Having an emergency fund is a hot topic in personal finance.
I myself used to have a fairly large five figure savings account that I kept around for ‘emergencies’.
But how do we line up the risk taking words of Jesus with the worldly wisdom of socking aside money in order to pay for future needs we can’t anticipate?
Today I argue, We can’t.
I love to commit personal finance heresy. And this article is no exception.
You CAN’T have an emergency fund and faith in God as your provider, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t save money.
(You can start typing your angry email to me here)
What is an Emergency Fund?
An emergency fund is an amount of cash that sits idle (normally in a savings or money market account) in order to protect you from calamity.
As helpful as putting money aside into a sinking fund for every foreseeable expense (a new car in X years, doctors visits, etc) can be, there are just some expenses you can’t anticipate or that cost more than you expected them to.
The purpose of an emergency fund is to avoid debt or desperate moves in the case of the unforeseeable. If you lose your job, get injured and can’t work, your home requires extensive repairs or you have a large medical bill, you have money to get you past the emergency.
Experts typically recommend 3-6 months of expenses as a good emergency fund. Many financial pundits will insist that this is the first step on your finance journey.
An Emergency fund allows you to ‘buy yourself out of trouble’, putting cash towards the unwelcome surprise without derailing your overall financial plan.
Is God Really our Provider?
When I left my corporate job to go ‘on mission’ I had a fat five-figure savings account.
My wife and I went at least six months with no income, as I worked for the church before it was able to pay me. Each month the savings account dwindled, and each month I told myself, “once we get to X, I’m going to have to go generate additional income.”
X would come and go and God would still invite me to “wait”. Then I would invent a new X. Telling myself that God could not possibly expect me to operate with less than the ‘Biblical minimum’ emergency fund (no there’s no such thing, I looked).
This process repeated at least three times, until I was at the place where I wasn’t really sure on the 1st of the month, how we were going to pay for our monthly expenses by the 30th.
I was beside myself. I KNOW money! I did all the things ‘right’, (until I started actually following God with my money).
For the first time in my life I didn’t know how I was going to pay the bills.
But guess what?
Each month we made it.
Through this experience God revealed to me that my faith wasn’t actually in Him. It was in my emergency fund and my own ability to create income.
I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to go through a similar experience. Or that having extra money is bad. But the way we look at our emergency funds needs to change. Just like everything else, we need to fix the heart first, and then the money second.
Emergency Funds Limit Risk, Faith Increases Risk!
Christian Financial Experts like Dave Ramsey, teach emergency funds as a way to avoid debt. But also as a way to limit risk. In Christianese we call this ‘wisdom’, so it sounds more Biblical, but often its a euphemism for risk aversion. The problem is, risk aversion is antithetical to the Gospel!
Unless of course Christianity isn’t about being like Jesus.
Jesus told his disciples not to carry a wallet or money, he told him to leave their sources of income and he took some people to task for storing away wealth. When Jesus owed a half-shekel for the temple tax, He didn’t have it. This would be the equivalent of a few day’s wages!
Being ‘on mission’ means walking by faith.
It means saying, “Jesus, I believe you prepared ‘good works in advance for me to do’ and I’m going to walk towards them even if it takes all the money in the bank account”.
When we require ourselves to have a certain amount of money in our emergency fund before allowing ourselves to take risks, we make an idol out of safety.
To be ‘on mission’ isn’t necessarily to take a vow of poverty or to not keep money in the bank. But it is to settle the issue of who the provider is. To be truly ‘on mission’ is to rest securely in his gracious provision not in a cushy bank account.
Opportunity Funds: an Emergency Fund Replacement
The way we think about our money changes the way we behave with our money. Changing our ‘Money Theology’ should change our Money Practices.
If we begin to think of the excess money in our bank account as ‘dry powder’ for the mission God has for us, we can train our eyes and ears to look for opportunities to deploy it, instead of ways to hoard it.
I call the money in my savings account an ‘opportunity fund’. This is the excess money that I hold in a figurative open palm before God.
Think of an ‘opportunity fund’ as a stack of chips just waiting to go ‘All-in’ when the voice of God speaks. Building an emergency fund is the act of taking ‘chips off the table’ in order to avoid risk.
In case of calamity, an opportunity fund is God’s provision for me.
In case of a need that someone else has, it’s God’s provision for them.
And in case of a really big scary move God wants me to take, it’s seed capital for that move.
Instead of thinking of a minimum number for an emergency fund, I actually think of a maximum amount for an opportunity fund (for me, that’s in the 6 month expenses range). Unless I’m specifically building cash for a mission God has given me, once the balance exceeds that number, I need to start looking at my Mission Money, and see where I’m under spending. Somewhere along the way, I probably missed a call of God.
Is there a ministry or minister that needs my financial support? Is there some equipping or retooling God might be inviting me to do? Has God given me this money for a reason? (hint: the answer is ‘yes’).
Churches (including my own) are notoriously bad about this. They will build huge cash reserves, and then wonder why their effect in the community is faltering. Is it possible God gave you money to deploy towards your community, not money to buy new chairs in five years?
I’m constantly having to talk with my board about the problem of having ‘too much money’ and asking God how we should get rid of it. This is always an uphill battle. It feels reckless (and it kind of is).
Sometimes, God just pours out blessing on us for fun and the result is overflow money (which we need to figure out how to give away). But often God gives us provision for the next step in our (or someone else’s) journey.
Understanding that our money is always one moment from being deployed on Mission trains our hearts not to attach to the money and our eyes to pay attention for opportunities to partner with God.
Following Jesus is an exciting scary mess. There is a time to plan and build a cash balance to; quit a job, start a ministry or a business, purchase a home or move across the country.
Having a large balance in a bank account isn’t a sin.
But if we hold on to our emergency fund as if it is the life boat that is going to save us from financial calamity instead of being willing to put every dollar on the playing field of God’s mission. We are missing out on some incredible opportunities to live life and life abundantly.