Some Thoughts on Church Finances

From most appearances, Mammon is our national god. Oh, we don’t use that name for him: we more often speak of Prosperity, or The Economy, but looking at our country both form the perspective of the Bible and from most of the rest of the world, the god we trust in looks more like Mammon than the Father of Jesus Christ. Even when we don’t claim Mammon as our god, he makes enough noise clamoring for our allegiance that we are usually uncomfortable talking about money in church. My perception is that it is in those areas we are most afraid to talk about (think of Mammon’s friend Eros) that we are most likely to be deceived or led astray. Reading the Gospels we see that Jesus talked about money quite a bit – so from a Christian point of view it must not be a bad idea.

Often when talk about money in church begins, the word tithe is not too far behind. Some preachers will tell you that tithing – giving ten percent of your income – is God’s standard for all people. While I practice tithing of this sort – and have for years – I haven’t been able to find the biblical support to make a strong case for it. That said, I can make a strong case for commitment and generosity – and tithing is likely a good starting point. In Luke 21 Jesus praises the example of a woman who can be described either as giving two cents (considering everything we want to buy we like that idea!) or as giving all she had (which goes way beyond tithing). Although both descriptions are factual, it is the latter that Jesus praised.

John Wesley considered that episode and other words of Jesus and said, “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” (Keith Drury has a much fuller discussion of Wesley on money.) Mammon might say something like this too – but the emphasis would be entirely different. Notice those two little words “you can.” These can imply great effort or mere ability. Mammon’s version would have us apply the great effort at the front end – “Work hard to gain.” Then after you’ve gained a lot, filled up your bank accounts (saving) – and bought all the stuff you want – then give something. It’ll make you feel good.

Wesley would put the emphasis the other way. Gain to the best of your ability, save through frugal living, and work hard at giving. That’s the way Wesley lived. In his early years he made 30 pounds a year, lived on 28 and gave away 2. In later years he gained something like 100 pounds a year, lived in 28, and gave away 72. Some of you have heard of R.G. LeTourneau, a Longview industrialist who lived similarly.

I don’t have to look too far to see that Mammon’s advice is more popular than Jesus’ (and Wesley’s). It’s not just out there in the world, it’s not just out there in the church, it’s even in me. I’ve heard Mammon’s voice saying things like, “If you didn’t tithe, you could …. “ You’ve heard that voice too, haven’t you?

Consider another money word we use in church sometimes: debt. Unless we’re independently wealthy, most of us have to use debt from time to time. In our culture we use debt to buy houses, cars, and educations. It’d be nice if we all had the money to buy these things without borrowing, but most of us don’t. If cash up front were required, we’d simply have to do without.

Debt does have dangers. United Methodist pastors are asked a series of questions before being ordained. One of these – which date from Wesley himself – is “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your ministry?” This is always a curious time at Annual Conference. The supposed “right” answer is “NO.” But in this era when the UM system requires so much education to be a pastor – a bachelors degree plus a 90 hour masters – debt is pretty common. And with the cost of education these days, the debt can be large. I’ve known people who get out of seminary owing 50 – 60 thousand dollars. (I joke sometimes, “It’s a good thing pastors are so highly paid – like doctors and lawyers!” – That is a joke.) So sometimes those being questioned speak truthfully and say, “Yes.” I’ve even heard a bishop – the one who asks the questions – respond to a “No” answer with the quip, “I guess you don’t embarrass easily.”

Educational debt can be hard to carry, but it’s not the hardest. In our culture credit cards seem to cause the most trouble. The average American has over $8000 in credit card debt. Do you know the rates they charge on those balances? That kind of debt starts easy, builds fast – frequently at the insistence of Mammon – and is hard to dispel. So in spite of our reliance on debt to get us what we want – more electronics, furniture, boats, houses, vacations, food, etc. – sometimes we find ourselves in a pit of our own digging.

Looking at debt this way it’s easy to see why churches would want to avoid debt. Yet we continue to use it. Why? Because debt can not merely be a trap from getting what we want, it can also be a tool to expand our capacity. When FUMC Pittsburg went into debt to acquire the Rock and the Feed Store, we expanded our ministry capacity. The key questions we asked was, What’s our business? Some might see our actions and judge that we must be in the building business. But we’re not. We’re in the people business. Buildings are a resource that help us reach people, build them as disciples of Jesus, equip them for ministry, and deploy them to reach the world.

Knowing our business – our purpose in being a church – guides us in money decisions, not only in whether we go into debt, but also what we spend our money on. When North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia built their first buildings they had such a strong conviction that they needed the buildings to reach people for Jesus (They’re in the People Business, just like us) that many within the church went so far as to take out second mortgages on their own homes so they could give more to their church. Sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it? Obviously their mission was more than just meeting on Sunday mornings. That’s the kind of step you usually only take when life and death issues are at stake.

That’s how our Model thought. Jesus didn’t give much in the way of money. He didn’t have any – for much of his ministry he appears not to even have a place to live. Like the widow in Luke 21, he gave what he had – his life. His motivation was love – for us. For us his gift meant life – instead of death.

Do we think like Jesus? Do we think that the mission of the church – which we can see in John 20 21 as an extension of Jesus’ mission – is a life or death thing? If we do – if we think this people business we’re in is so vitally important – we won’t have trouble meeting the budget. We’ll more easily discern the difference between good debt and bad debt. We – like Jesus – like John Wesley – like numerous others – will be generous with our lives and our possessions. Mammon will squeal for his share – he’ll argue that we’re unnecessarily denying ourselves the pleasures of life. Don’t listen. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. His way leads to death. Jesus not only knows the way of life – the Bible tells us he himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

So – let’s follow Jesus. And frustrate Mammon.

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