloom.