Last winter, Mary Evans was drowning in debt and despair.
The 27-year-old Palatine native was emerging from a divorce. The mother of a 2-year-old child, Evans was $80,000 in student loan and credit card debt.
Out of options, she made an initial payment to file for bankruptcy. "I identified myself by my failures," recalls Evans, a teacher. "I was depressed and having massive panic attacks. It was a crazy time."
And, thankfully, one that's far behind her.
As a last resort, she signed up for an eight-week spring financial course through the Good $ense Ministry out of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, where she attended services. For Evans, it was a life-changing decision.
"I learned how to include God in my financial decisions," she said. "I always knew he'd take care of me, but now I pray a little more. I keep him in the loop."
Evans isn't alone in turning to God for financial help. Increasingly, religious leaders locally and across the nation report seeing more churches offering financial guidance through programs, seminars and counseling.
Church leaders have a basic message - that a person's relationship with money is a critical part of an overall relationship with God. And, as anxieties about the economy and finances deepen, many people are finding that message particularly relevant now.
"Churches are seeing an increase in the number of people coming to them saying, 'I'm in trouble,'" said Chuck Bentley, CEO of Crown Financial Ministries, the world's largest financial ministry, based in Gainesville, Ga. "It's been an unprecedented amount of pain."
A changing mindset
Money and religion may not be as natural a pair as peanut butter and jelly, but they should be, some religious leaders say.
The Bible contains more than 2,300 verses on finances and possessions and provides clear guidelines on spending and earning, said David Briggs, director of the Good $ense Stewardship Ministry.
Though their evidence is anecdotal, Willow Creek leaders say they've noticed more churches in the last few years adding a financial ministry or considering the idea.
"It's clear more people are seeking help," said Dick Towner, executive director of the Willow Creek Association's Good $ense Stewardship movement. "I'm convinced by virtue of word-of-mouth that more things are happening."
Financial planning is a newer area for many churches. Some pastors are uncomfortable discussing money because they don't want to appear self-serving. Others feel money is too personal to discuss in church, leaders say, or haven't received the proper training.
"In an awful lot of churches, it's the silent subject," Towner said.
That's starting to change.
The trend is gaining popularity as churches seek new and creative ways to connect with their congregations and respond to a growing need for practical, day-to-day advice.
"Rather than asking what the church can get from you, they are asking what the church can do for you," Bentley said. "It's a very welcome shift."
Her congregation's current economic anxiety prompted Pastor Deborah Seles to recently hold a free seminar on spirituality and money at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Palatine.
It was the first time her church held such an event, and Seles said she would consider organizing resume-writing and job seminars.
"You want to offer people some practical help, following the example of Jesus," she said.
Willow Creek's Good $ense Ministry is a national leader in the religious financial movement. It began more than 15 years ago, as members sought help with money struggles. Now, more than 1,500 people a year attend workshops or seek advice through the ministry. In the past four years, more than 5,000 churches nationwide - all sizes and across 90 denominations - have purchased its "ministry kits," which offer templates to begin a program.
Crown Financial Ministries also has seen major growth in recent years. Since forming in 2000, the organization, which teaches biblical financial principles through church outreach, coaching and media, now serves more than 60,000 churches worldwide. Its Illinois programs have grown by about 20 percent annually in the last few years, leaders say.
Nationally, the group is reporting a 134 percent increase in e-mails seeking help and insight, over the previous year. In September alone, it saw a 40 percent e-mail increase over the same period last year.
National experts also are seeing an emphasis on addressing the needs of diverse audiences - women-only workshops, for example.
On a recent Monday night, about 80 people attended a Willow Creek seminar titled "Finding Hope in Financial Stress." Part of an eight-week course, the session featured small groups headed by volunteers.
Culture today, Briggs told the class, teaches that money and possessions bring happiness and power. But the Bible says that becomes a barrier to God. Your devotion matters more to him, Briggs said, than does your comfortable lifestyle.
He challenged the group to seek inexpensive outings like a picnic with friends over a fancy dinner out. "What are the things in your life that can add value at very little cost?" he asked.
For Evans, these courses helped her create a plan to be debt-free in five years. She already has paid off her $8,000 car loan.
It wasn't easy. "It took a lot of thought and prayer," she said. "Sometimes, I'd come (to class) red and puffy from crying all afternoon. It was hard work, but well worth it."
Leaders say people have to make a total lifestyle shift. "Some people come and say, 'Here I am, fix me,'" Briggs said. "We want to be a financial health road rather than a health emergency road."
Through similar financial courses at Glen Ellyn's First United Methodist Church, Jason Tews said he learned to re-prioritize, with savings and the church drawing a set portion of his salary. "Change comes from understanding it's not about me, it's about God," Tews said.
In these hard times
Locally, leaders say they're noticing skyrocketing levels of anxiety and fear.
Many members at Naperville's Harvest Bible Church worry about savings and retirement funds, said Executive Pastor Mike Clancy. The church offers daily reassurances and financial courses, and leaders also are planning a larger session to help people see the bigger picture.
"If our faith is strong, these hills and valleys we know are coming don't throw us off as severely," Clancy said.
To help members of Meadowland Community Church in Johnsburg address job security worries, leaders add messages on dealing with economic stress into their sermons.
Experts say people are realizing traditional financial wisdom isn't working. "It's a natural response to turn to God," Bentley said. "There's a growing hunger for spiritual leadership, which is more lasting and reassuring."
Many pastors believe the current financial crisis was inevitable and perhaps necessary to reorient people's thinking. "You look at the fear people feel," Clancy said, "and it can be an opportunity for faith."