Years ago, I sat in a budget meeting at the church where I was raised. The trustees had made us aware that we were in the midst of a budget shortfall due to an overestimation of tithe revenue. Our projections were a bit high and no one had taken the declining economy into account so it was clear that many of the church’s budgets needed to be trimmed.
The cuts were generally met with resistance. Although everybody understood the need for trimming the excess from our overall budget, no one actually wanted to give up their funding. However, there was one area that the congregation was almost unanimous about trimming–salaries. Within seconds of the trustees reading the staff salary budget, people began to grunt, gasp, and complain. It was clear to me that many members of the congregation felt that the salary budget was too high.
Sensing the conflict, I made a point of asking how many people’s salaries came out of that budget. Many people had assumed that all of the money in the staff budget was going to our pastor, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case. Sure enough, the trustees replied “9.” Without saying the exact amount of money that was issued in the budget, I will say that it was less than $125,000. Nonetheless, even if it was $135,000, that would have meant that the average salary paid out was $15,000–way too low for anyone to survive within the Philadelphia metropolitan area. (I should know. My stipend when I was at Temple was around $15,000.)
Later that night, I had a chance to reflect on what had occurred. Why were the people so willing to try to cut our pastor’s salary? He had been doing his job well. The church had grown substantially under his leadership. He had earned every bit of his wage. At the same time, his wealth was evident. Pastor and his family lived in a beautiful suburban home with a lot of land around it. While they did not brag about their material possessions, they were not go out of their way to hide their luxury cars, watches, and designer clothes.
Pastor’s wealth created a lot of conversations around the church, but in actuality, it was none of the congregation’s business. After all, the church did not pay him enough to maintain his lifestyle. The majority of his money came from his secular career as a corporate lawyer. (The first lady was an administrator for a social services agency.) It is funny to me that so many people in the congregation seemed to conveniently forget that he had another job in spite of the many times that his sermons included stories about things that he experienced while at work. Many people would occasionally justify not contributing to the church’s expenses by saying that their money would only end up going toward Pastor’s new car.
The real problem was that many people resented Pastor for being so successful. He and the First Lady had worked hard to get to where they were in life. They would often tell stories of their educational struggles and the financial difficulties that they had experienced when they first got married. They always explained their material success as being “nothing but the grace of God,” but many in the congregation chose to see things differently.
Thankfully, my Pastor was pretty nonchalant about it. He knew that this kind of rumbling is all a part of living the ministerial life. Even though we would rather not admit it, we all know that there have been plenty of ministers who were guilty of fleecing their congregations. As a result, those of us ministers who earn our wealth legitimately are still viewed suspiciously by people both within and outside of the church. (Some of my classmates joke about becoming megachurch pastors who preach the prosperity gospel and charge to forgive sins in order to become millionaires quickly. Since I am the lone minister in the bunch, I typically let it slide although it does trouble me that minister have such bad images in today’s society.)
In the end, the congregation realized that cutting the staffing budget was unreasonable. Instead, the trustees were able to convince everyone to increase their tithes in order to overcome the budget shortfall. I am not sure what happened after that because this was my last budget meeting before going to my current church. Still, I know that my Pastor did not allow the constant rumblings about his material wealth to affect the power of his ministry. He was able to maintain his focus in the face of these petty distractions. Hopefully, I will be strong enough to do the same in the future.