One myth about pastors is that they’re always preaching about money.
The funny thing is Jesus and the prophets talked a lot about money.
And for those firmly embedded in a consumer culture, every T.V. commercial break is really a 30 second conversation about money. But while our culture chatters on and on about money, sales, savings, retirement and financial advisors, it seems the one place we hope to escape the conversation about money is at church.
I’ve been employed by a few churches over the course of my story. For most of the first 20 years of ministry, my annual salary was published so the church would all know exactly how much I make. It seems normal to me now and because its never been ‘personal’ for me, I’m happy to tell anyone who wants to know exactly how much money I make every year.
The story in the system we used to be a part of was that the prayer of the congregation was, “Lord, you keep ‘em humble and we’ll keep ‘em poor.”
It never bothered me that everyone knew my salary until one day I realized that for some people it was communicating a hierarchy based on economic standing. Some people who made a lot more money than me felt that if I was willing to work for so little, I must not be worth much.
And they treated me like I wasn’t worth much.
There has always been an effort to make sure I didn’t know who gave what at church. I’ve been around long enough to have heard people argue for the pastor knowing who gives what and for people to argue just as passionately that the pastor shouldn’t know. The “shouldn’t know” argument, however, usually runs like this, “The pastor will treat people differently if he knows who gives what…” Which reveals our cultural norm to value people for what they have over what they do or who they are.
Here’s my confession – I am inclined to treat people differently.
I am inclined to give more attention to and support to and more of my time to people who are investing their lives into the lives of others for Jesus’ sake than I am anyone else in the church.
Giving money honestly doesn’t impress me much unless you’re a widow down to your last two mites. Some of the richest people I know are also some of the most generous people I know. Some of the poorest people I know are also some of the most generous people I know. Money, or the lack thereof, didn’t make them generous. They are generous, it’s who they are, and their bank account does not define them.
But I’m not unaware of the world we live in. Preachers have gotten rich off of the church. Filthy rich. And they’ve preferred the rich and those they perceived as powerful and they manipulated the system to increase their own wealth and left followers disheartened and impoverished. We’ve made church into a perpetual money grab for conmen, phony faith-healers and predatory pastors. I get that my colleagues and I have earned this sorry reputation.
I also know that money occupies and pre-occupies more of us than would like to admit it.
Money is not the root of all evil. And being poor is not in and of itself a virtue. Being rich does not indicate anything about your relationship with God nor does being poor. Hard work is not what separates the rich from the poor. A friend who believed that God wanted his children to be wealthy used to give me a hard time when I objected to his theology, “You don’t think God wants you to be poor do you?”
And here’s the profound answer I’ve come to… “Maybe.”
God’s plans and purpose for me, his TELOS for me, is to become like Jesus. And he will help me get rich or help me get poor, or help me land somewhere in between if any of those states will help me be more like Jesus. As a pastor in a consumer world, part of the challenge is helping people have healthy conversations about money without our self-interest getting in the way. Another part of the challenge is that if ever there was spiritual warfare it will manifest with force when we talk to the church about money.
One of the lessons from the Camino is, “You need less than you think you do.” That is a countercultural message, it’s “dancing in the dragon’s jaws,” it’s an open invitation to trouble but it’s a conversation we need to have. For pastors, it can seem very self-serving to preach about money because of the wolves. Nevertheless, if ever there was a time to challenge Mammon, these are the days.
“I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out… This is the way I’m going. If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way… If it means dying for them, I’m going that way.”
—cited in Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero by Vincent Harding