In selecting faculty for The Gathering conference it can be difficult to find someone who not only provides valuable insight on a particular topic, but also understands the issues of wealth more than just conceptually. Thayer Cheatham Willis, author of Navigating the Dark Side of Wealth: A Life Guide for Inheritors, not only works with wealthy families as her occupation, but she was raised in the family that formed the Georgia Pacific Corporation. She knows first hand the challenges of growing up with wealth and addresses them daily in her occupation as a licensed counselor, with her own children and in her own life.
Thayer joined us at the 2003 Gathering conference and led a class on the issues of inheritors and inheritance.
TG: Give us a brief explanation of your background and what inspired you to write your book.
Thayer: I was born into the family that built Georgia Pacific Corporation and grew up in a wealthy neighborhood with other families of similar circumstances. Much of the building of Georgia Pacific had occurred before my birth. Shortly after my birth the company expanded out to the west coast. My father had a lot to do with the expansion of Georgia Pacific so we moved to Portland.
We lived in a beautiful neighborhood and I grew up thinking my circumstances were “normal.” When I got into young adulthood, many of my peers began experiencing times of great struggle. Some had problems with drugs and alcohol and over the years even a few lost their lives. At that point, I began thinking about the issues of wealth and how they had affected the people around me. So many people aspired to live in a neighborhood like mine and believed it would make them happy, yet I knew through my experiences that affluence didn’t ensure happiness.
When I was in my twenties and thirties, at the conference, I drifted into some explorations which took me away from Christianity. Shortly after I came back to my spiritual roots I read Matthew 19:24-26, where Jesus tells the disciples that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples couldn’t understand what he meant, but Jesus repeated himself and then said “but with God all things are possible.” When I really thought about the idea of a “camel through the eye of a needle” it seemed impossible for me to enter the kingdom of God. I had been born into a wealthy family and needed to make sense of this verse. That is when I began to focus on the part that read “with God all things are possible.”
After the struggle and realization that with God even a wealthy person could enter His Kingdom, I then had a desire to help people who had wealth and who struggled to find meaning in their life. Most of my peers had tons of money, but many of them were lost. Out of this realization came my focus on counseling wealthy families. My book came to be over many years in my counseling practice where I collected information on the lives of inheritors.
TG: Why is inheritance such a strong value in Scripture and such a negative experience for so many people in our culture?
Thayer: When scripture addresses inheritance it is mainly referring to our inheritance in Christ. It’s a spiritual inheritance. The Bible focuses on the spiritual aspects of inheritance, although, there is also a reference to material inheritance. Many people in our culture focus their energy on money and material inheritance. The mainstream of our culture has drifted away from the spiritual values on which our country was founded. In scripture, Ephesians 1:11 says, “We are made Christ’s inheritance.”
TG: Why don’t parents prepare children for wealth? Is it any different than other areas of a child’s life?
Thayer: Money is the last taboo and wealth is even more so. Financial literacy is not taught in school and many parents carry emotional baggage associated with their wealth. Some parents use wealth as a weapon. Others aren’t literate with their own wealth, so how can they possibly teach their children healthy attitudes toward wealth?
A step by step education of preparing children for wealth is necessary and should begin at a young age. Clearly, this should be done in age appropriate stages and include steps like an allowance, savings, etc.: it needs to be a building block process.
TG: What are some things I can do for my daughter that would help her to avoid the problems that money potentially brings?
Thayer: Raise her to love God. 1 Timothy 6:17-19