The Reverend Jeff Smith sees “God’s sense of humor” at play in his being called to First Presbyterian Church (FPC), Boone, North Carolina, after 20 years away from his childhood home.
Union Presbyterian Seminary, Charlotte, prepared him to put down roots wherever God wanted him to go. Initially, that was to several congregations in South Carolina. Then, five years ago, Rev. Smith was called to serve as pastor of FPC in Boone. Now he baptizes his former classmates’ children and gives sermons to parishioners he knew as a youth.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Boone is a bucolic place that has made multiple Top Places to Live lists. Even so, Rev. Smith’s childhood and teen years were far from idyllic: His mother suffered from a debilitating health issue, and money was scarce.
Despite those challenges, the 40-year-old pastor is blessed with a sunny disposition, strong motivation, and deep faith. He was the first in his family to graduate from college, working three jobs to pay his own way. Even so, he had to take on substantial student loans that he and his wife, Angela, are still paying off 19 years later.
Rev. Smith is passionate about providing for the couple’s two sons, 9 and 11. “I feel a huge responsibility to save — to pay — for my sons’ college educations,” he said.
That’s why, two years ago, Rev. and Mrs. Smith developed a plan to get out of debt and began working toward becoming debt free. They were well underway when, last summer, their lives were suddenly upended: Their older son, Brennan, contracted a life-threatening infection during a family vacation. Brennan had to be hospitalized for 12 days, and while Brennan has fully recovered, the financial effects linger.
“I totally maxed out my copayments,” Rev. Smith said, “but we would have paid any amount of money to save Brennan.” Thankfully, he didn’t have to. “I am so grateful that the Board’s medical coverage is good, and the copayment maximum was not insurmountable,” he said.
Even so, the Smiths paid thousands of dollars toward their son’s care, which set them back financially. Rev. Smith leapt at the chance to participate in Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations when he heard about it. He qualified for the program, which would provide not only educational opportunities to him and his congregation, but also a grant of up to $10,000 for the elimination of personal debt.
Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations is funded largely by the Board of Pensions. It also receives support from Lilly Endowment and participating churches.
Through Healthy Pastors, Healthy Congregations, Rev. Smith took an online personal financial education series, participated with congregational leaders in an in-person training session, and received “very valuable” individual financial counseling from Ernst & Young Employee Financial Services, with whom the Board is partnering for the program. The financial counselors provide participating pastors with guidance in developing personalized financial plans.
Betsy Payne, Chair of the Finance and Stewardship Committee for FPC, appreciated the program’s financial counseling component. “It is so helpful to have Ernst & Young advise him, at a young age, so he can learn how to be a healthier, more financially secure pastor,” she said.
“… this session teaches you to love your pastor and his family even more.”
— Elder Betsy Payne
She also gave high marks to the in-person training session for congregational leaders and the pastor. “It’s important for a pastor to have the support of his congregation,” Mrs. Payne said, “and this session teaches you to love your pastor and his family even more.”
The grant will enable the Smiths to get out of debt and start saving for college sooner. “The fact that it comes this year — all I can say is, I’ve found that God shows up — this just dropped in my lap. I didn’t seek it, but the timing is perfect,” Rev. Smith said.
“It’s God’s timing.”