The sins of ministry: Covetousness

Courtesy of American Express, Mastercard and Visa covetousness is now made easy. In the words of one advertising slogan, credit cards ‘take the waiting out of wanting’. But the reality, of course, is that credit cards often make life more complicated than fulfilling. Even Bertrand Russell, who was far from being a believer, once remarked: “It is preoccupation with possessions more than anything else that prevents men from living nobly and free”. Or as Jesus said: “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot”.

When Jesus warned against greed or covetousness, most of the people he was speaking to were on the breadline. It is good for pastors to remind themselves of this fact, when perhaps they are feeling the financial pinch. Of course, not all ministers are poorly paid. Some years ago a pastor who went to a small church in the South West of the USA and made an agreement with the deacons at the start for 10% of the gross income. At the time I read the story the church had by then a Sunday congregation of more than 5000. The pastor took home about $800,000 in the previous year. He was driving a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, wore a diamond the size of a pea and was living in a quarter-million dollar home! No British minister would ever covet such a life-style – it is beyond our wildest dreams. And yet this does not mean that covetousness is not around. In a situation where ministerial stipends are relatively low, it is not difficult for ministers to covet their neighbour’s – deacon’s? – house, car and bank account. At any ministerial gathering the conversation will get back to pay. Andrew Blackwood mentions a figure of at least 50% of ministers being dissatisfied with their lot, and usually because of a desire for more money.

In times past the monks dealt with the sin of covetousness by taking a vow of poverty. Not that such a route is viable for those of us married with children – although as a young minister with four children I was once told by one of my deacons that my role was to set an example of holy poverty! Richard Foster more helpfully wrote of the desirability for Christians – and by extension, ministers – to adopt the vow of ‘simplicity’ so that we might be free of covetousness and no longer “pant after the possessions of others”.

Although financially life can be a struggle for many, pastors need to recognise the privilege that is theirs. Some may feel that they are being paid what they are worth – but surely that has never been the issue. In the UK at least, pastors are not paid a salary, but a ‘stipend’; they are not paid for services rendered, but a ‘living allowance’ to enable them to fulfil their calling. The difference is more than semantic: it involves a totally different way of looking at money. There was almost never a day when I was a pastor that I did not thank God for calling me into Christian ministry – and I always felt an immense sense of gratitude to God for enabling me to serve God as their pastor. Most pastors do not have to worry about ‘making a living’; rather in a way that is not true of most of their members, they are able to focus on Kingdom concerns.

None of this, of course, absolves churches from paying their ministers fairly. What a difference it would make if churches were to take seriously Paul’s advice to Timothy as expressed in the GNB version of 1 Tim 5.17: “The elders who do good work as leaders should be considered worthy of receiving double pay, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching”!

The Greek word ‘time’ could mean both ‘honour’ (so NRSV, NIV) or ‘pay’ (so GNB). Gordon Fee, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus (Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts , revised edition 1988) 128-129, commented:

It is clear from verse 18 that ‘honour’ here includes at least pay. But bit is highly unlikely that ‘double honour’ means ‘double pay’, implying either twice as much as other who do not teach or twice as much as the widows. Rather it means ‘twofold honour, the honour and respect due those in such positions as well as remuneration. Paul thus reiterates a point made elsewhere that those who give leadership to the community in the ministry of the word should be maintained by the community (see especially 1 Cor 9.7-14; cf 1 Thess 2.7; 2 Cor 11.8-9).

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