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Monday, July 6, 2015

I Thought We Were Going to Get Paid

Another Expectation...

Please do not misunderstand.  I did not think we were going to be rich.  I did think we might be able to afford a house payment and groceries.

One of the things that we have faced, and I think it's going to be worse and worse for ministers in the future, is that we are both trained theologians, so we have to earn a living in ministry related work. I encourage every young ministerial student I know to double major in something non-ministry related, and to work in that field, even if it's very part time, forever, because you need skills outside of ministry, probably for multiple reasons.  Let me explain.


The church you're serving might run out of money.  We accepted a position, once, because we needed a paycheck.  Don't do that.  Don't ever do that.  The only reason you should accept a ministry position is because God has called you to a particular church, community, and people.  We had to learn this one the hard way, when we moved our family hundreds of miles away to a place where we felt pressured to come but did not feel called.

It was a church made up of wonderful people, and we did some good things while we were there.  I don't look back on the experience with overwhelming regret, but if I had it to do all over again, I probably wouldn't.  They deserved someone who was passionate about ministry in that community, and we desperately needed to be somewhere about which we were passionate.  Sometimes I call this the year we spent wandering around in the desert.  And, it was Georgia, and it was hot, so sometimes I call it something else.

The real irony in this situation, though, was that it wasn't too long before we were all too aware of a serious financial crunch.  Nine months after we arrived, the money that had been set aside to pay us was gone, and the church simply couldn't afford to keep us any longer as paid staff.  I feel like someone might read this story and think, "Well, it serves them right".  It might even be true.  But it doesn't change the fact that we had a commitment to a year long lease and two toddlers and an infant for whom to provide.  We were desperate to find another position, in order to support our family, but not so desperate that we were willing to repeat our mistake.  For a long time, I thought this was just an aberration.  I thought this was the kind of thing that only happened to us.  Over the years, however, I have heard enough similar stories to know that there is a very real possibility that this could happen to anyone.  If it does, you're going to need marketable skills of some kind to get you through the time period between church assignments.


The church you're serving might not be a good fit.  It happens.  In reality, it happens more often than anyone wants to admit.  Part of this issue stems from the fact that the interview process is so flawed, but I'll get to that later. 

There are a wide variety of reasons that a church might not be a good fit for you and your family.  I think something we all need to remember is that it's OK.  We need to be gracious to one another, because if a local congregation is reaching people, any people, and moving them through spiritual formation and life transformation, they shouldn't have to make changes on our account.  But it goes both ways.

Living out Jesus' great commission to us (see Matthew 28) can look a little different for different people, depending on cultural context.  Early on in our youth ministry experience, we started living by the phrase, "Everyone is welcome here".  It sounds good.  It was good.  Except we often found that we were a small sub-group working within church structures in which everyone actually wasn't welcome.  What do you do with that?

On more than one occasion, we were asked to run separate groups for "church kids" and "street kids", if we were really going to insist on continuing to reach out to the street kids at all.  We were reminded that the parents who are tithing members of the church should have good, safe programming for their kids who "just want to have fun".  We were asked to plan very expensive programs and events, with little to no budget, and to make sure all of the church kids were coming to those events and bringing their churched friends along, from other churches.  We were asked to make these things "by invitation only".  We just couldn't do it.

Looking back on this, I understand the anxiety of the church parents a little better than I used to, although I still do not agree with exclusion or discrimination.  I'm a mother of teenagers now, myself.  We have tried to raise our kids with a missional mindset and sound theological reasoning, and if I can take a moment of privilege I'd like to admit that I have amazing teenagers.  They're so amazing that we wanted to give them an incredible youth group experience, themselves, and as they neared the high school years, we found a place where we thought they were going to get just that.  We were wrong.

I think that what I've learned from this is that you have to determine your "deal breakers".  There are probably a lot more things that you can compromise on than you think, but don't back down when it comes to the things that are the most important.  Prioritize.  People are important.  All people are important.  I can't get over that one, so we have had to make difficult choices which have sometimes included walking away from local churches that do not value the community.    


You might decide to leave the traditional model of church behind, and in the future, you might have to.  I have a love-hate relationship with church planting.  It began with a free book that I picked up at General Assembly in 2001 when I stopped at a booth in the exhibit hall labeled "New Start".  I was browsing the books when one of the exhibitors started asking me questions and it slipped out that I was a pastor's wife, or at least I aspired to be one.  She said, "Take this book," and because I love books and have absolutely no ability to refuse one that is free, I did. 

A few minutes later, Phil caught up with me and saw the book.  His initial reaction was that I should give it back, because someone who might actually be interested in planting a church might want it.  I did not give it back.

The irony in this is that I didn't read it, either, but Phil did, and one morning he tossed it my way and said, "Read this".  When he came home for lunch a few hours later, he wanted to know why I hadn't read it yet.  I thought this was hysterical, but by the next morning he had convinced me that I really needed to read the book, immediately.  And when I finished, we both wanted to plant a church.  The timing didn't seem quite right, though, so we planted a dream, instead.

At the time, there was a rather grueling church planters assessment process that had to be completed in order to be commissioned to plant a church.  These assessments were founded on good business principles.  The outcome determined whether or not a district would support you, financially, in the planting of a new church.  We attended an assessment and were essentially told that although we were pleasant people, we were not the kind of people who could reach the kind of people who the church wanted to reach.  No, it was actually a little stronger than that.  We were told to forget the paradigm we talked about exists.  The people we were desperate to touch with Jesus' message were of little use to the business.  But what about the Kingdom?

Church planting has come a long way since that moment when we were stunned speechless.  We never lost sight of the desire to reach the unreachable, to touch the untouchable, to be the Church in the community to those who would never enter the church on the corner.  And after many years, we got that chance, because when the economy crashed, most of the money was stripped from church planting, much like it has been stripped from commissioning missionaries.  And when the money's gone, anyone can plant a church, because the business model is shot.  And so, we did.

Suddenly, missional engagement with the world was happening, in our home, in the local jail, at pizza places and fast food joints, and sometimes even in more traditional church venues, when we could gain access.  It was so hard, but the work was so meaningful.  A word of caution, though, once you live Church like this, you can never go back.

As much as I hate to admit it, they were right about something at the assessment center.  Church like this is not financially sustainable.  In 2 1/2 years, we brought in $40.00 in offering.  People who have nothing cannot support your family's monetary needs.  Minister to them anyway.  Love them deeply.  You will never regret it.

But, you are going to need a different way to earn a paycheck if you plant a church, and I do not say this lightly, it really is the new model.  I have heard denominational leaders on at least three separate occasions say, "There is no money [for church planting]".  I also believe deeply that the future of the church is wrapped up in this kind of ministry.  You are not going to land your dream job at a big church that pays you well and keeps you forever, unless you have familial connections and come from a long line of pastors.  Then, maybe.  That's not most of us.  Get ready to get your hands dirty, and get ready to either live on next to nothing or find a way to make more outside of your ministry context.  That's the reality.



  1. Thank you for these glimpses into the reality of life in the ministry. I've been very seriously exploring, praying, contemplating whether or not God is calling me to the ministry. Thank you for your insight. I have been finding it easy to catch myself putting on rose-colored glasses when thinking about how life would be and sometimes I just need someone to pull me back down towards Earth.

    1. Rob -

      Thanks so much for jumping in here! We are praying for you and your family as you keep exploring, praying, and contemplating. I am sometimes painfully good at pulling people back down to Earth, and I just want to make sure that I emphasize that if God is calling you, ministry is absolutely worth it. I just hope to be the kind of person who is honest enough to help others to see the things that we didn't see before we experienced them.

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