Monday, February 16, 2015

Help! What Should We Pay the Pastor? - Part Two, My Story

          We, each of us, have a story. This story combines the facets of our past into a crystalline structure that lends our now form and substance. Perhaps I should write more simply – our history informs our present. Much of the way we look at the world, our individual perspective, is colored by the emotions, circumstances, events, and places of our past. This is true in a myriad of aspects including the one under discussion at the moment. What I believe about how a church and her pastor relate to one another, financially speaking, is rooted in my own past. This is my story.
          I was born in the early 1970's. Two months before my birth my father accepted the pastorate of an average size IFB church in a small Midwestern town. He was in his early thirties and fresh out of Bible college. The church was healthy numerically and financially. We lived in a parsonage about a block from the church for the following eighteen years.
The old black and white generics filled our pantry
       Every child thinks their own childhood is normal. Later, at some point, they come to grasp the uniqueness of their situation, and to examine its strengths and weaknesses. My situation had some absolutely tremendous strengths – stability, a quiet town, godly parents, etc. But unfortunately my situation also had some weaknesses and one of those was that my Dad pastored a stingy church. Twenty years later, in a rare moment of expressed frustration, he showed me a chart. It listed his pay from his first year at that church until his last year at that church. In inflation adjusted dollars he actually was paid less at the end than he was at the beginning, and the beginning was not much at all either. The church did experience one bad split to toward the end of my father's time as pastor but the penury of our existence was not a result or consequence of that split. The church had no debt. It had money in the bank. It was in a prosperous if small community. It was relatively full of hard working union members who worked the local steel mills. They just believed in paying the pastor next to nothing. Their philosophy might as well have been the notorious statement 'we will let God keep him humble while we keep him poor.'
          That stingy attitude had a direct negative consequence on our family of eight. For instance, my mother went fifteen years without a new dress. At the age of nine I took a paper route and kept it for the next eight years. One of the reasons I kept it was that I needed it. For many years I bought my own clothes and shoes and paid my own way to camps and youth activities. Dental care was paid for out of my own pocket. I remember at the age of fourteen needing a root canal and crown and paying it off slowly with my paper route money over the next year. I hated my smile all of my life until finally fixing it at the age of forty. But I could not afford to fix it as a young man and I never told my parents about how I felt for I knew they could not afford to do anything about it. We ate together as a family at a sit down restaurant where you order from an actual menu one time in my entire childhood that I recall, and that was because my grandmother took us. The church charged my father for the long distance calls he made in his own office on church grounds while on church business. I could furnish many such similar examples.
          But beyond those small illustrations I vividly remember something worse. Every time a large expense came up my father would have to go, hat in hand, to the deacons and in some manner hint that something must be done. Our car fell apart gradually. It became a running (sometimes) joke in our church until the deacon chairman looked down from his throne in pity and deigned to patronize our family with a used station wagon of his own choice. Appliances broke beyond the ability to repair and we had to hope someone in the church would take pity on us and purchase us a new one. Often they did and their individual generosity and care for us warms my heart to this day. The bags of groceries, the tuition payments, the cars lent all spoke of the genuine Christian affection of good people. But on the whole we lived a life of almost penury filled with a long series of petty financial insults and aggravations. It was embarrassing. It was humbling. It was insulting. It was emasculating. It was limiting in a thousand ways I do not have the space to detail.
          Reading back over what I have just written it almost smacks of bitterness. I was not bitter then and I am not now. In fact, just six years after I left home as a high school senior I became the pastor of a tiny IFB church in western Pennsylvania. My first Sunday eleven people greeted me. I did such a bang-up job that a year later, on my anniversary, seven people greeted me. It took five years of blood, toil, sweat, and tears to get that church to the place where it could support a pastor full time and even that was tenuous.
My first budget plan hand
scrawled two weeks after becoming a pastor
          I took over from a good man who had given his life for ten years and had little to show for it. The building where we met was not purchased but rented and, unbeknownst to me at the time, we were behind on the rent. The church had no membership list, no Sunday School classes, no telephone, no address, and no money. When I accepted the call to be their pastor they offered me $800 a month in salary. Within two weeks I figured out they could not afford it. I reworked the budget and decreased my salary down to $200 per month. I personally moved into the church building we rented. It did not have an apartment but it did have an office. I put a cot and a heater and a chair in that office and lived there for a year. I took a special offering from the people for two months in order to scrape up a few hundred dollars to have a flimsy shower installed on wooden blocks in the furnace room. My bathroom was 120 steps away. I stashed my clothes in a third-hand dresser hidden behind the baptistery.
          Within a year and a half we had purchased an inexpensive unfinished church building in a neighboring town. I repeated the same scenario except this time the office was bigger, the furnace room with the rickety shower was closer, and the bathroom actually had heat. For another two years I lived in that office including about six months with a very gracious and patient young wife. I routinely had a nightmare that I had slept in on Sunday morning and people were knocking at the front door of the church while I stumbled out in my bathrobe to see what was going on.
          During the five years it took to get that tiny church off the ground I distinctly remember rejoicing in a good offering. And I always knew when the offering was going to be good. It was going to be good when I tithed. I taught school. I sold cars. I rented cars. I sold insurance. I sold cemetery property. I sold credit cards over the phone. I fought and clawed and scratched with very little outside support to firmly establish that church. And it worked. The month after we burned our mortgage the congregation voted to transition us to full time support. Two years later, through tears, we left those people we loved so much and came to Chicago where for these eleven years we have labored in a more established situation.
          Here in Chicago I followed an older pastor whose financial model was low pay with occasional extravagant gifts from the church. I sought to transition it to a higher base of pay and benefits with fewer and less extravagant gifts. Presently our church pays me a healthy salary, furnishes me a retirement package through vested interest in the parsonage, provides me a place to live, pays my utilities, purchases health and life insurance for our family, reimburses me for medical expenses, helps me with continuing education, makes a mission trip or conference available to me each year, and gives me several weeks of vacation. Once a year, as well, they set a Sunday aside for pastor appreciation and give me a small gift on that occasion. Depending on our church's financial health I may or may not use all of these in a given year.
          Paul, from a jail cell, said But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (Philippians 4.10-12) I grew up broke in the ministry. I began broke in the ministry. I continued broke in the ministry. Now for the past few years I have enjoyed a period of relative comfort. Before it is all said and done the Lord may want me broke again. It is His choice. I am a worker in His vineyard.
          This is my story. It colors who I am and how I approach the personal financial aspect of pastoring. And I thought if I was going to write about what I think churches and pastors ought to do that I should tell you where I am coming from.
          I would love to hear your story if you care to tell it. Comment publicly or message me privately. And may the Lord use it in some small way to produce pastors that are wise, contented, and sacrificial and churches that are financially educated and generous. And together, no matter what our state, let us serve the Lord with joy.



  1. I once served on a church committee that oversaw the church’s finances. The committee was split into two subcommittees (yeah, typical Lutheran church). One was the Stewardship subcommittee which managed the church’s budget, expenses and internal giving/lending decisions. The other was the finance subcommittee which dealt with money decisions related to outside interests such as investing, taxes and missionary giving. There usually had to be like a CPA or financial attorney assigned to the finance subcommittee.

    The system had some advantages in that it freed up the Pastor to focus on spiritual leadership. The Pastor was able to focus more on his marriage and their personal budget because while salary amount is important, personal financial management is often more important.

    I guess the downside to this system is that the pastor cannot tie a church’s spiritual condition to its financial condition. But your childhood story is sobering. And if your father had to worry about the church’s finances as well as worrying about his own family’s ability to make ends meet — that’s just way too much stress to put on one person. To say nothing of praying and caring for church member’s lives and problems on top of that.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Context is always so helpful.