How Much Money Is Enough for Fruitful Ministry?

October 24, 2013

 In our American economy and within our church tradition, money in support of Christ’s mission is typically disbursed for personnel, facilities, program, and mission. A new church plant starts commonly with a designated pastor whose financial support is provided to give him or her time to invest in gathering people. There is usually some investment in facilities, a place the church can call home (although this is changing out here in the West, where many church plants rent commercial or educational space and keep their “stuff” in trailers during the week). Program costs typically start with what happens on Sunday morning (worship, Christian education) and expand outward as the membership grows. The mission of the church to reach unbelievers with the gospel and demonstrate the Kingdom of God to those in need keeps the financial focus outward as a congregation seeks to fulfill the Great Commission.

It’s interesting to observe how money was used in the early church, as the story is told in the book of Acts. Soon after Pentecost, the Christian fellowship pooled its resources in order to secure the needs of everyone. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44f). Later, it is implied that Christians contributed to Paul’s travel expenses, either by providing hospitality or transit fares. Money is not collected for pastoral salaries or to build churches with bricks and mortar. Paul identified himself as a tent-maker who worked to finance his own ministry. We also see evidence of collections being taken by Paul during his travels to provide famine relief for the Jerusalem saints, which we would put in the “mission” category. The basic tenor in Acts is illustrated by Peter and John ministering in the early days: 

And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.  (Acts 3:2-7)

Now that spectacular moment of ministry did not cost one penny, suggesting that a lot of ministry can be accomplished without a lot of money and a with a lot of faith.

The theme I have been exploring this week boils down to the question, “How much money does a presbytery really need to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ within its bounds?” I have provided a case study that suggests that presbyteries can be tempted to greed and covetousness if they see the acquisition of money as an end in itself, the way out of a declining situation, or punishment for the ministry success of one of its constituent congregations. To counteract these temptations, it is important to rehearse again the proper role of financial assets in the Kingdom work to which we are called.

If it really is about the money, money to finance the mission of Jesus Christ in a particular area, we must acknowledge the temptations and challenges associated with having too much money and with having too little money in the church. At both ends of the asset spectrum, the temptation is to fixate on the acquisition of money, to love it: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1Tim. 6:10). For the wealthy church, there is considerable pressure to keep the revenue coming in to sustain commitments made to staff, facilities, program costs, and benevolences. For the poverty-stricken church, the pressure is to acquire basic necessities to stabilize the ministry. A case in point:

On our visit to the rural village in Uganda, I was privileged to dialogue with about 200 pastors who had gathered for a day of renewal. It was a time of worship, mutual encouragement, and sharing of best practices in a very challenging environment. I was surprised to encounter a common lament—a mindset—that fixated on not having enough money to do the ministry. I felt completely out of place in this discussion, coming from a different church circumstance of huge wealth, from their perspective. I did not get the impression that they were pressuring me to endow them financially, but what surprised me was their paralysis to think beyond just getting more money, which would solve all their problems. My ministry colleague from a relatively well-off congregation in Kampala admonished them in a way I could not. He told them that it was a luxury to think in terms of doing full-time ministry and not earn their own livelihood. “Get out and work!” he said. “You cannot expect your [poverty-stricken] parishioners to support you!”

This certainly illustrates one end of the asset spectrum: not enough money to free up ministry time. These pastors were barely keeping their heads above water, and in an AIDS afflicted area, there was much pastoral care to be given, orphans to be taken in, and hunger to be alleviated. Some appeared to me to be very close to burnout. As for facilities, most of these village pastors led worship in the open air, which works fine in such an even climate until it starts to rain. “Church programs” were few and far between, both for lack of time to implement them and the competing priority of filling basic physical needs.

Contrast that scene with a scenario here in the States in which a church or presbytery has more money than it knows what to do with. Churches with endowments, for instance, can cause (slowly, over time) a congregation to get complacent about its stewardship. Churches with lots of cash (and there are some out there) can invest in large campuses, bring in expensive programs, and perpetuate the church as dispenser of goods and services to a consuming congregation. This dynamic also puts great strains on basic discipleship: if staff can be hired, buildings bought and maintained, and programs designed by professionals, your ordinary church member can come and soak it all in and not really be required to become a blessing to others. I believe there is such a thing as a church that is too big.

So somewhere between these two extremes on the asset spectrum is the church that has enough money to equip its members for outgoing ministry but not so much that they don’t have to trust God for their basic provision. If in God’s economy a congregation is blessed with more and more people and with them more and more money, then great! Their Christian commitment is invigorated by the missional dynamic of planting new churches seeded with members willing to form the ministry nucleus and seed money to get them started in a new setting.

I’ve laid the groundwork today for an idea I want to explore in my next post: how can a presbytery foster the healthiest dynamic possible to enable Christ’s witness to grow and multiply?


2 Responses to “How Much Money Is Enough for Fruitful Ministry?”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Thank you, revmary. I often get caught up in the question of whether “Teaching Elders” and even “Ruling Elders” are pointing the way to themselves and not to Jesus Christ. Sad to say, I observe it all too often. Peace and Joy, Eleanor

  2. Steve N. Says:

    Mary; I held off responding to make sure I was not reacting rashly like Peter in the garden on the night of Christ’s arrest. However, I would love to question the minister in Kampala about his critique of his colleagues. Being a part time minister I know that when one is serving two masters, (full time secular boss and being a minister to a church) one is walking a tightrope with no net underneath. I am blessed that a lot of the congregation I serve does not need a lot of ministerial care. Also there is a full time pastor available to pick up a lot of the slack. I doubt the ministers who were being addressed have those luxuries. (Also was the Kampala minister full time or a “tent maker”

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