Money and ministry (part 1)

Photo by Cameron Lee“How much do you charge?”

I still remember a conversation I had many years ago with a seminary colleague who taught missions.  He was inviting me to speak at his church, but had to get that question out of the way first.  Without waiting for an answer, he added wryly, “Because, you know, some of us think of it as a ministry.”  Translation: “I know how you folks on the psychology faculty think–that whole hourly fee-for-service thing.  So before you answer, I just want you to remember that some of us in ministry would be happy to do it for free.  Or maybe just gas money and a nice potluck lunch.”

“How much do you charge?”  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked that over the years.  And I’ve always given some variation of the same answer: I don’t have a “charge” in the sense of an expected fee.  That’s not to say I can afford to pay my own ticket across the country to speak for free, but I trust people to do what they think is right within their own budgetary constraints.  I’ve preached in small, resource-poor congregations who have taken up a “love-offering” at the end of the service and handed me an envelope of cash–and I’ve handed the envelope right back and asked them to buy me lunch instead.

Why?  It’s not because I believe that “ministry” equates with “free.”  But I recognize how privileged I am to do a job I love for a decent salary–I don’t have to depend on speaking fees and the like to make a living.

More than that, however, I also recognize what we all at some level already know: questions about money are not just practical matters of dollars and cents.  Money is power: it creates gaps of influence and freedom, and creates sticky and sometimes unspoken bonds of mutual expectation between employers and employees, givers and receivers.

Let’s face it: money and ministry don’t always sit comfortably next to each other.  Think of how you and others might react to a so-called “tithing sermon.”  Some rejoice in the invitation to give; some respond in a matter-of-fact and businesslike manner; some react with a twinge of discomfort; some leave the church.  Money symbolizes different things to different people–including different Christians.

This isn’t just an artifact of modern-day capitalism.  Similar issues dogged Paul’s relationship to the church in Corinth.  That church had been founded by the Spirit through Paul’s preaching of the gospel–but issues related to money complicated the relationship to the extent that he actually had to defend his pastoral and apostolic authority.  More on this in the next post.