January 5, 2024

Fresh Start Program Gives Clergy New Life through Financial Wellness

By: Kathryn Boney

When Carrie Yoder moved to Florida ten years ago with her husband, John, an educator, and their young daughter to serve on the staff of Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina, the prospect of potential bankruptcy a few years down the road didn’t cross her mind. The Yoders had always lived modestly and were watchful about unnecessary spending. Then life happened.

The move to Florida was costly. Then shortly after the move, Yoder received a cancer diagnosis. While her treatment was successful, it came with medical bills that turned into medical debt. Not long after, the Yoders were blessed with a son who was born eleven weeks prematurely and who has required surgeries and hospitalizations throughout his life. More medical debt. Yoder’s husband needed graduate courses to fulfill his teacher certification requirements in Florida. More necessary debt. Then, for Yoder, there was the ordination process, through which the family incurred even more debt.

Yoder reflected, “It wasn’t like we were out spending our money on things we shouldn’t have. It was ministry related. It was medical related. It was career related.” They knew they needed to find a way to get ahead of the credit card debt they had amassed as they paid medical bills and other necessary expenses.

In 2019 the Yoders reached out to the Florida United Methodist Foundation for financial planning assistance. Yoder recalls their first meeting with their advisor, who after reviewing the couple’s finances realized how close they were to bankruptcy.

The word “bankruptcy” terrified the Yoders, but they understood the gravity of their situation. They learned about the Foundation’s Fresh Start Program, a program for clergy that would allow them to consolidate their credit card and medical debt as well as other noneducation loans into one monthly payment at low interest, as well as receive education and ongoing financial planning. After four years, the Yoders will complete the program this coming February debt-free.

Since its inception in 2019 through a combined contribution of the Florida United Methodist Foundation and Wespath Benefits and Investments of $450,000, The Fresh Start Program has helped 15 clergy members and their families reduce their debt, engage in financial, retirement, and estate planning, and achieve financial wellness.

“It saved our lives,” Yoder said.

Even now as the Yoders are in a healthy financial place, Yoder will continue to work with the Foundation as their wealth grows. Knowing that her family will continue to have support brings Yoder peace, which she considers a great gift.

That gift of financial wellness support from the Foundation resulted in Yoder answering a call to share her spiritual gifts in a greater way. She is now the Executive Director of Project Transformation: Tennessee, a United Methodist-affiliated nonprofit organization that works to connect children, college-aged young people, and churches to support various aspects of their lives from cradle to career.

Yoder believes that this ministry opportunity would not have been possible without the Fresh Start Program. “A burden was lifted off our shoulders, and we could focus on the ministry that God called us to instead of just avoiding potential bankruptcy.”  

It isn’t lost on Yoder that it takes courage to ask for help, but she hopes other clergy will do just that. “There were days where I felt like a failure, and I didn’t know what to do because this is what God’s called me to do,” she said. Through the Fresh Start Program, her narrative changed: “We didn’t fail because it couldn’t get on top of our bills – life happened; what we did was say – we’re not going to let this hold us down, and we’re going to take advantage of this program, this gift that is offered to us.”

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