I had the opportunity to attend the Economics of Ministry Summit at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (CBTS) in Shawnee, Kansas, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the students are above average” (to paraphrase Garrison Keillor).
The topic addressed was far from humorous, however. The key question voiced by CBTS President Molly Marshall was, “Can ministers and churches afford each other?”
Many churches are not supporting theological education as they once did, but theological education is expensive, so students are burdened with debt.
At the same time, churches are struggling with declining finances. They still want full-time ministers but can’t provide appropriate salaries.
If churches cannot provide a wage that helps students to pay their indebtedness, can students continue to pursue theological education? If students don’t prepare for ministry, where will churches find competent ministers?
Certainly, the problem is much more complex than that, but you get the idea.
Here are some thoughts that came to mind as a result of my participating in that meeting:
First, God is still calling men and women to serve in local congregations, but they find it hard to make a living wage there.
Although Jesus said “for laborers deserve their food” (Matthew 10:10) with the implication that those who serve the Lord should be provided for by those to whom they minister, churches often fail to supply the basic needs of ministers.
When one panelist at the event was asked about health care, she said she was grateful that the Affordable Care Act (often called “ObamaCare”) provided her health insurance. If it were not for this government program, she would not be able to have this coverage.
Ministers deserve a living wage. If we don’t care for those in the household of God, how will we care for outsiders? (See Galatians 6:10)
Second, church members tend to underestimate and not take advantage of all of our resources, including property and people.
One summit presenter did a great job of pointing out that churches fail to see their physical resources – such as their buildings – as venues for ministry, service to the community and potential income.
She even said, “If your building is a burden rather than a resource, get rid of it.”
Others pointed out that restructuring staff responsibilities, partnering with other churches to share ministerial staff and creating innovative ministries would help churches make better use of their resources.
There are a number of creative alternatives available to churches, but the truth is that congregations will only try them when they become desperate and there is no alternative. They have to be at the point of death to try something different.
Why? One reason is pride. If our church has always had a full-time minister, going to a part-time pastor may be considered embarrassing.
Even if a church is willing to adopt this approach, the members may be unrealistic and still expect the same number of hours a week from a bivocational pastor.
If a church cannot afford a full-time pastor, members of the congregation must come to understand that they – as the people of God – are one of the most important resources available to the church.
There is much that they ask the pastor to do – pastoral care, administration and supervision – that church members are well equipped to do (if they are willing).
The summit pointed out that there is a crisis and it will not abate. If we hold on to our old paradigms about economics and the use of the gifts that God has given us, we will fail to fulfill the mission to which God has called us.
Mission is not about pride but about servanthood. If we can get rid of the first, maybe we can practice the second more effectively.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is associate professor of ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Barnabas File, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ircel.