Generous Living

December 16, 2010

 With more than 2,000 verses on the subject, the Bible has more to say about money than just about any other topic. Yet even in today's tough financial climate, areas like budgeting and giving remain touchy subjects for many Christians. Three Baylor graduates are out to change that; each heads a company that aims to help Christians handle their money in a Christ-like fashion. Crown Financial Ministries, led by CEO Chuck Bentley, BA '79, assists people in getting a handle on their finances; Generous Giving president Todd Harper, BBA '90, educates Christians on why and how to give; and the National Christian Foundation, where David Wills, BBA '85, JD '88, serves as president, helps match donors with organizations and causes that share their ideals.

Bentley, Harper and Wills each began their journey toward living generously - and teaching others to do the same - right here at Baylor.

From dot-com casualty to internationally recognized expert

Chuck Bentley wasn't always the financial expert that he is today. As CEO of Crown Financial Ministries, a Gainesville, Ga.-based interdenominational ministry founded in 1976 by the late Larry Burkett and Howard Dayton, Bentley leads an organization whose mission is "equipping people worldwide to learn, apply and teach God's financial principles so they may know Christ more intimately, be free to serve Him and help fund the Great Commission." But it wasn't that long ago that Bentley came to Crown Financial Ministries seeking help in his own personal life. 

Chuck Bentley
Chuck Bentley

Bentley's thinking about finances and generosity was transformed in 2000, when his life was directly impacted by one of Crown's Bible studies, thanks largely to his wife, Ann Bentley, BA '79, to whom he's been married for 31 years and with whom he has four sons.

"I had no idea what God said about money and possessions. So at my wife's insistence, I agreed to participate in the study," says Bentley, who then owned a Dallas-based Internet startup company. The company found itself a casualty of the dot-com crash in 2000, which, observes Bentley, turned out to be a blessing from God.

"By learning what the Bible said about money, my entire outlook on life was transformed. I realized that financial decisions are spiritual decisions," says Bentley. "We write our autobiography by the financial choices we make." With this realization, Bentley not only became one of the more than 50 million people in more than 80 countries that Crown Financial has helped to apply God's financial principles to their lives, but he also soon joined the organization as a valued staff member. He began as area director in Dallas/Fort Worth, then advanced in responsibilities up to the year 2007, whenBentley was appointed CEO as successor to its co-founders, Burkett and Dayton.

Today, Bentley travels the world teaching biblical financial principles to people from all walks of life -- from the affluent and middle class, to the poor and very poor -- along with being the host of the nationally syndicated daily radio program "MoneyLife;" the executive producer of a series of short films called "God Provides;" and the creator of the Crown Money Map, a step-by-step guide to financial freedom. Serving in these roles, he's also on the vanguard of a trend of increased generosity across America that has become known as the Generosity Movement.

"When following God's financial principles, we need to focus on three core areas: spiritual renewal, stewardship and generous giving," explains Bentley. "We need to order our lives so that God can fully spend us." And time is of the essence, adds Bentley.

"The U.S. is faced with a difficult road ahead; we are at risk of another depression," he points out. "It's important for all people to get their financial houses in order, and there's an urgency to do that." Independent surveys cited by Crown Financial Ministries show that about 40 percent of church members overspend monthly and pay more than $2,000 a year in interest (excluding their mortgage interest). Also, approximately a third of U.S. born-again Christians report that they feel it's impossible for them to get ahead in life as a result of the financial debts they've incurred.

To lead people out of debt and boost them on their way to financial freedom, Crown provides expert resources, coaching and practical tools on everything from setting up a budget to finding a new career to offering individual Bible studies. Practical applications of these principles help people to substantially decrease

debt, increase savings, diversify investments and increase charitable giving. To help reach more people, including the next generation, Crown is focusing on new, innovative outreach strategies such as short films and Internet delivery services, says Bentley. "Half of the world's population is under age 25, and half of the world cannot or does not read, so visual media and online services that provide help 24 hours a day are key international initiatives," he says.

While Bentley thinks globally now as a matter of course, this didn't always come second nature to him. Being from the small Texas town of Iowa Park, Bentley recalls arriving at Baylor and feeling as if he had moved to the "big city." He also recalls the great financial sacrifices that his parents made so that he could attend Baylor.

"I only knew one other person at Baylor before coming here, so I had to personally stretch to assimilate into the environment," says Bentley, who earned his bachelor's degree in business administration. "This encouraged me to take on leadership responsibilities. Serving within the men's fraternity of KOT and as student body president, among other extracurricular responsibilities, provided meaningful personal growth and lessons that I carry with me today. " The leadership skills that he developed at Baylor have been instrumental in his life's work, explains Bentley. "Baylor prepared me to be a leader," he says. "Baylor is a living laboratory to prepare future leaders. I am deeply grateful that I was privileged to attend. Not only did I meet my wife, Ann, while at Baylor, but I also grew in knowledge and skills that the Lord has used for His glory."

Bentley is also grateful for the opportunities that God has given him with Crown Financial Ministries. When asked what he would be doing if not serving with Crown, Bentley responds, "I couldn't imagine doing anything else. God called me to this position, so I'd be disobedient to do anything else."

From practicing law to practical answers on giving

David Wills shares a similar calling, seeing his work as a ministry more than a job and often finding his path interconnecting with Bentley's. And like Bentley's story of Christian stewardship and financial ministry, Wills' story begins with the influence of another person that he believes God put into his life, opening his eyes -- and opening the door -- to the Generosity Movement. "In 1991, while practicing law in Dallas, I was providentially introduced to Greg Sperry, an attorney who was using his abilities for Christian service," says Wills, adding that "God began a work in my heart upon hearing of Greg's life journey." One year later, Wills joined Sperry in St. Simons Island, Ga., where the two of them founded an independent Christian community foundation to help people give more to the church and its ministries.

David Wills
David Wills

"My first assignment was to read the book Money, Possessions, and Eternity by Randy Alcorn," says Wills. "Today, my life is driven by a passion for generosity and eternity, and so I am called to help others lay up treasure in heaven." That was almost 20 years ago, and today Sperry and Wills still office side-by-side. Those offices are at The National Christian Foundation (NCF), where Wills has served since 1998 and is now president. Founded in 1982, NCF is a global nonprofit organization that "mobilizes resources for Kingdom purposes by providing giving tools and solutions for followers of Christ." NCF and its 35 Local Christian Foundation Affiliates are considered the 22nd-largest charity in the country, having helped thousands of individuals and organizations grant more than $2 billion to more than 15,000 charities around the world. Since its inception, NCF has received more than $3 billion in contributions, with more than $1 billion held in the foundation today.

In his work at the NCF, Wills advises families and Christian ministries with gift and estate planning, in addition to presenting lectures around the country on topics such as "the transition of wealth," "responsibility from one generation to the next" and "tax and spiritual issues in charitable giving." "I moved into this arena because of God's working on my heart, moving from a litigation practice to trust and estate planning, working with families and helping them be more generous than they ever imagined," says Wills, who used the resources of the NCF long before he joined the organization. "I have the greatest job in the world; I can't believe the Lord lets me do it."

While Wills finds his work more challenging in the current economic slump -- NCF, for example, took in about $370 million and gave out $325 million in 2009, less than in prior years -- he is optimistic about the future of the Generosity Movement and serves on several boards of charity organizations including Hope for the Heart, the ProVision Foundation, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and Generous Giving. Wills points out that, when giving to any organization, givers must ask themselves three primary questions: Why should I be generous? How do I do my generosity? Where do I give? "Anyone interested in the Generosity Movement must understand those three questions. They also need to personally embrace generosity themselves; you need to live it before you can preach it.

"At NCF, we focus on the 'how' question by enabling followers of Christ to give and helping them mobilize their resources for God's Kingdom," says Wills, whose organization and its affiliates serve more than 7,500 families around the country. "We are very intentional about interacting with the people we serve. We seek to understand the needs and objectives of givers and provide innovative solutions to those needs." Wills also believes that his experiences at Baylor helped pave the way on his path of Christian stewardship, he says. "Baylor provided me with a foundational spiritual experience. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today if not for Baylor," says Wills, "especially if not for several professors who had a great impact on me."

Among those were three Baylor professors who also were Baylor alumni, two from the Hankamer School of Business and one from Baylor Law School. Dr. Charlene Spoede Budd, BBA '72, MBA '73, professor emeritus of accounting, showed Wills that he had academic potential -- an observation that was not at all self-evident to Wills at the time. Dr. Nancy Bowman Upton, BBA '82, MBA '83, PhD '92, professor emeritus of management and entrepreneurship, was also influential, awakening Wills' inner entrepreneurial spirit and convincing him that he could go out into the world and build a business or organization. And Louis Muldrow, JD '58, longtime director of Baylor law's practice court program -- who was a "tough teacher," adds Wills -- pushed him to develop communication skills, which led him into trial law practice and now serves an important role in his calling.

"God puts special people in your life for a purpose," says Wills. "I am a blessed person, and I was blessed to be at Baylor. Through [Baylor's] environment and my interaction with students and professors there, I was influenced to do what I'm doing today."

From entrepreneur to educator

 Among those special students God put in Wills' life at Baylor was Todd Harper, who, to this day, considers Wills one of the most influential people in his life -- someone who helped him rethink important life lessons that, in his earlier years, he thought he knew. Growing up as a middle child in a middle-class family with strong Christian values, Harper recalls being a rather typical child, albeit with one quirk: he loved money. Case in point: Every Christmas, his grandmother and aunt would give him and his siblings $50 each; but while the other kids would be given their gift in large bills, Todd's gift always came in the form of 50 one-dollar bills. Why?

Todd Harper
Todd Harper

"I liked to count money. It was just something in me," chuckles Harper. "I also had three businesses in high school. I was a young materialist." That was the driving force that brought Harper to Baylor as a freshman in 1985. "When I was young, I had a desire to become wealthy, so I entered the entrepreneurship program at Baylor, which was unique at the time," says Harper, who earned his bachelor's degree in economics and entrepreneurship. "My focus was to be financially successful. I went to Baylor to be prepared to become wealthy." But when he arrived at Baylor, Harper's motivation changed when he became active in Campus Crusade for Christ, a student ministry that is part of a national network of more than 1,000 campuses spreading the message of the gospel to millions of students each year.

"My entrée into the Generosity Movement was fund development for Campus Crusade," says Harper, describing his involvement with the student ministry as a significant event in his life -- as well as the place where he met Wills, who was a first-year law student at Baylor when Harper was a freshman. "David quickly became one of my closest friends at Baylor, and he has had a profound positive influence on my life ever since," says Harper. "We have had a partnership together for the past 20 years."

Also providing another turning point in his life, adds Harper, was when he met his Baylor Welcome Week Leader Jimmy Seibert, BBA '86, now senior pastor at Antioch Community Church in Waco, during his freshman year. "Jimmy is the most generous person I know, and [the members of] his church are the most generous in the country -- maybe even the world," says Harper. "What makes Baylor unique is the people I met and their inspiration." And the most inspirational person that Harper was introduced to at Baylor is his wife of 22 years, Collynn Harper, BA '88, with whom he has five children. "Collynn has always had a passion for the world and has influenced me to grow my heart for the world," says Harper.

In fact, it was his wife who inspired Harper's 11-year career with Campus Crusade for Christ International, where together they served in Yugoslavia, Russia and the U.S., after which he joined an investment management firm as a partner advising high-net-worth clients. "I went into the ministry out of school, but I was still motivated to save money and invest here rather than eternally," says Harper. "It was a book -- Money, Possessions, and Eternity by Randy Alcorn -- that David [Wills] sent me that got me thinking about 'sending it on ahead.'"

That's where the story of Generous Giving begins. In the 1990s, Harper, Wills and three friends started talking about the life-changing possibilities of faith-driven generosity and the eternal joy that such wholehearted giving -- rather than compulsory tithing -- could bring. Those conversations eventually led to the launch in 2000 of Generous Giving, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based nonprofit organization with a mission "to spread the biblical message of generosity in order to grow generous givers among those entrusted with much." As an independent organization of the grant-making Maclellan Foundation, Generous Giving does not raise money and does not tell people how much to give or even where to give; rather, its role is to educate and inspire Christians to live more rewarding lives of greater generosity.

Anyone who knew Harper in his early years might be surprised to see him today as a founding member and now president of Generous Giving, which celebrated its 10th anniversary -- and a new opportunity to spread its message -- in 2010.

"We're taking what we learned and trying to encourage people to be lavishly generous and spread that message to more people through volunteers," says Harper, adding that the organization, funded by its board, never asks for money. "We have to work smarter, not harder. We're developing a curriculum right now that volunteers will be able to use to create conversations about radical generosity to God's Kingdom."

Many Christians are exceptionally generous, but perhaps surprisingly, when considered as a whole, Christians are not very generous, according to several surveys cited by Generous Giving. Studies show that the percentage of money that Christians give each year has dropped steadily since World War II, and today people aren't giving as much as the roughly 3 percent that they gave during the Great Depression. Therefore, encouraging people to be radically generous during the current dire economic downturn might seem to be an especially "tough sell" to most; however, Harper sees these trying times as a teachable moment for those who are spiritually minded.

"People react to the idea of giving as difficult now, because they don't have the margins that they used to; but at the same time, it's easier because [the economic situation] has created an opportunity for dialogue and interaction," he says, citing Paul's writing to Timothy: "Command those who are rich in this present world ... to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life"
(1 Timothy 6:17-19).

"We should place hope in God, not place hope in riches, which are so uncertain," says Harper. "When you lose half of your money and can't sleep at night, something is not right. Many wealthy people realize that they were placing hope in wealth instead of placing hope in God and His treasures in Heaven." And you don't have to be rich to be generous when you give wisely, adds Harper. "This environment encourages people to seriously reflect on what has been important. The world's promise of bigger, better, faster is a lie, and that 'value system' is being challenged by people of all age groups," he says. "Young people are challenging the 'American Dream.' I'm hopeful about younger generations encouraging lifestyles focused on others." Harper is so hopeful because God has created that transformation in his life, he says.

"It's so encouraging to me that God has shifted my desire so significantly. The Prayer of Agur, Proverbs 30:8-9, says 'Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the LORD?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.' I can pray that prayer meaningfully," says Harper. "It's ironic -- or God's grace -- that I'm leading an organization that encourages people to be radically generous in God's Kingdom. My conviction is to be willing to do whatever God calls me to do. There's joy in surrendering our lives to God and letting Him create the fruit.

"Generous Giving is such a fit of my calling, passion and gifts," says Harper. "This is the ultimate; I can't believe I get paid to do what I do. And if God has something else for me to try, I trust God and will do whatever He wants me to do."

That sentiment clearly resonates in the stories of Bentley and Wills, who share much more than an alma mater, as Bentley points out. "I have a close relationship with both David [Wills] and Todd [Harper]," says Bentley. "The Lord chose all three of us to come together for such a time as this."

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