Churches, Pastors, and Money

Reuben Bredenhof
Monday, October 25th 2021

In earlier times, pastors in my denomination were occasionally paid with apples and cow manure. It was when many families were recent immigrants and not well-established financially. They wanted to support the gospel ministry, so they gave what they could: some fruit from the orchard, a side of meat for the freezer, or a pile of fertilizer for the minister’s veggie garden. It’s more typical for pastors today to receive a monthly deposit into their bank account, and perhaps a house to live in. In a variety of ways, churches seek to provide for the men who labor among them with the gospel. But such matters have long been a sensitive issue.

This is evident in 2 Corinthians, where Paul reacts to the congregation’s disapproval of how he handled the question of ministerial money. While Paul accepted financial support from some churches, he declined it from the Corinthians. In a culture that was acutely aware of social slights, this was interpreted as an affront to the congregation, even a rejection of their friendship (2 Cor. 11:7–11). His reaction is instructive. What lessons can churches and pastors today learn from Paul’s approach to the financial support of his ministry?

Churches should materially support the gospel ministry.

A New Testament principle is that those who receive spiritual benefits from the gospel ministry must be willing to support its workers (Acts 20:33–34; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:7–9). Even though Paul had turned down the financial assistance of the Corinthians, he insists that it is his God-given right to receive payment for the work he does in the church. Already in 1 Corinthians he rooted this practice in the Israelites’ material support of the priests and Levites: “Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:13–14).

This principle means that it is still incumbent on churches today to faithfully support the gospel ministry being done in their midst. Such assistance allows pastors to devote much of their time to the task of serving the church. They can do so without being distracted by material cares or occupied with labors that are unrelated to ministry. To be sure, this support may take on different forms depending on the possibilities of the local context. Some pastors may have a “tentmaking” ministry, as Paul did, literally (Acts 18:1–­­4). That is, when a congregation is unable to fully fund its pastor, he might do some other paid labor on the side. Likewise, missionaries do not expect to be supported by the people to whom they preach the gospel, at least initially. The form of ministry support varies widely in different places and situations, but the principle remains. Through their grateful giving, church members will support those who work in the gospel so that Christ’s word can continue to be preached.

Pastors should not be focused on financially profiting from ministry.

Paul was mindful of how the love of money can have a corrupting influence on a pastor’s ministry. This awareness is clear from Paul’s words of farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. There he insists that while he was among them, he “coveted no one’s silver or gold” (Acts 20:33), but he was willing to work with his hands to support himself and his companions. And thinking of his flashy rivals in Corinth, Paul denounces those who peddle the Word of God for personal profit (2 Cor. 2:17).

Despite Scripture’s repeated warnings, this is still a real temptation for those serving in ministry. Perhaps a pastor wants to take a position at a particular church because it offers to pay substantially more than his present congregation. Maybe a pastor is quick to complain that he needs a raise in his salary, or he seeks to maximize every monetary benefit available to him. But a pastor must tread carefully. Even the appearance of being engrossed with material things can be seriously detrimental to his relationship with the congregation. This in turn can hinder the believers’ growth in faith. Paul’s pleading words to the Corinthians remind us about what should take priority: “I do not seek yours”—that is, the believers’ material possessions—“but you” (2 Cor. 12:14). A love of money can unduly sway a pastor’s preaching, detract from his credibility, or even sink his ministry entirely. So a faithful pastor never seeks material gain, but always the congregation’s continued maturity in Christ.

The pastor’s challenge is the same that is faced by all Christians. By nature we want to stand on our rights and we demand our entitlements. Greed is ever-prowling. Yet Scripture exhorts all believers to be content with what we have (1 Tim. 6:6). When we are saved by Christ and have freely received his eternal inheritance, we have the ultimate reason to be content. Besides, God the Father has graciously promised to supply all our daily needs (Heb. 13:5). With confidence in God’s promise to provide, pastors can keep their focus on doing the work of dedicated ministry. Such a contented approach to money not only sets a good example to the congregation, it also honors Christ and his gospel.

Pastor should be aware of the possible influences and pressures from donors.

Paul infamously took a pass on the Corinthians’ material support. In so doing, he was sensitive to how there may have been pressure to adapt his preaching to suit the congregation’s preferences. To have accepted funding from certain individuals would have placed Paul in a situation of personal loyalty to one or more leading members of the church. He wanted to be free from all constraints so that he could bring the gospel according to his Spirit-led conviction.

There may still be attempts today to influence a pastor through the giving of gifts or other favors. Because a pastor has a ‘high profile,’ some church members may wish to foster a special relationship with him. Such a connection may bring the benefit of improved—or more likely, imagined—social prestige. Giving a gift might also afford the opportunity to sway the pastor’s viewpoint on some contested subject. A pastor should therefore be aware of how inappropriate pressures can be exerted on him by those who are wealthy or who want to give special gifts. Besides these potential hazards, a pastor is preaching to the same people who contribute toward his monthly salary. This can give rise to the temptation to try to avoid stepping on any proverbial toes in the Sunday sermons. Better to play it safe with another affirming, vanilla-flavored sermon, than to risk a decrease in contributions toward the budget!

Now, let me hasten to say that a pastor should certainly not be suspicious of every act of kindness or generosity. In my years of pastoral ministry, my family and I have been greatly blessed by our congregations through their liberal care and thoughtfulness. For those who love Christ and his gospel, a generous treatment of the pastor is a fitting way to show thanks to God. Nevertheless, our hearts are still stubbornly inclined to be self-seeking. We are habitually oriented toward personal benefit, even when we are doing good works for Christ. So we should humbly test our good works—whether giving someone a material gift or, for that matter, preaching the gospel—and be eager to do such things not for our own gain but for the glory of God.

Churches and pastors should aim for transparency in financial matters relating to the ministry.

Reading the two letters to the Corinthians, one is struck by all the attention that Paul devotes to financial questions, whether about collecting money for the needy (2 Cor. 8–9) or explaining ministry support (1 Cor. 9:1–18). He even discloses that he has accepted money from other congregations, though not from the Corinthians. This attention undoubtedly arises out of Paul’s desire for openness and clarity about a topic with dangerous and divisive potential. For instance, in other places in his letters, Paul echoes Jesus’s words about the corrupting power of the love of money (e.g., 1 Tim. 6:6–10, 17). He did not hesitate to shine a light on this issue.

From Paul’s approach we learn that it is essential for churches and pastors alike to be transparent in financial matters relating to the work of ministry. As was already said, pastors certainly ought to be above reproach in how they handle money. Church leaders too—such as the board of elders—should be sensitive to how this topic can sometimes expose things like greed, jealousy, or resentment in their pastors and members. From time to time, it is wise to show ‘the numbers’ to the congregation and invite their questions and comments. To be sure, there are ways to conduct such a discussion in a sensible and circumspect manner. However it is done, transparency should be prioritized. This is a simple way to protect the integrity of pastors and to preserve the unity of the congregation.

In financial matters, the cause of the gospel must always take the primary place.

Throughout 2 Corinthians Paul has a razor-sharp focus on advancing the cause of Christ, even at great cost to himself. This focus is also evident through Paul’s approach to material support. While laboring in Corinth, he decided to support himself so that he could present the gospel “free of charge” (2 Cor. 11:7). He made this hard decision because he was convinced that it would better serve their growth in faith. This is the memorable way in which he depicts his ministry: “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6:10). Through his devoted and self-sacrificing pastoral labors, Paul sought to enrich many sinners with a saving knowledge of Christ.

Pastors and churches today should be similarly motivated. We should be loathe to do anything—in financial matters, or in any other aspect of congregational life—that will hinder the cause of Christ. Perhaps a pastor accepts lower pay, or takes on some responsibility for self-support, so that he can continue to minister effectively in a particular location. As far as it depends on the pastor, financial matters should never be allowed to detract from a healthy and upbuilding relationship with the congregation. A church should know that their pastor loves them far more than their money. And a pastor should know that his congregation stands behind and beside him with their whole-hearted support. Christ will surely bless such a pastor-church relationship with fruitfulness and faithfulness.

Reuben Bredenhof (PhD, St Mary’s University, Twickenham) is a transplanted Canadian, presently serving as the pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Mount Nasura in Western Australia. He is the author of Wise: Living By the Ancient Words of Commandments and Proverbs and Hallowed: Echoes of the Psalms in the Lord’s Prayer. He and his wife Rebecca have four daughters.

This article has been adapted from Dr. Reuben Bredenhof’s recent book, Weak Pastor, Strong Christ: Developing a Christ-Shaped Gospel Ministry (Reformation Heritage Books, 2021). Used here with permission.

Monday, October 25th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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