The Perils of Pastoral Wealth

“Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” 

Proverbs 30:8-9

In the past week I’ve seen two articles about pastors with huge houses. The first was about Steven Furtick, a mega-church pastor in Charlotte, North Carolina. His 16,000 square-foot home drew the attention of local, and eventually national, media. (It turns out that this story is about 6 weeks old, but I just became aware of it a week ago).

The second piece was about Ed Young, Jr., the pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas (near Dallas). He and his family are in talks with A&E and other television networks concerning a possible reality show, and the show would at least partly highlight his 7,100 square foot house and bullet-proof Mercedes.

Both stories have stirred up social media consternation among Christians and non-Christians alike. Is it acceptable for pastors to use ministry funds to buy multi-million dollar homes, bullet-proof luxury cars, and large entourages? Furtick (and other pastors with similarly lavish lifestyles) often make the point that their homes and cars are funded with book and video royalties rather than with church offerings. Critics, though, make the case that pastors’ book royalties are only possible because of the platform and resources provided by the church. In other words, if a book is based on the pastor’s sermons, which he wrote in his church office and preached from his church’s pulpit, then the money rightfully belongs to the church and not to the individual.

As a pastor, stories like this trouble me, although it’s hard to initially pinpoint why they’re so troubling. Part of the concern, of course, is related to perception: I hate to think that people unfamiliar with church, who perhaps don’t know any actual pastors, would get the idea that all pastors are looking to leverage their ministry platforms into extravagant wealth. That’s simply not true.

Since I don’t personally know Ed Young or Steven Furtick, I can’t accurately gauge the state of their finances, or whether they’re using their money well. I’m aware that media reports aren’t always accurate, and even if they are, they’re incomplete. These men might both be immensely faithful with what they’ve been given, and the attacks might be unfair. What I can do, though, is respond to some of the concepts they’ve both expressed about ministry and money in the articles I read.

I think pastors are called to a higher standard when it comes to money. I’m not saying that pastors should live below the poverty line, or even that having a nice home or car is out of bounds. I have friends in ministry who live in relatively expensive homes, and I have friends who live in small and cramped quarters. Neither one is necessarily more spiritual than the other. We all agree that one’s attitude toward wealth, and one’s use of personal wealth, are much more important.

That being said, I think most pastors cringe when we read articles like these. Here are a few reasons why:

First, while everything I have ultimately comes from God, I also am accountable in a heightened way to my church. People give to to their churches expecting that the money will be used for the ministry of the gospel. Most congregations recognize that paying pastors a living wage is part of that ministry. However, we pastors need to be cautious. We never want to communicate that we are using ministry funds so that we can live “high on the hog.” All I really need is food, clothing, and shelter for my family. If I appear to be chasing after a great deal more, my congregation and leadership have the right to ask some hard questions.

When it comes to book royalties, pastors have different opinions on how they should be used. I can only speak to my own situation. Last year, two of my colleagues and I published a series of Bible studies. We made the decision, prior to publication, that we would donate the royalties back to Grace. Without the platform and resources provided by Grace, we would not have been able to publish the studies. One of the studies, in particular, was largely taken from a series of sermons I gave to our college ministry. I prepared the notes in my office at the church and used church time to write the curriculum. I realize that this is a gray area to some extent, but the three of us felt that it was only right, if we used church resources, to donate the money back to our congregation. (It wasn’t a whole lot of money, by the way. Youth Bible studies about Gideon don’t quite sell as many units as The Purpose Driven Life, it turns out).

I’m not suggesting that every pastor who receives book royalties is obligated to donate them back to the church. I will say, though, that I have immense respect for men like John Piper, who have chosen to do so. It’s best if we pastors go the extra mile to stay above reproach in this area.

I recognize that many pastors have sources of income outside of the church altogether. Some have family money, or a spouse who works, or a side business. Even then, I think we need to be cautious, and my second point explains why:

Second, I never want to communicate, even inadvertently, that I love money more than I love Jesus. This is a sensitive topic, one where it’s hard to find a hard line to draw. By some standards, I live in a very nice home. By other standards, it’s very modest. I make more money than some people, and less than others. I think somewhere between living in poverty and owning a 16,000 square foot, $2 million home, there’s a line. Once I cross that line, people will begin to talk more about my wealthy lifestyle than about my ministry. That’s the danger pastors face. When we entered ministry, most of us did so with the understanding that we would need to be cautious.

Again, I can’t find anything in the Bible that explicitly tells people to live in small houses. However, because pastors are accountable to the church, and because we are called to preach and model faithfulness to Jesus, we need to be careful. Jesus said a lot about money and the dangers of wealth. So did Paul and other New Testament writers. Although wealth isn’t inherently wrong, it is dangerous. It has the potential to corrupt our hearts, to make us fall in love with stuff rather than with Jesus. It’s a lot like dynamite — it’s great when used judiciously, but terribly destructive when used recklessly.

Nobody has ever written a nationally published article about my life, and the odds are that nobody ever will. I don’t envy famous pastors who are constantly in the limelight, because they can’t seem to win. (Young astutely pointed out that having too little and too much can both provoke criticism). However, I would be deeply dismayed if somebody wrote an article about me, and the primary emphasis was on my house or my car, rather than on my church and my relationship to Jesus. When visible displays of wealth become a massive distraction to the message of Jesus, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate one’s relationship to money.

Third, and finally, every pastor needs to have true authority in his life, not only in the area of money but in every area of leadership and spiritual life. When a pastor has too much authority over how he gets paid, there are going to be problems. Let’s face it: If you could give yourself a raise, you probably would! Even corporations place accountability structures in place to assure that their executives are compensated appropriately. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I don’t personally want to be trusted to determine my own salary. I am fairly confident that I would be tempted to keep awarding myself more money. The line between “enough” and “way too much” is easily blurred. There is always a way to justify having more. Anybody, even a pastor, who trusts his own heart to determine an appropriate salary, is deceiving himself. I realize that not every church pays its pastors adequately. There is certainly an appropriate time and place to discuss those issues with one’s leadership. There might even be an appropriate time to leave a ministry if it’s impossible to support a family. But I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to let pastors singlehandedly determine their own salaries. Everybody needs accountability. Because pastors are spiritual leaders, we probably need it even more than others, because we’re held to higher standards.

I write this article not to criticize what other pastors do, but instead to highlight some of the challenges of money and ministry, and to lay out a few values that I’ve found helpful. Most of us pastors wrestle, like you probably do, with how to honor God with our money. And most of us deeply pray that our lives and our choices will point you to Jesus. Sometimes we all fail in that endeavor, but through God’s grace we want to glorify Him rather than money or possessions.

If you made it to the end of this post, I’d love to hear your thoughts, concerns, or questions. Where should we draw the line on pastors and money? How do you decide what is “enough” and what is “way too much”?

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How Should We Talk About Sex?

So Mark and Grace Driscoll just released a new book about marriage and sex, and it’s #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. It’s generated a good deal of controversy because of one chapter, in which the Driscolls answer graphic questions about what sort of sexual behavior is permissible in marriage.

Pastor Ed Young also released a new book with his wife Lisa, called Sexperiment (yes, that’s the real title), based on the highly publicized challenge they issued to married members of their church to have sex every day for seven days. In conjunction with the book’s release, the Youngs staged a “bed-in” on the top of their church building for 24 hours. I think the idea was to generate buzz around the concept that sex is a good thing created by God. Something like that.

All of this has raised the question of how we should talk about sex in the Christian community. The Bible talks about sex and marriage a lot, and in today’s sexually obsessed culture we can’t ignore the subject. As a college pastor, I’m solidly convinced that it’s a critical topic to address, especially with young people.

But are there boundaries we should set around how we discuss the subject? Let me suggest a few principles for how to discuss sex in a straightforward yet productive way:

1. Treat it as a sacred subject. Why? Because sex is sacred. Paul tells us that the “one-flesh” relationship in marriage represents the relationship between Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:31-32). So sex isn’t something to snicker at or sensationalize. Every pastor knows that talking about sex is an easy way to fill the room. Our world is fascinated with the topic. So it’s quite tempting to talk about it in a way that’s certain to generate attention and controversy. But that’s a mistake. The Bible treats it as an important and serious subject, and I think we should as well.

2. Treat it as a deeply personal subject. Every person has different feelings and attitudes toward sex. Some are addicted to it, some are afraid of it, and some are repulsed by it. Some people have been abused, used, or neglected. And of course some people have perfectly healthy views about it. I don’t think it’s wise to give everybody the same advice when it comes to specific expressions of marital sexuality. For some couples, having sex every day for a week is a good idea. For others, it’s a terrible idea. In fact, some couples should probably be advised to abstain for awhile, to work on other areas of their relationship first. Because every person is different, every marriage is different and should be approached that way.

I also think some things are meant to be private. The details of one’s sex life in marriage aren’t meant to be shouted from the rooftops or sold in the local bookstore. I don’t think this is prudishness. Instead, it’s an acknowledgement of the deeply personal and sensitive nature of sexuality. We need to be careful not to make others feel unnecessarily ashamed or inappropriately curious or deeply disgusted. A good question to ask is, “Why am I sharing this detail? Even though sharing it isn’t a sin, is it productive and beneficial?”

3. Acknowledge that sex is more than a physical act. Because our bodies and spirits are so closely connected, sex is much more than the union of two bodies in a bed. My sexuality is deeply tied to my sense of personal identity. When people engage in sex, they are opening themselves up to another person in more ways than the physical. Even those who have never engaged in sex recognize that their sexual desires touch on issues much deeper than the physical body. So when we talk about sex, we need to discuss it in conjunction with other critical issues, like how we relate to God and to other people. Crude discussions about what positions or activities are acceptable from a physical standpoint tend to miss the point. The bigger issue is how we ought to approach sexuality from the standpoint of discipleship — in other words, what does my sexuality have to do with how I follow Jesus? The Bible seems much more concerned with that question than about the specific details of how and when and where to engage in marital sex.

Like I said above, we have a responsibility to address this critical subject from a biblical standpoint. I think most Christians would agree. But I wonder sometimes if we cross the line from biblical teaching to sensationalism. Or from discussing sex to idolizing it. “Everything is permissible — but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible — but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). I pray we’ll have the ability to discuss the topic in a way that is both permissible and constructive.

What would you add or take away from my analysis here? 

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