Evangelical Christians have a PR problem, wouldn’t you agree? If you want to evoke the scent of condescension, judgmentalism, self-righteousness or hypocrisy, all you need to do is tack on the adjective “evangelical” to the person, place or thing you’re describing, and voila—your work is complete. The original evangelists—the Disciples, the Apostle Paul, Saint Augustine, even Christ Himself—don’t seem to engender so much animosity (today), but modern-day zealots who invoke these ancient names in pursuit of conforming others to their worldviews have become an easy target for cynicism, in many (while certainly not all) cases deservedly. Self-righteous fee-only financial planning evangelists—of which I am one—are beginning to face a similar dilemma and may require an act of God to remake their reputation, especially within the industry.
My confession should not be seen as sins for which every fee-only advisor is guilty, but several others have shared similar thoughts with me—some making even bolder statements and passing firm-wide edicts outlawing comparisons designed to disparage the “unholy.” While there are many individual acts to be brought to light, all of these indiscretions fall under a single umbrella transgression:
Instead of highlighting what we are FOR, we have magnified what we are AGAINST. Instead of making our case to new and existing clients based on who we ARE, we have taken the more expedient route of peddling who we are NOT. For example:
- We are NOT salespeople. We delude ourselves. Everyone is selling, from the Pope, the priest and the pastor…to the doctor, the professor and the journalist…to the accountant, the attorney and the advisor…to the agent, the broker and the banker…all the way down to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Whether it’s a product, a process or a personality, we all have something to sell.
- We are NOT biased. Yes, the bias of commissions is the most evident, but less evident biases can also be dangerous, and sometimes even more so when papered over with apparent altruism. Hourly billing has an inherent economic bias to stretch an engagement. Flat fees incentivize the service provider to clip their work, moving on to the next fee. And those compensated by a percentage of assets under management have a clear conflict to prefer managing more, even if those assets would be better applied to debt repayment, real estate acquisition or investment in a small business. All of us are biased, and to dispute otherwise is self-deception.
- WE are NOT non-fiduciaries. The spirit of fiduciary is vitally important, and the evolution of the industry depends on its application, but the word (fiduciary) itself is relatively meaningless and occasionally misleading. Unfortunately, we have allowed the word fiduciary to become just another mousetrap to be sold, trampling the spirit of the word in our haste. A true fiduciary is too busy acting like one to spend time yelling at those who they believe are not.
- We are NOT, God forbid, Merrill Lynch or Morgan Stanley. While the trend was already underway prior to 2008, the move away from proprietary wire houses to independent advisory firms turned into a tidal wave after the financial collapse. It was primarily the investment banking and trading arms of behemoth brokerage firms that earned the public outrage, but while those complicit started raking in record bonuses the year after the crisis, tens of thousands of financial advisors were left with a heavy anchor on their business cards. Needless to say, we didn’t exactly throw them a life vest.
Saint Francis wasn’t born with a halo around his head and animals flocking to his crib. Early in life, he apparently lived it up as a wealthy merchant’s son and even tried his hand at being a warrior for his home town of Assisi prior to receiving the revelations that redirected his path. The movements for which he became known, however, were enacted less through fiery rhetoric and more through penitence. While the exact source is disputed, no one doubts that this quote attributed to Francis exemplified his life and work: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” We as fee-only financial advisors would do well to seriously consider this admonishment.
Is it possible that the next phase of the financial industry’s inevitable transition (as well as the Church’s) will be led not by rigid demands for legalistic purity, but instead by a humbler, quieter, simpler, more effective practice grounded in affirmation?