Thursday, January 17, 2013

All About the Money

Yesterday afternoon a woman came into my office asking for some financial assistance.  At some point in the conversation she said, "I don't want to go to my parents' church because it is all about the money."  She mentioned that people there wear suits and dresses as though they are showing off how much they have.  I didn't respond, didn't defend and certainly didn't say that our church was any different because I know that many people have that opinion of church in general -- that we are "all about the money."

But for the most part it isn't true.  Even those big churches with expensive multimedia systems that could dazzle as well as any Kiss concert, and stages nicer than the Metropolitan Opera house, aren't really all about the money.  They may have money machines in the gathering areas, and have seminars on budgeting in which they remind you to include your gifts to the church, and they may have large capital campaigns to build larger sanctuaries with more seating capacity; but they aren't all about the money.

Really, for the most part it isn't true.  Even in those downtown southern churches where the men wear three piece suits and silk ties, and every Easter the women all come in wearing their new Easter dresses and hats with daffodils and ostrich feathers, it isn't really all about the money.  They may have to make special pleas for funds to fix the stained glass windows and redo the brickwork for the bell tower, and the pastor may drive a nice Ford F-150 (this is the south we are talking about), and they may even have a yearly pledge drive  to raise a half a million dollar budget, but they aren't all about the money.

And if you think I am being sarcastic, I'm not -- I'm quite serious.  My experience in the church is that money is never the primary motivator for our operation.  In fact, you are more likely to hear a person in a finance meeting say, "We can't do that, we don't have the money" than you are to hear "We have $1000 we don't know what to do with, where can we waste it."  Actually, I have never heard the second statement.

If you ask, you are likely to discover that many pastors have second jobs to make ends meet, and the pastor's spouse also works so that they can afford that F-150.  And if your pry more, you may discover that your pastor is a person who comes to the pastorate after a life in another job -- which made a lot more money, and he or she sacrificed many thousands of dollars to enter into the ministry.  For example, my first year out of college I made twice my starting pastoral salary, and it took 10 years for my pastor's salary to catch up with what I made that first year in another profession.  I have never met a pastor who was in it for the money (not saying that there aren't some out there, but I have yet to meet one).

The churches themselves aren't much different.  Many remember days when finances were much better, when we could afford several full time staff members, and a church bus with our name emblazoned on the side; but now we squeeze the hell (in a rather blessed way) out of every penny that comes in just so that we can operate.

So what is the deal?  Why do churches talk about money so much if it isn't really their primary purpose?  Because it is a vital issue of faith.  God asks us to be generous to everyone around us.  There are poor to be reached out to, disasters to be responded to, and homeless to be housed.  Second, God tells us as individuals that we will be held accountable for the way we use our earthly treasures.  And of course, there are bills to pay, buildings (often very old buildings) to maintain, and as much as we would like -- the electric company and the plumber don't accept prayers on their behalf as payment.  Finally, God wants us to show our thankfulness for what God has done by giving back -- it is an act of praise, an act of worship, an act of humility in which we admit everything we have comes from God.

Now let me challenge you.  If you are upset that the church is all about money, if you think we talk about it too much -- what does that say about you and your willingness to sacrifice, your willingness to reach out, your willingness to humble yourself before your Maker?  Mirror-ouch (my new word for what happens when we look honestly at ourselves in the mirror and what we see isn't what we wanted to see.)  Is it all about the money?

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