Category Archives: Large churches

The Clergy System (Rethinking Church #19)

It is time to rethink the idea of the church as an employer of ministers. We will examine this issue from the perspective of the spiritual life of the minister and from the church as the employer of ministers. We will consider the spiritual advantages and disadvantages of the paid ministry.

This is Personal

As I said in the previous post, this issue is personal for me. I served in the fulltime ministry for eight years. I received a divine call into ministry as a college student. Based on that call I changed my major from Chemistry to Bible. To better prepare myself for a life of church leadership I spent four years in graduate school working on a Master of Theology degree. Many friends in my own generation entered the ministry and served for many years. Many of my heroes are preachers and missionaries. And now that I have been teaching theology for thirty-one years in a university that grants two degrees specifically designed to prepare people for fulltime ministry—M.Div. and MS—I have scores of former students in fulltime church ministry.

I share this background because I want readers to know that I do not doubt my original call into the ministry or my decision to accept it. Nor do I wish to make any negative judgment of the fine men and women who serve in churches all over the world. Quite the opposite, I want to encourage them in their work and support them in whatever ways I am able.

The Divine Call

Throughout the history of the people of God in the Old and New Testaments and the history of the church from the First to the Twentieth Century, some men and women have felt compelled by a divine call to speak, preach, teach, and serve in the name of the Lord. Such prophets as Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel and the priests deriving from family of Aaron and the Levites were called into special divine service. Some of these people lived from tithe offerings from the people and some supported themselves. Jesus called twelve apostles for the special ministry of preaching the gospel to Jews and consolidating the fledgling church. Paul received a call from the resurrected Jesus to preach to the gentiles. In some cases, the apostles and other Christian missionaries, teachers, prophets, and elders received economic help from other believers (1 Cor 9:3-18).

Paul lists the central functions designed to help the church grow and keep it strong: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:11-12). The church cannot thrive without these services and functions, but not everyone is gifted and called to the same role. Paul devotes a whole chapter of 1 Corinthians to the theme of unity and diversity within the body of Christ. I will quote just three verses: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many” (12:12-14). Some people find themselves gifted and called to teach, preach, and minister in leadership. They devote themselves to study, prayer, and practice to prepare themselves for service. Thank God for his gift of these people to the church!

But we must distinguish between God’s gifting and calling of men and women into the service of the Word and taking a job with a church as a paid minister. The two may go together but they are not bound by necessity to do so. Hence my admiration and praise for people gifted and called into ministry does not necessarily translate into admiration and praise for the clergy system as it now stands. You can accept a divine call to evangelize, teach, and preach without becoming clergy. And simply because you get a degree in ministry and a church hires you does not guarantee that you are doing the work of the Lord.

The Advantages of the Paid Ministry

The advantages of churches/parachurches hiring people to organize and lead ministries are obvious. (1) It would be nearly impossible for large churches to function as they currently do with an all-volunteer staff. People are busy, and most people don’t have the training they need to perform some of these functions. Some tasks require many hours a week to carry out. (2) I think modern urban and suburban professionals demand highly educated, professional, and skilled people to lead their churches. After all, the corporations for which they work demand such professionalism. (3) Relieving gifted and called men and women of the necessity of spending most of their time working in “secular” work, frees more time for doing the work of ministry. In the case of foreign missionaries, it is often legally impossible for them to work in the host country. Apart from financial support from their home country they could not engage in mission work. (4) The fourth advantage assumes that the modern church needs ministers with a high level of theological education. Without the prospect of a paid ministry position, a young person might not be willing to devote seven years of their lives to getting the college and seminary training needed for ministry in the modern world. In that amount of time they could have trained for a high paying secular career.

Notice, however, that these advantages for the most part relate to big parachurch churches operating in the ways such churches have for the last hundred years. Of course these churches need highly educated, skilled, professional ministers. But if you call into question the exclusive validity of the big church model, these advantages become less decisive. If you gather around a table, share a meal, remember the Lord in the Supper, read the Scriptures, and pray for each other, you don’t need a highly skilled speaker, a talented worship leader, an efficient administrator, or a meticulous bookkeeper.

Next Time: The disadvantages of the clergy system.

Megachurches Need Megabucks (Rethinking Church #18)

Today I want to talk about money as a corrupting force in the life of the church. Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24). And 1 Timothy states in clear terms “The love of money [avarice or greed] is the root of all evil” (6:10). Of course, money does not force you to love it. But it’s an effective persuader! You can make money serve you, but it often turns out the other way around. Money is a means of exchange that enables the acquisition of real goods—food you can eat, clothing, shelter, beautiful things, services, etc. These things can serve human needs and produce joy, but they can also be abused and create misery. By pooling the resources of its members a church can acquire more of these things and use them for greater good. That’s the ideal anyway. But ideals are rarely realized completely.

Parachurches Need Lots of Money

Consider the churches I designated “parachurches” in the previous essay. They organize and conduct their work in ways that require a constant stream of revenue. They purchase and maintain building complexes, making it necessary to hire janitors, make periodic repairs, and pay huge utility bills. To coordinate the activities of hundreds or thousands of people and provide programs for every age and interest group, they must hire five, ten, or even twenty-five ministers. And of course the senior minister, the CEO, oversees the other ministers and the whole operation. The Sunday worship alone requires the services of a worship minister, sound and lighting techs, some singers, and several band or orchestra members. Such an operation requires support from a large secretarial and bookkeeping staff. Even a medium sized church needs an annual budget of $500,000 to $1,000,000. Megachurches need $10,000,000 to $50,000,000 annually.

And from where does this money come? It comes from donations from members. And why do they give? I speak only from my own experience. I am sure most of them give because they believe that their churches do good things with the money. They feel proud of participating in these large-scale good works, which they could not accomplish by themselves. However I think additional factors are at work.

Some churches teach explicitly and others imply that giving to a church is a Christian duty or even a quasi-sacrament. That is to say, giving is considered a meritorious work or a kind of bloodless sacrifice, a required act of worship distinct from the practical purpose for which the gift is to be used. Or, we think of our gifts as membership dues. We attend church services and enjoy the pageantry, the inspiring music, and the uplifting message as we sit comfortably in a state of the art facility. We benefit from the work of scores of staff and volunteers. And we feel guilty if we enjoy all these things without helping to pay for the them.

Pass the Collection Plate

But money exerts a corrupting force. Churches have earned a reputation for constantly soliciting donations, a reputation nearly universal among outsiders but also common among loyal members. Churches need to meet their annual budgets. The staff’s livelihood and the viability of many programs depend on it. Many churches “pass the collection plate” every Sunday. Passing the plate to the person sitting beside you without making a donation can be a bit embarrassing. You imagine that everyone notices your stingyness, especially the “deacons” who are standing at the ends of the rows to receive the plates.

The church seems to be of two minds on money versus people. The church sign says, “Everyone is welcome. Come as you are.” But do they really mean it, or will it be a “bait and switch” operation? Do churches want to grow because they want everyone to know Jesus? Or, do they wish to keep the income stream flowing? Because churches have organized themselves in ways that require lots of money, the good news of the love of Jesus and God’s forgiveness gets mixed with a less noble message.

People Got to Get Paid

I want to speak next from personal experience. I served as a paid minister for eight years as a young man. I entered the ministry because of what I believed, and still believe, was a divine call to which I could not say no. I responded in obedience to God. But when I became an employee of a church my duty to God got confused with the expectations of the church. The two are not always the same! I could no longer be sure of my motives. I learned a bitter lesson: if your service to God becomes also a means of livelihood on which your family depends—mortgage, childcare, health insurance, car payments, school loan payments, and retirement savings—the joy of ministry often departs. You begin to think about salary, benefits, and working conditions! You begin to think about who has power over you and who does not.

On the other side of the equation, later in life I served as an elder [a volunteer lay leader] in a church where a part of my duty was supervising the ministry staff. In that role my partnership with the ministers in the work of the Lord was made joyless by having to deal with their requests concerning salary, benefits, and working conditions. Money is indeed the root of all evil!

If you have been following this series you know that I favor small group churches over parachurch churches. We could go a long way toward removing the corrosive effect of money if churches met in homes, took no collections, made no budgets, owned no common property, and had no employees. I don’t think I am naïve about this. There would still be occasion for greed and envy, shame and pride, because of economic differences among individual believers. But at least the church would not be always seeking donations to run its operations.

Next Time: What about the clergy?