There’s something that concerns me when I listen to new ministers and seminarians. We have an awkward relationship with money.
As church leaders, we are consciously opting out of a high salary. Pastors comfortably fit into the top 25% of intelligence levels in our country. So, we’re smart enough to be doing just about anything, but we are counter-cultural and have a calling to something else.
A friend of mine went to Princeton University, and when she announced to her family that she wanted to become a pastor, her mom moaned, “Well, that degree was a waste!” I am sure that you, no doubt, have heard the same sort of plain: “But you’re so talented. You could make money. Why would you want to do that?”
I have heard that doctors, lawyers, and pastors used to make the same salary. Now we don’t. Things have changed. We know that the very top guy in our field (as much as we might think he’s overpaid) is usually not making a fraction of what he would make in a comparable position in another occupation.
So, we’ve obviously made some monetary sacrifices. That’s clear. But here’s where things get weird….
I saw Rob Bell in his “The Gods Aren’t Angry” Tour a few months ago. It was very good. He presented a clear, entertaining, applicable view of the atonement. It was an evangelical, penal substitutionary atonement view. But he shifted the need for the penalty from God to humans. God isn’t angry, God doesn’t need our sacrifices to atone. There is something deep within us that needs to present those gifts. He took this delicate, yet very important step, with his audience, by setting a historical context.
There was a line, however, within the presentation that stuck with me. Bell was explaining the Levitical codes, and he pointed out something like… priests used to be very wealthy. They made a lot from people’s guilt and their need to atone. He said something sly and sarcastic, about how we couldn’t imagine religious leaders making a lot of money off of people now. I looked around the packed auditorium. Hundreds of people (each paying a ticket price to get in) nodded and chuckled. It clearly resonated with the crowd.
The theater that he was performing at is on the GW campus, just a couple of blocks from my church. I walked through the hordes of people buying his books and DVDs. I’m glad he’s making money. He’s smart and talented. But, as I walked back to the church building, I was disheartened. He just validated that notion that religious leaders are making truckloads of money. He will drive away in his big bus, and I will need to continue to work on that campus, now having to overcome yet another stigma that I’m a greedy religious leader.
I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll just hope that he’s talking about his colleagues–evangelical pastors who have congregations of thousands, like his. That he wasn’t talking about the associate pastor of a congregation of 250 members. But I’m not sure my neighbors make that distinction.
I hate the perpetuation of this idea. It permeates our society, our churches, and our very own leadership. This notion that somehow we ought not to be making money. That if we do, we’re greedy capitalists. That if we have a particular calling to a large congregation, then we must have it for nefarious reasons. When in reality, most of us are in debt from going to seminary and we can’t pay our mortgages. We could be doing a whole lot of other things if we were in it for the money.
So, is there any way to put an end to this, once and for all? Could we please stop the myth of the greedy pastor?
photo’s by Dmitry Kolchev