Martin Charlesworth
Discipling out of debt

As well as exploring why and how we should bring justice and mercy to our nation, this blog will from time to time highlight specific examples of where the church is effectively doing so. Here we look at Community Money Advice:

In 1991 Heather Keates and her husband found themselves, through a difficult set of circumstances, with tens of thousands of pounds of debt and nowhere to turn for help. Since then Heather has been involved in helping thousands of others trapped by debt to become free, teaching them how to manage their money in the process.

“We didn’t want other people to go through what we went through,” Heather explains. Today, she is the Director of Community Money Advice, a nationwide debt advice charity that she founded in 1997. “Money troubles are not something we talk about. Back then, we would drive around the new estate and people wouldn’t have curtains in their windows because they’d borrowed so much on their mortgage to live there that they couldn’t afford them. It takes only a slight change in circumstances to tip someone over the edge.”

Initially the debt advice service was run from within Heather’s Newfrontiers church in Burgess Hill, Sussex, by a team of volunteers, but within a short space of time, demand “very much” outstripped supply, so in 1999 their sister church in Haywards Heath set up a similar project. Soon after, Newfrontiers gave some money from its social action fund to produce a booklet to help other churches learn about how to set up a centre following this model.

To cope with the demand from churches wanting to start their own debt advice ministry, in 2001 Community Money Advice became a separate charity dedicated to helping start debt advice centres across the nation. Now, 10 years on, there are 97 centres across the country, with 1,200 volunteers giving face-to-face advice to 4,000 clients at any one time.

Heather explains, “One in five households struggle to pay their bills each month on a regular basis. Helping the poor isn’t about trends; it’s about being in it for the long-haul and being passionate about seeing lives transformed.”

Clients come in for an initial appointment where they are given as long as they need to talk about their concerns or problems. An advisor will go through their income looking at options to help, such as whether the client could work overtime, take a lodger, receive benefits, etc. Secondly, the advisor would look at expenditure, and finally, the debt itself.

What makes Community Money Advice distinct is that clients are taught how to manage their money so that once they are out of debt, they don’t fall back into it. “Nobody else does what we do in terms of teaching people to handle their money alongside finding sustainable solutions to often complex debt issues,” Heather says. “It’s about learning how to save, understanding that if your boiler breaks down you need to have money set aside.

“It’s really talking about the whole lifestyle, because it often spills into other areas of people’s lives. We feel it’s a form of discipleship – we are equipping people. We want to enhance what the local church is offering to the community.”

If you would like to know more about CMA or find details about how your church can set up a debt advice centre, visit: http://www.communitymoneyadvice.com/.