Brandon and Julie Urban credit a man they’ve never met for helping to rein in their budget.
The Lawrence couple, parents of three children, ages 5 months through second grade, attended a session of Financial Peace University, the DVD/small group study that is the signature work of Dave Ramsey, a guru who mixes faith and finances to help couples out of debt.
“We’ve been trying to put a little more money away savings-wise,” Brandon Urban says. “We’re trying to stash more money in an emergency fund. We shop at different places — we’re at Aldi and Wal-Mart more than we used to be.”
Julie Urban adds: “We used to eat out a lot. The kids have asked why we only eat out on Fridays now, and we explain that we’re saving money by eating more together at home.”
The Urbans took the class through Lawrence Heights Christian Church, one of a few Lawrence places of worship offering Ramsey’s program to parishioners.
But as Ramsey’s popularity is skyrocketing — more than 750,000 people have taken his classes — some are beginning to question whether Ramsey’s hugely profitable, tax-paying business — which he describes as a ministry — fits with Jesus’ teachings.
It’s a question John Hoffman began asking as he immersed himself in Ramsey’s financial lessons for months. He listened on the radio, bought books, took Ramsey’s financial management course at a church and paid for a $10-a-month subscription to his Web site.
Hoffman came away from it all feeling like Ramsey’s intermingling of faith and finances was some sort of unholy alliance.
“It’s not a ministry. To me, it’s an insult to the word,” says Hoffman, who lives near Logan, in northwestern Kansas. “It would be nice if it got out of the churches and got into the mainstream.”
Work, ministry combined
Ramsey doesn’t deny mixing religion and business, and he doesn’t apologize for getting rich doing it, either. Business is a ministry, he says, and good ones prosper by serving people the way God wants them to.
“Worship is work-ship, so I don’t separate work from ministry,” Ramsey says recently at his headquarters in suburban Nashville, where he does his syndicated radio and cable TV shows. Bible verses, crosses and photos of Ramsey decorate the building.
In the beginning, as now, Ramsey’s refrain was similar to the financial teachings of John Wesley, who started the Methodist movement more than 200 years ago: Earn all you can, save all you can, give away all you can.
Ramsey added a modern injunction to Jesus’ teachings about not being a slave to money or possessions: Ditch your credit cards and pay cash. Callers to his radio show scream “I’m debt free!” after paying off loans, and Ramsey cuts up credit cards on his TV program.
Almost 4.5 million people listen to Ramsey on the radio each week; millions more watch his show on Fox Business or have read his best-selling books. Disciples — and they are legion — know his no-credit mantra and inspiring, riches-to-rags-to even more riches story.
There are plenty of Lawrence residents who have gone though Financial Peace University sessions. Derek Felch, a member of Christ Community Church, 1100 Kasold Drive, is one of them.
Felch first read a book by Ramsey a decade ago, when he says he and his wife were in financial trouble.
“It’s a great process for people to learn about money,” Felch says. “They need to come up with a plan. So many people don’t have a plan.”
Felch eventually started organizing Financial Peace University courses through his church. A new 13-week session starts Monday at the Hampton Inn, 2300 W. Sixth St.
“Dave’s appeal is he really reaches out to the non-numbers person,” Felch says.
It doesn’t bother Felch that Ramsey has become wealthy with his classes, which typically cost $99 per session.
“He’s done pretty well, but it’s really helped a lot of people,” Felch says. “He helped my wife and I get out of debt.”
There was a time when few would have paid for financial advice from Ramsey, 48.
A broker with real estate investments worth some $4 million by age 26, Ramsey was forced to file for bankruptcy protection after lenders called his short-term debt. He was soon offering financial counseling at church as a Sunday school lesson with a simple message at its core: Don’t spend more than you have.
Using a biblical Greek word for light as the name of his company, Ramsey founded the Lampo Group Inc. in 1991 to offer one-on-one financial counseling. Financial Peace University had reached about 10,000 people by 1999, and the business exploded in 2001 when he created a department inside Lampo Group specifically to arrange courses through churches.
A version of Ramsey’s courses, minus the religious element, are taught in public schools and on 95 military bases, and he’s heard on 450 radio stations, only a handful of them Christian. Still, Ramsey acknowledges: “Churches are a big part of what we do. It’s a natural market for us in a sense.”
The Lampo Group has grown to about 300 employees, most working on commissions. Ramsey is the owner, CEO and product.
He is building a huge home on a $1 million lot in a gated community overlooking Tennessee’s richest county. Tax records reviewed by The Associated Press show Ramsey and his company own property worth more than $7 million, and Ramsey says that’s low by a few million because of recent renovations to his four-story headquarters.
Ramsey doesn’t give out sales figures for his privately owned company, but he says Lampo is far larger than a leading nonprofit group that offers Bible-based financial courses, Crown Financial Ministries. Based in Gainesville, Ga., Crown reported revenues of $20.2 million in 2007; its course costs $55 for a couple, or about half what Ramsey charges.
Alexander Hill, author of “Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace,” says churches can inadvertently become a tool for marketers as they try to help members through a tough economy.
“I think it’s fine for churches to provide services for the congregants, and that can be profit or nonprofit,” says Hill, president of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry based in Madison, Wis. “It’s the potential confusion that is a concern.”
Not everything Ramsey does turns a profit. Ramsey held a “Town Hall for Hope,” which was simulcast to 1.3 million people gathered at 5,600 churches nationwide. The event was a success in some ways — “it was good for the brand” and “a moment in time for God,” Ramsey says — it ended up costing him about $60,000 once all the bills were paid, he says.
Fans can buy DVD copies of the event to give to friends — 10 for $38.95.