church, money, and sustainability

Who doesn’t like a good conversation about church and money?  Steve Lewis [spiritfarmer] and Jason Evans [a51t15] and a bunch of other folks have been conversing via their blogs about the broad and complex issues of church, money, and sustainability.  Why is this an issue?  Well, I can think of three main reasons [amongst several] why this is an issue:

  • one.  Stewardship is always an issue.  To be a disciple is to be steward of all things – including finances.
  • two.  Jesus thought enough of the danger and gravity of money [mammon] that he sees it as a legitmate challenger to the worship of God when He declares, “You cannot worship both God and mammon.” 
  • three.  Money is an issue because whether we like it or not, we’re going through a recession and things are going to get worse before it gets better.  And while most middle and low income folks are going to feel the pinch, it will be nothing compared to the world’s poor who are going to suffer the most.  And if it affects people, it’ll affect the church and the church’s capacity to “sustain” their ministries.  Subsequently, churches may need to reassess our model of sustainability.

[During my current sabbatical, I’ll be reposting some old posts for your reading pleasure.]

In response to the numerous entries I’ve glanced over, I’ve got some random thoughts to share in no specific order.  I’m exhausted right now so if it doesn’t make sense, sue me.

1]  Bivocational and Bilingual.  I think it’s great that there are pastors and ministry folks that are willing to be bivocational.  I would just say that we have to be careful that we don’t think that one way is better than the other [bivocational versus full-time].  People need to think, wrestle, pray, and wisely make the decision that best serves their context and situation.  Some folks choose the bivocational route because financially, it’s the only viable option for ministries – particularly in the beginning.

During the first year of Quest, I was not paid a salary at Quest.  I volunteered my time and worked as a custodian in the early mornings.  I hated it.  It was an incredibly difficult time.  But I had no choice.  And since my wife and I was committed to planting Quest, we knew we had to be creative with our finances.  The problem was that I discovered that my resume was worth crap to the larger world.  I’m useless.  I was rejected by every single job employment opportunity I sought including Starbucks and here’s the worst:  Toys R Us during the Holiday season when they had that big banner declaring: “Hiring Now.”  People looked at me really funny.

But I do respect women and men that choose to work various jobs to care for their families and free their ministries from any difficult financial stress. It takes guts.  But whatever route we take, we really also need to do a gutcheck about our personal stewardship and make changes.  That takes more guts. 

Bivocational is also good because let’s be honest…most full-time ministry workers are so consumed by ministry and the culture of ministry, they rarely engage and interface with the larger world.  It’s a double edge sword because while ministry workers are regularly calling the church to love their neighbors and engage the culture and the world, they’re rarely doing [or able] to do the very thing they are preaching.  And consequently, many ministry leaders grow to be monolingual.  They can only speak one language – the language of the church.  And in the long run, there will be a disconnect and it’ll become a detriment to the missional purpose of the body of Christ.  All ministry leaders need to be bilingual and multicultural as we engage, exegete, and communicate with the larger culture and context.  Beware of the bubble of the Christian sub-culture [think Truman Show here].  I attempt to maintain some balance through my work with our non-profit/non-religious neighborhood Q Cafe, the humanitarian organization, and just being part of the neighborhood where we live.  I love being a pastor but there’s also something about being functional and conversational – while being missional and spiritual.  Be a good neighbor and not just a good pastor.

2]  What about the church? During the current or impending recession, churches will feel the financial pinch.  Our church’s budget in the 1st quarter of 2008 was down 9%.  Is it too early to tell?  Maybe.  Are there other factors?  Maybe.  But my hunch with all the doom and gloom news – housing markets, massive layoffs, soaring gas prices, escalating food prices, etc – is that people are buckling down.  And it’ll likely grow worse before it gets better.

But interestingly, I think it’s the larger churches and megachurches that are going to be most affected because having worked at a humongous church before, there are so many financial obligations. They are like big corporations and eventually, there may be some painful layoffs.  Smaller churches have the potential to thrive and be more sustainable because they are much more flexible in their infrastructure and decision making.  Mobility is a great asset and ought to be utilized.

3] Financial recession.  It’s going to hurt a great deal but in my opinion, it’s the best thing for the long run.  We need to stop blaming the government, mortgage companies and lenders, etc.  Individuals need to take a serious look at their own consumption.  For example, why are we buying houses we can’t afford or living lifestyles we simply can’t sustain?  The average American household has credit card debt over $9000.  Crazy. Do people know that there are companies that make money off people’s debt.  Their jobs are to get us into debt and deeper into debt?   Even though people were freaking out in 2000-2001 because of the stock market crash and dot-com implosion, it was also a good thing that happened because folks were simply not thinking [or spending] straight.  This is how I feel now – except for the concern how the world’s poorest are being impacted by escalating prices and food scarcity. 

And on that note, churches also really need to take a look at their consumption.  Where are we spending our money?  Churches and ministries [and individuals and families] need to have a vision for stewardship.  It will not simply happen by itself.  The “force” of economics is too strong.  It must be intentional and to use Jim Wallis’ words,  budgets are moral documents.  I define budget in these simple terms:  How we earn.  How we spend.  How we save.  How  we give away.   It has taken a great deal of sacrifice but our church is very excited to finally utilize our Three Foundations in addition to regular support for missions, community, and benevolence.

4] Grow up.  While the conversation about bivocational ministry, church, money, and future is worthwhile, I think an equally if not more important conversation is that of stewardship.  What do I mean by this?

I think many leaders are giving their faith communities a quasi-free pass in the area of stewardship.  Are we challenging them to give joyfully, sacrifically, and faithfully?  Statistically, isn’t overall giving amongst Christians about 2.2% if not less?  So, while ministry leaders go the route of bivocational jobs, we can’t do it at the expense of not challenging our communities to love God with all our heart, soul, body, mind, [and stewardship].

I’m frustrated that many in the 18-40 generation are still living in what I perceive to be a glorified youth group mentality where they want the benefits of church [while also the staunches critics of church] but unwilling to make the financial sacrifices necessary for healthy communities and ministries to flourish.  I’m not thinking big here…I’m thinking deep.  In short, I would say we need to grow up. 

And while I see great value in seeking support and help from connections and “outside support,” I worry that younger and emerging leaders are attempting to start and build ministries that are dependent on outside support and constant fundraising.  If that’s the long term solution…count me out.  Let’s exhort and challenge our communities to be sacrificial and creative. 

5] Benevolence.  I just finished teaching through Acts 6 two weeks ago and it was beautiful.  The early church is flourishing and growing by thousands but the early apostles take time to listen and respond to the issues and concerns over the care and welfare of widows.  Since we’re talking about church and money and the current economic climate, are folks also talking about how we need to prepare ourselves now and tomorrow for people within our churches that are going to need food and other basic necessities?  On a small scale, it’s happening now at our church.   What is our strategy for “selling their possessions to give to those who were in need.”  How do you create, build, and distribute through your benevolence fund?

Tired and like many of you, still working through these things.  I have no idea what I just wrote but what do you think?


Here’s what the bunch of folks have contributed to this dialogue:

20 Replies to “church, money, and sustainability”

  1. Your entire article is amazing, Im glad that their are people out there who thinks like me- this is a brilliant – I will be sharing this with our group this Evening

  2. Eugene — Thanks for the pushback about challenging our communities to give joyfully, sacrificially and faithfully. I can’t really speak from experience (because our community is very much in the “we need to grow up” phase) but I would imagine many bi-vocational pastors would want the money that might go towards their salaries instead to flow out from the church and into the broader community and the world. So, hopefully the idea of not having to pay a pastor wouldn’t become an excuse not to give, but a way to pour more resources missionally into the world around the church.

  3. wow, really wanted to thank you for this well thought out reflection. I wanted to say as one of the bi-occupational pastors out there that I am in solidarity with you, its not about the model or mode of paid vs. unpaid ministry, its about service to the Kingdom and for each leader to follow God’s provision for their lives regardless of what that looks like.

    Benevolence or missional giving is one of my greatest joys in this season of ministry because though our network of communities is small, last year we were able to give away 100% of our tithing income as a church to community needs. Typically that has taken on support of single moms, orphans and widows. In turn, I have found that the people have given more and more sacrifically. On top of that, I’ve observed people making intentional decisions towards simplicity in order to free up more margin for giving. If that is a result of them not having to pay my salary then the hard work was worth it. But the heart of giving can be had in any community of believers with paid leaders or not, but what you and I both know is that it doesn’t happen by accident, it happens because we take the issue of stewardship seriously.

    Again, thanks for the push back as well, its all about the building of God’s Church.

  4. Eugene,
    I agree there is more than one way to view this issue. To me it is not a matter of paid vsx. unpaid. There are very complex issues involved, not the least of which is happening with the economy and stewardship issues. Totally agree.
    I would add that there are very creative models that would enable Kingdom work to get done, maybe in very unconventional ways…think Church of the Savior and their “mission group” model. We have birthed two mission groups in the last two years…each group has gone outside the church to fund and resource their work for the Kingdom…for some this is a way forward and is not dependent on the resources within one faith community no matter if you have 12 people or 1,000 people.
    All this to say, I don’t like the talk that says it has to be “this way”, I envision many forms and many models of how the church is faithful to her mission in our time.
    I am with you on men and women thinking, wrestling and praying about what makes sense in their context.
    No matter what your model, incarnational living in a community, your neighborhood, your city takes being at the table and sharing in the “life” of the community. It’s about giving and serving and living out our faith “with” our neighborhoods, not “to” our neighborhoods. I am not supposed to be following blogs — too much to juggle right now, I appreciate you adding another lens in which to look through for this conversation.

  5. E

    Great post.

    I think I am still detoxing from decades of hearing : if you can’t give 10% at least God is going to punish you. I didnt grow up in the name-it-and-claim-it church by any means, and yet, there was still so much spiritualization and pressure around giving. It’s easier now, but I cant say there isnt still a ton of baggage involved.

  6. “I’m frustrated that many in the 18-40 generation are still living in what I perceive to be a glorified youth group mentality where they want the benefits of church [while also the staunches critics of church] but unwilling to make the financial sacrifices necessary for healthy communities and ministries to flourish. I’m not thinking big here…I’m thinking deep. In short, I would say we need to grow up.”

    Wow, that is so true. But having been in professional ministry for over 12 years I can attest that this goes way beyond the 40 year-olds.

  7. ric,
    after 17 years of being involved in ministry [of which the last 13 of those years were as full time], i still dream of what it would look like being a bi-vocational pastor. i have shared with the people of quest that i’m leading at quest to get myself out of a full-time job in the upcoming years. as we approach 7 years at quest, i think that time may be closer than later.

  8. would it be a sin to use a very small percentage of church finance to invest, use the profit to reinvest in community and further support your charitable foundations? is that against our christian belief? i always wondered and curious about this as most church, not mega churches, always are some what financially strapped.

  9. This is a wonderful post. I LOVE this post.

    I disagree, I think bivocational is better, way better. Church is not supposed to be lead by a small minority of paid clergy. We are all “priests” and we’re all important parts of the body. – bible is CLEAR on this. It wouldn’t be so tough for you as a bivocational pastor if you weren’t trying to do EVERYTHING YOURSELF!!!!! If we all pitched in and contributed to edify the body, AS THE BIBLE SAYS, then we wouldn’t need to waste money on paying professional Christians – we could use the money to serve and love outsiders.

    Great, you want to get paid and have church be a monologue, and make it an anonymous place that has little intimacy and sharing b/c only 2 or 3 people do all the communicating (have anything valuable to say), and be isolated from the community, and waste money on a building that sits vacant 80% of the week – cool. Have fun when you stand before God explaining why you wanted everyone to come and listen to your amazing insight, and why you thought you could, by your own amazing messages help people grow in Christ, and why you needed that building so much, but none of your “disciples” really grew that much or served outsiders much.

    Even Paul was reluctant to take money for what he did, although he did and was supported by his disciples, and this is proper, but it was only as necessary – he sacrificed much – I don’t see this in today’s clergy.

    Ok. Rant is over. Seriously, I think the holy spirit came over me. Can we talk about this? I really think we’re killing the Church – and I and you overseers will have a LOT to answer for!

  10. Eugene,

    Not to mince words, but…I’m about to mince words. Your blog hits the nail on the head except the Financial Recession part.

    I detest the misuse of words. Call it a weakness. Imagine what would go on in our worldview if we split off justification, and sanctification, and glorification into their component parts, misusing their definitions, and getting rid of the word salvation as a whole.

    First of all, the media has been lying to you about the definition of the word Reecession. The word is defined as: “An extended decline in general business activity, typically two consecutive quarters of falling real gross national product.”

    The facts are:
    4Q 2007, the GNP shrunk by .3% (annualized)
    1Q 2008, the GNP grew by 0.9% (annualized)
    1Q 2009, the GNP grew by 1.9% (annualized, preliminary numbers)

    Main point 1: We are not in a recession.

    But an absence in growth in GDP, or recessions brings a further question: How does that affect Christians’ stewardship? First, many Christians that I talk to have repented of living beyond their means and have cut up their cards.

    Second, many Christians are re-evaluating their giving . For example, I used to give to a whole bunch of organizations, $20/month here, $500/month there. But it cut into my giving to the Church. So I stopped giving to other organizations and focused on the church. My money goes local then, but it also goes global, as our church seems to increase their missions budget as a percentage of budget each year. They want to reach 25-30%, but are currently at about 16%.

    This creates an interesting issue for churches. As an example, I currently attend a church that is down from 250 to 180, mostly from people moving out of state and funerals. They are still meeting their budget increase of 5% this year. A third of the church is retired folks, and they faithfully give. I think the reason people are giving above and beyond their ability(Philippians) is because they are acutely aware of the church’s needs, and what an absence of giving does to the church, and its ability to share the good news in word and in deed locally and globally.

    Next year our budget is probably going down, due to paying off a building loan.

    By the following questions, I don’t intend to be critical; I just intend to ask deeper questions?

    If giving at Quest is down, then that brings some interesting stewardship questions from the family. My general question is: Is the church aware of what happens when giving goes down by 9%? Does the church understand that they are not able to help the poor as much? Is this correlated with a population decline? Are there other foundations that individuals are giving to due to some challenging sermons? What other factors are contributing to this?

    Main point #2: blaming a reduction on giving on a recession, that is not a recession, but an absence of growth is perhaps too simplistic of an answer, and I’m curious to dig deeper.

    As an afterthought: Main point #3: Was Peter, after becoming a fisher of men, bi-vocational? I’m not downplaying Paul, but is bi-vocational the only example we are given in scripture?


  11. @ Chris, you are right, we are not technically in a recession…. nonetheless, you can not ignore the fact that consumer confidence is extremely low. Technically not a “recession”… but more powerful than semantics and economic terms is the unrest and uncertainty whether it is legit or not.

    @PE, thanks for this post. I can relate to that a lot in trying to define my own vision for stewardship. I wrestle with the 10% tithe… I think that it is a good place to start for some. Ultimately to define it black and white seems like the wrong way to go. I think you have to put it on an individual scale of giving sacrificially and graciously. There have been times in life where I gave less than 5% and it was both sacrificial and gracious and I was in good conscience. Then there have been times where I gave greater than 10% and yet it felt inadequate and hollow.

    Ultimately, it strikes me how little faith we sometimes have in the issue of money. How Christians step in and try to manhandle God’s plan for his Church. It is not a corporation, why do we need to grow income… do we really need more money before God can allow his plan to work? Yikes, now we are in control, not God. Thats a lot of pressure. (I am not saying sit back, do not give and do not challenge believers to give, but I am saying have faith, Gods work does not rely on a silly piece of paper with green ink on it).

    I would like to see the Church discuss issues like money more. Not just in tithing or giving to the Church, but in a holistic approach to stewardship. I think we have to approach the issue on the level of faithfulness and dependence on God… not as an issue of how we can manipulate the scarcity the Church faces. Ultimately, are we dependent on our own might, savvy and ability to earn money or are we dependent on God to provide and do we live faithfully with that belief? That is powerful! And I can not say I have it mastered, but we have to believe that God has the ability to permeate and transform our lives and the lives of those in our Church communities so that we may have an abundance of resources within the Church. I believe this is possible… and I see it happening in the community I have rooted in since I left Seattle.

  12. PE – i agree (x100) with what you said about how a lack of interaction with the outside world cripples our ability to relate and serve non-christians. i lived in a christian bubble for all of my college years, and during that time i found that i distinguished us from them as simply that–“us” & “them.” despite my impassioned “crusades” to “win my campus for Christ” it was hard to relate, sympathize..or even hold a decent conversation. it was bad.

    working in a secular environment for the past 2 years as been one the most refreshing and humanizing experiences ever. i highly recommend it to anyone else who may be feeling a bit churched out and/or irrelevant…or to anyone who is just feeling too christian for their own good.

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