The Reverend Dr. DeForest B. Soaries Jr., pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Franklin Township, found himself in a unique position as a religious leader in the mid-2000s. When the church had a financial crisis, Soaries was forced to consider his flock’s financial, as well as their spiritual, salvation.

After noticing that many of the people who attended his church had high levels of consumer debt, Soaries created a method of money management that mixes spiritual and debt management advice. Soaries, whose nickname is Buster, is used to public advocacy roles. He served from 1999 to 2002 as New Jersey Secretary of State. In 2002 he ran and lost as a Republican against Rush Holt for the 12th district House seat.

Soaries will talk about his “dfree” system at the Princeton Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, August 11, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott. Tickets are $50, $70 for nonmembers. For information, visit www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.

In 2011 Soaries wrote his first book, called “dfree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery.” He recounts the crisis that led him to begin offering financial advice:

Imagine strolling through the grocery store and suddenly noticing that most of the other shoppers are wearing chains around their wrists and ankles. The new mother with her little girl sitting in the front of the cart. The older gentleman contemplating brands of breakfast cereal. The college student reaching for the frozen pizza. The career woman grabbing dinner for her family on the way home from work. All of them seemingly oblivious to the weighty encumbrance of heavy iron chains securing their arms and legs. Then you begin to notice that most people are shackled wherever you go. Standing in line for tickets at the movie theater, or walking down the hall at work, or welcoming people into the foyer at church, you see the same powerful chains binding the limbs of those around you. Everyone smiles and nods — “How are you today?” “Oh, I’m fine, and you?” — working hard to ignore the debilitating burden that limits their movements. Many seem to pretend that the chains aren’t even there, while others adjust them as if they were new accessories from the jewelry store.

You wonder if you’re dreaming or watching a new science fiction program on TV, when you look down and see the same enormous iron chains gripping your own hands and feet.

Such a disturbing spectacle would be hard to ignore, particularly if no one else seemed to notice or be troubled by it. The passive acceptance of such enslavement would seem particularly surprising in a country that upholds human freedom as a cornerstone value — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to vote for whomever we choose. However, such enslavement does bind many of us and inhibits our freedom every day. While invisible to the naked eye, heavy chains of consumer debt are squeezing the life out of millions of Americans right now.

Perhaps the most stunning fact is that our 21st-century slavery is self-imposed and self-perpetuated. Hundreds of years ago, men and women were ambushed and violently captured against their will, literally dragged thousands of miles away from their homeland, and forced into hard labor that often cost them their lives. Today men and women are ambushed by their own poor choices, impulse purchases, and attempts to keep up with a miragelike cultural standard of consumer consumption. They remain shackled by high interest rates and low minimum payments. Men and women today resign themselves to a desperate, hopeless future in which they can newer dig out of their financial pit.

Plastic Shackles. Consumer debt grips millions of people with plastic shackles every bit as powerful as the iron chains that once bound slaves. A bold, even audacious, statement, I know, particularly considering the historical atrocities of slavery in our country. As a descendant of some of those slaves, I do not make this analogy without recognizing the gravity of its implications. I do not make such a comparison lightly or for the sheer effect of its cultural shock value, although the ongoing enslavement of millions of Americans should shock and concern all of us. While many of my fellow African Americans may be upset or offended by my literal comparison, I find that enslavement is the only adequate word to express the dire, life-draining, debilitating condition in which we find ourselves today.

Consumer debt enslaves millions of people in our country with debilitating chains that only seem to grow tighter each month as bills increase and income decreases. We’ve shackled ourselves with fear, stress, and shame by spending far more than we’re taking in or saving. However, the time has come to emancipate ourselves. That’s what dfree living is all about: your financial freedom.

You may be wondering how I know what I’m talking about. Granted, I’m not an expert accountant or financial guru, but I know firsthand the harsh realities of economic imprisonment. As the pastor of a large suburban church in New Jersey, I’ve shared in the many struggles of my members — unemployment, unpaid bills, depleted retirement accounts, and foreclosed mortgages. As a government official and community development leader, I’ve similarly experienced the impact of layoffs, shrinking budgets, and corporate bankruptcy. And as a middle-class American who was once seduced by easy credit and then overwhelmed by Staggering balances, I’ve waged my own personal battle for fiscal freedom.

Foremost, I’ve learned that overwhelming debt exists and continues to grow in every sector of American life across every demographic — gender, race, education level, and pay scale. No one is immune, not bankers, teachers, executives, accountants, artists, or entrepreneurs. Not only is our nation drowning in debt but many American citizens have also become addicted to a lifestyle that perpetuates the use of credit cards, high-interest loans, and borrowing against future earnings. This problem had escalated to epidemic proportions long before the recession of 2008 officially identified our crisis. The Center for American Progress reported in July, 2006, that 56 percent of blacks, 42 percent of Hispanics, and 46 percent of whites considered their debt levels a serious problem.

So even before our most recent economic downturn, we were aware of the problem and yet continued to ignore it. Consider these data points on credit card debt as reported by MoneyZine.com:

The size of the total consumer debt in the U.S. grew nearly five times in size from 1980 ($355 billion) to 2001 ($1.7 trillion). Consumer debt in 2008 skyrocketed to $2.6 trillion.

These staggering statistics beg a larger question than “how did this happen?” No, we must ask ourselves a harder question: What’s wrong with us? How did we become a nation of people who, across ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, income brackets, and education levels, have fallen prey to the temptation of spending more money than we have? What caused us to become people who are more likely to spend our money before we earn it?

This pattern of widespread behavior is historically unprecedented. How did we get a whole nation of people to say, “I would rather pay high interest rates than wait until I can afford to buy what I need”? Many experts fear that the residential mortgage crisis that triggered a global meltdown a few years ago is just the tip of the economic iceberg. The mortgage crisis is not the problem; it’s just an example of the problem. The real problem is within us, and I’m convinced its only solution is spiritual.

Before you’re tempted to dismiss my conviction that overspending is a spiritual problem with a spiritual solution, let me share a startling piece of data. In a 12-month period during the height of our recent recession, during a time when almost every charity, ministry, philanthropy, and church saw donations plummet, my church’s giving increased by more than a million dollars!

And it had nothing to do with my skills as a fundraiser or my ability to browbeat members into tithing more. In fact, much to my church board’s initial dismay, I refused to make fundraising central to my pastoral role or to give guilt-inducing sermons on tithing. Instead, I focused my teaching on the freedom of debt-free living and developed a movement that we came to call “dfree.”

My inspiration for our approach came out of a desperate situation. In 2003, at the conclusion of a church building campaign that exceeded a decade of planning and a cost of $20 million, the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, New Jersey, found itself with a multi-million-dollar mortgage and dwindling funds. While overall giving had increased steadily by at least 10 percent in each year of my tenure, the church resources had been drained by over-budget construction costs and unexpected litigation to get the job finished.

Something had to change, and the sooner the better, if we were going to survive the financial tsunami racing toward our shore. During one of many meetings to brainstorm solutions, I found myself on the hot seat. As the trustees and church leaders looked to me, as senior pastor, for a solution, someone suggested that I preach more sermons about tithing.

In fact, the person who made the suggestion stated that they had never heard me preach an entire sermon focused exclusively on tithing. With a sound rationale, this person explained that the church’s problem resulted from members who were not giving at least 10 percent of their income, and therefore our solution was simply for these people to be motivated, encouraged, cajoled, and challenged to do so — a responsibility that, they all assumed, fell under my job description.

Many other board members agreed with this logic. They had done the math and concluded that if our 4,000 members all gave 10 percent of their salaries as their tithe, we would be in great financial shape. And they expected, almost demanded, that I, as their pastor, make it happen. Feeling a bit queasy, I left the meeting with a commitment to get back to them soon with my response to their recommendation.

I was at a crossroads. At that point I had been there for 15 years and had accomplished the big task the church wanted me to lead them in completing: their new building. Maybe it was the perfect time for me to transition out of leadership at First Baptist and make room for a successor who could come and preach as many sermons on tithing as they wanted. And please understand: I’m certainly not against tithing and will discuss it in more detail later in the book. But I was uncomfortable concluding that tithing was a solution to the church’s financial pressures. I would have to seek God’s guidance like never before.

After much prayer and focused concentration on my ministry, I went to church on Saturday for an event. For some reason the cars in the parking lot grabbed my attention and somehow looked different than I’d ever seen them before. I was used to finding a full parking lot before a service or event, but I’d never really noticed the cars that people drove to church. However, on this Saturday noticed that our parking lot was virtually a luxury car showroom.

Our members were driving the finest cars made, leaving my reliable Ford Expedition (which I bought at a great price from my cousin who owns a dealership) in the dust. Sedans, SUVs, and sports cars made by Mercedes Benz, BMW, Lincoln, and Cadillac lined up beside each other – I even saw a Maserati What was going on? The parking lot of a church straining to pay its bills on time was full of high-end luxury cars?

At that moment, the reality of the situation sparkled like sunlight off the chrome of the convertible next to me. Suddenly, it seemed clear that I was getting the directional insight I go desperately needed. Our members were driving late-model luxury cars, wearing beautiful designer clothes, taking exotic vacations, and dining in the best restaurants. But could they really afford such lavish lifestyles? It seemed more likely that they were borrowing money at high finance rates to buy those cars and using high-interest credit cards to purchase everything else. My answer was right there: our people could not give more to the church because they did not have it to give. Before they even received their paychecks, their money was consumed by bills, credit cards, mortgages or rent, and car payments.

My revelation was clear: If the church helped the people get out of debt, then the people would naturally — without being pressured — help the church get out of debt. We would launch a churchwide campaign to attack the culture of debt and deficit living. Within days, I shared my vision with the trustees, and one caught it right away. He and his wife had been our church’s largest financial supporters, and he immediately saw the big picture. This man had a passion to teach people biblical principles about money, and this was definitely the direction he believed the church should take.

His encouragement was all I needed — and for a while it was all I received. The others had a more “wait and see” attitude. But I knew that this was the direction God wanted the church to take, and I also knew that I had to stay there to lead the strategy. As we brainstormed names for this new movement, I focused on the issues we wanted to combat: using credit excessively,struggling under high interest rates, and living above our means.

Three words popped into my mind to encapsulate these challenges: debt, delinquency, and deficit. However, I didn’t want to focus the program on the problem when we could name the solution. And the solution is freedom — freedom from debt, freedom from delinquency, and freedom from deficit. So the name for our program became “dfree”!

During the months and years that followed, we experienced both tremendous resistance and enormous rewards with the dfree program at First Baptist. Bottom line, we became a congregation of people committed to overcoming our individual financial problems with a community approach that included education, accountability, encouragement, and evangelism – spreading the news that God gets us free in every area of our lives.

As enthusiasm translated into action, our church’s income rose accordingly — with no sermons on tithing whatsoever! After six months of the dfree campaign, the church’s income rose by $500,000. By the end of the first 12 months of dfree at First Baptist, our income increased by a million dollars. More than 600 households were exposed to some level of dfree instruction in the first years, and the message became and remains a part of the entire church culture.

Today dfree has evolved into a large-scale movement that has successfully liberated thousands of people. While its primary growth has been nourished by the community support of our church, the core principles of dfree apply to anyone longing to release themselves from the shackles of their financial slavery. Regardless of setting, the focus remains on educating, motivating, and activating individuals to live in complete freedom.

You don’t need to be part of a church or institution to implement the dfree strategy and experience the liberating joy of a debt-free life. Finding a community committed to dfree living is crucial for your success. But this community can develop from your existing network of family, friends, colleagues, and other like-minded individuals who are willing to support, encourage, and inspire you on your path to freedom.

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