I’ve been in ministry spanning five decades. I’ve served as a staff member and as a pastor. One thing I’ve never done when talking to a church is talked about money. I have a firm conviction that if God is calling you to a church, you should go—end of discussion.
While I am in total agreement that God’s people should take care of God’s man and his family, I do not think our approach to such matters should be worldly. Churches should provide retirement benefits, good health insurance packages, and money for continuing education. Those are good things. They are the right thing to do. The laborer is worthy.
At the same time, I shouldn’t make demands. Nor should I compare what I am making to what others are making. I shouldn’t try to figure out how to squeeze more out of a church. That would reveal not only coveting, but also lack of faith that God is my source.
Jesus was a friend of the poor. That’s probably why he loves preachers. Churches love to keep preachers poor. But, I digress. The church should show compassion, and the man of God should never exploit. Churches should do for a minister’s family what they wish their company or corporation would do for their families and their kids’ families. After all, shouldn’t the church operate out of compassion? Why would “cheap” ever define a Christian. The believers I know who are cheap are also robbers of God. They want no one to get more than they get, and they rob God while examining the preacher’s salary.
Money was something Jesus talked about on a regular basis. He talked about lost coins, how we should give, and paying taxes. He also used money to show how money reveals our true heart. It reveals who we are and what we want.
Jesus didn’t limit His conversations to talk of money; He also talked about the things money buys and how we handle them, like sheep, land, grain, etc. The economy of Jesus is revealed in a “God first” theology.
One parable the unions of our day and workers in our materialistic society are ignoring is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. When I read this story I think of a few illustrations:
• Pastors and staff members who leave a church for more money. Listening to other churches’ “financial offers” could lead you (a) into a wilderness, or (b) into ministerial adultery, choosing a better church for the “love of money.”
• Churches who hold pastors and staff members hostage by jerking their financial chains. Rich members of finance committees have often ignored the “worth of the laborer” and treated him more like slave labor than a servant of God.
Let’s look at the parable in Matthew 20:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.” And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day long?” They said to him, “Because no one hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.” When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, “These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.” But he answered and said to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” So the last shall be first, and the first last. (vv. 1-16)
Harold Fickett says, “Any worthwhile understanding of this parable begins by registering the shock of the landowner’s paying all his workers equally. If the reader is like me, he doesn’t like this. My sympathies are with the grumbling workers.”
The workers who were enlisted at the end of the day were just as in need as those who had started the day in the field. More than once, I’ve found someone who agreed to work for a specific amount only to come back and ask for more at a later date. A man’s word should be worth something, on both sides. If one agrees to pay a set amount, he should honor it. If one agrees to work/serve for a set amount, they should honor that agreement. Failure to do so by either party demonstrates a lack of integrity.
Ever met a grumbling worker? An ungrateful employee? I have. I see them at drive-thrus, service centers, and retail businesses. They seem to have swallowed the “Poor, poor pitiful me…I’m a grouch…Why am I stuck in this lousy job…I could care less if I serve you well or not” pill. Grumbling and complaining are a sure way for me to change the places I shop—or even the servants of God I have compassion for.
Some folks complain about the deals they agreed to. You see it constantly in sports. Athletes sign lucrative contracts, but then they complain and want to renegotiate after one Pro Bowl or All Star year. In those cases, all of them are making more money than they deserve.
My lot is cast with those in the parable who come to work without a set amount promised, but they believe the landowner will do what is right. There is no indication that these are interested in perks, pecking order, or priority status. They are just grateful for grace, mercy, and a paycheck.
When I was in seminary, I went to serve a church, and they asked me how much I needed. Believe me when I say I was in need. Terri and I had moved to seminary with less than $400 to our name and no jobs. I needed the job. She needed a job. We needed to be able to eat and put a roof over our heads.
After praying about it, we took the church and stayed there until we left seminary. They told me the salary, and it was, to be honest, pathetic. Half of it would have been spent on gas to and from the church. But we took it, believing it was God’s open door. In less than fifteen months, we grew from fifteen students to nearly 100. God honored our commitment.
In His timing, He provided for us when the church didn’t. Someone would have us over for pizza. Another would take us out to eat. A surprise check would come in the mail. God had guided us to go there. He provided for us while we were there. It demanded faith and patience.
One reason we become dissatisfied with our life, our income, and our status is because we are trying to keep up with the Joneses. We’ve bought the American lie: “You can have it all and have it all now.” We want what others have because they have it, not because we need it.
We are tribal. If one person gets an iPhone, we all want one. If our neighbor gets a new HD TV, we’ve got to have one. So the drive for bigger, better, and more is driving us to want instead of wait. One old saying sums it up, “It’s not enough for you to succeed; your friends must fail.”
The Life Application Commentary Series notes,
The workers grumbled, and we can identify with them. They have a strong point. It’s a commonplace principle: more work, more pay; less work, less pay. It nears the status of a right that a worker may fairly claim — the right to a wage commensurate with the market value of one’s work. Jesus’ point, however, is that in God’s kingdom, grace supersedes rights.
Grace rewards generously, according to the goodwill of the giver. Rights claim what’s fair. Grace mixes workers together, young and old, bright and slow, veteran and novice, breaking down social distinctions. Rights tend to keep people in their “rightful” slot. Grace means the kingdom includes many joyful surprises.
If God’s rewards were based on rights, we’d all worry about collecting “Brownie points” — the focus would be on me and my work. Because God rewards on the basis of grace, we can keep our focus on Jesus and faithful service to him. Be confident of God’s good and generous judgment.
Think about this parable. The next time you think about whining about what’s not fair (like a Wisconsin union worker), just remember the words of Jesus and say, “No one promised fair.”
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.