How much before you’re rich?

This recent article detailed the budget of a couple with annual income of $500,000. That couple is “only” investing into their 401(k)s for retirement, only giving 3.6% of income to charity (5.7% of post-tax income), and has only $7,300 left at the end for savings. The article describes them as feeling “average.”

If you have a household income of, say $100k, you’re likely to be incredulous at this. You think you’d surely be able to give more, save more, and have more left over if you could only have that kind of income. You likely will look at many of this couple’s expenses as lavish and unnecessary. (“Three vacations!” “BMW…”)

But be aware that someone with household income of, say $50k, would be equally incredulous at a $100k household with similar numbers. Same for the $25k household looking at the $50k. Probably same for the couple featured here if they came across a couple making $2 million who thought they were just average…

Anecdotal observation: people at almost all income levels think they’re at the just-barely-making-it point. We tend to compare up rather than down. That gives us justifications for why we don’t give more and why we don’t save more and why if we could just make as much as [whomever we’re comparing to], we’d be fine. Those justifications don’t do anything good for our hearts, our relationships (which easily turn resentful), or our generosity (which I’d suggest has a reciprocal relationship with our hearts).

If you wait to give generously until you’re finally at that position in life where you see someone else, it’s not likely to come. Whenever you get there, the goalposts will have moved. Same for saving. Same for gratitude. Simplicity1, generosity and gratitude have more to do with the state of our heart than our annual income. Yet we tend to look to a bigger income as the solution.


 

  1. In this instance, I use “simplicity” in a loose way––for anyone who lives happily within their means

Is it okay to give to other missions instead of my local church?” — Q&A pt. II

I began responding to reader questions in this post about conditional salvation and pastors’ salaries. I thought this next question was appropriate to consider as this year ends and a new year begins…

Hi Teddy,

I have a question about giving. My family has always appreciated the discipline of generosity. So we wanted to give generously––beginning with a tithe as minimum––but we DIDN’T give it back into our local church. We felt no conscience about this, but when my senior pastor found out, he was very displeased about it.

As I think about becoming a senior pastor in the future, I’m less concerned that my staff tithe to the church and more concerned that they are generous in other kingdom ways that expand beyond a mere tithe.

As of now, I could direct most of my giving somewhere besides the church without having a conscience issue SO LONG AS my family is being generous TO THE BODY as a whole.

Maybe that’s the question — where is the line between the local body and the larger body of Christ? Why does one seem to demand priority in our giving? 

What a great question! Thanks for asking. I certainly relate to this. We give to several missions outside our local church. It would be hard not to. There are a lot of great missions / missionaries we believe in, and it’s fun to be a part of what they’re doing. We don’t necessarily separate out “tithing” to the church and “giving” to other places, so I’ll just talk in terms of giving. And let me commend you for considering “tithe” (10%) your minimum and then giving more. The vast majority of American households have the capacity and should be giving more than 10%.

In my case, I would have a conscience issue if we weren’t giving––and giving substantially––to our church. I obviously see up-close how the money available affects what our church can do. We depend on people’s generosity to continue the mission. If I believe in our mission, I need to be supporting it with our finances. If I don’t believe in our mission, I need to be working on a short-term “reform or exit” plan.1

That wasn’t always my position. For a couple of years, I didn’t give to our church. I had told our Sr. Pastor at the time that I didn’t believe in how we were spending money and couldn’t contribute to it. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed by that. If I couldn’t believe enough in the church to give it our money, I should have left.2 Moreover, that position made it difficult for me to lead and to call for others to buy-in. I wasn’t bought-in myself. I didn’t realize the difference that made in my leadership until later.

Jesus’ words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” have proven more true than I expected (see the linked article on generosity for more on that). Once I started giving, even sacrificially giving, to our church, I began to love the church a lot more. I began to lose my cynicism and feel much more like a full member of the team.

Buying in” doesn’t prevent me from raising questions and challenging certain things. But now I’m doing it as a fully-committed member. For any of us who fashion ourselves “reformers” of any sort, we need to do it as committed members. That kind of commitment doesn’t have to require lock-step agreement. But it requires being in. So long as I was criticizing our use of other people’s money while not contributing myself, I was just standing on the outside throwing stones.

In short, my love and commitment for our church and our mission have followed my money more than they preceded it. If I waited until I was in full agreement with how we spent money, I probably never would have given. (For what it’s worth––I’m very proud of how our church uses money now. Along with the important work we’re doing locally, we send 25% out the door for missions bigger than our own. And we’re in the minority of UMC churches that pay our full apportionments, no matter how tight the budget. How can we ask our members to be faithful with their giving––even in tough times––if we aren’t being faithful to our commitments to the larger body?)

I’m able to ask for other people’s full investment––prayers, presence, gifts, service, witness––because I’m willing to stand at the head of the line, as someone who’s all-in. With that experience, it’s hard for me to imagine leading again if I weren’t all-in myself. That’s not so much advice as personal testimony.

I don’t know if that answers any questions about lines between “local body” and “larger body” giving. I don’t know if I would ever tell anyone else that their local church demands priority. I wouldn’t point to any biblical regulations to say that your church should receive your first-priority giving. But I might point to your personal situation. The mission I’m most directly a part of is First Church’s. So by virtue of participation, First Church’s mission is our top priority. For us, that means it needs to be our top priority for giving, too.

Thanks for giving me a chance to reflect on that. I hope it might be helpful to your situation.

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  1. A note: If I find myself constantly exiting places because of my disagreements with them, it’s probably time to ask if the problem is me––if my standards are too high, or if my initial selection criteria is poor. Beware the person who leaves angry and often.
  2. I’m not suggesting I should have actually left in that situation. Rather, I think I should have been giving, despite my disagreements. They weren’t big enough to warrant leaving, so they shouldn’t have been big enough to warrant withholding my money.

Is salvation conditional? And more on pastors’ pay — Q&A, pt. I

I’ve been receiving various questions from readers. I promised to try to answer some of them in a series of posts. I chose two questions that are poles apart for part I. I’ll have several more to get to in part II. And please feel free to email me yours.

My question is 3-fold:

1) Do you personally believe our salvation is conditional according to the Scriptures?

2) In your view, what Scriptures support this stance?

3) How to maintain our salvation then?”

Someone who says she has “just been persuaded of this position” sent that question. As a result, she said she joined the Methodist Church last week.

Yes! I do believe our salvation is conditional. In fact, I think that’s good news. This is a place where I disagree with my Reformed/Calvinist friends. (And yes, they are friends. We can disagree without animosity.)

No small amount has been written on this subject. Rather than write a whole booklet, as Wesley did, or an entire book, like this from Walls and Dongell, let me give you my simple version.

We start here:

TULIP - ALL1. God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

My Calvinist friends begin to object here. They want to qualify that “everyone.” In their framework, God gets whatever God desires. It doesn’t make sense to them that an Almighty God could desire something that doesn’t happen. So they claim “everyone” means every people group, not every individual. But the same Calvinist friends also say that if you read the Bible at face value, you have to agree with them. So let’s acknowledge at the start that we’re all qualifying certain statements in Scripture. And to qualify “all” and “everyone” is no minor nuance.

2. Everyone can be saved. We have a mediator, Christ Jesus, “who gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6) “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). His atoning death is sufficient for all to be saved.

More of that pesky “all” and “everyone” language. See my note above.

3. Not everyone is saved. The biblical witness is clear on this.

I believe this is what has run aground several of my Calvinist friends. By their logic, God would save all whom he desires to save. That leads them to two options: universalism (everyone will be saved) or limited atonement (Christ did not die for everyone).

4. Everyone who believes is saved. Christ’s atoning death is effective for all who accept it.

That is to say, Christ’s atoning death is universally sufficient (see #2) but conditionally effective. 

Here’s how Paul put that condition: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,” [a break to note that this is, by definition, a conditional clause] “you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Paul lays out the conditions of salvation plainly in Acts 20:21: “turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” If we accept that much, we should spend some serious time looking into repentance and faith. What do those words mean in Scripture and the Christian tradition? I said “everyone who believes is saved” above. Please don’t accept that for the simple, “Sure, I believe in Jesus” faith common in our culture. Repentance and faith mean much more.

That’s a start. I could point to many more passages, along with most of the Christian tradition, on these points. My Calvinist friends will, of course, have opposing verses to share. I’ll not attempt a full defense of those here. They don’t deny #3 above, and I believe their arguments against #1 and #2 are strained. I believe the witness of Scripture, the Christian tradition, and our own experience all favor a view of salvation as conditional.

To your final question about how we maintain our salvation… Be alert, on guard, disciplined! Because the devil prowls like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Practically, I’d especially encourage those means of grace encouraged throughout Scripture and church history: participate in the life of the Church and its sacraments, search the Scriptures, pray and fast.

The notion that we could lose our salvation may scare people. But it shouldn’t need to instill more than a healthy fear. God is good, and God is faithful. The faithful married person, for instance, doesn’t go around in constant fear that their loving spouse will leave them. But they also know that they’re not guaranteed security in that relationship if they’re unfaithful. Just as the devil can entice you to be unfaithful to your spouse, he can entice you to be unfaithful to your God. Both of those infidelities can lead to shipwreck. We need to be vigilant! But we needn’t be afraid.

You’ve written several things about pastors’ salaries and talked about being paid part-time. But you also have a coffee shop where I assume you make money. For full-time UMC pastors, that’s not an option. Do you think that difference should be part of the equation?”

That’s a good point. I hear this has been a conversation for some pastors in my conference, so I think it’s best for me to be transparent. I know this kind of public discussion of personal finances can seem distasteful, so I’ve hesitated to do it. If it’s in bad taste to you, you might just stop now.

I am a partner in a coffee shop here in Lexington––a fun little venture. Two quick notes about your question, though: 1) I’ve been talking and writing about pastors’ salaries since before that shop existed, and 2) I’m not an employee. The UMC prohibits full-time pastors from working other jobs, but they don’t prohibit pastors from being partners. So that particular venture hasn’t influenced what I’m saying, and it’s a possibility for other UMC pastors, too.  I’d encourage it for more pastors, actually. It has been a good learning opportunity and a different way to bless the community and be involved in it.

As for finances, between the church, the coffee shop, and a few other small sources of income, my total income is about $21,000 less than our conference’s minimum package.1 That coffee shop might be able to replace my income one day, and I’d celebrate that. But for now, it’s just a nice supplement.

I could stop there, but I should also acknowledge our family has had other advantages. Our parents have been very good to us––we rarely pay for babysitting, get to go on family trips that we don’t pay for, regularly receive clothes and other things for the kids, and even got our first mini-van from them. When we went to Spain, 40% of our cost for the year was covered by the generosity of our church, family and friends. I was also able to work the whole time I was in seminary and paid as I went. No seminary debt has been a huge advantage.

We have a number of advantages and unique circumstances. In all, though, I don’t think our situation prevents me from being able to speak about clergy pay.

Note that I’ve never called anyone else to receive less than full-time minimum or claimed that our minimum-paid pastors are making too much. I have asked, for the sake of integrity, that we quit acting like our pastors live like paupers. Even our minimum-compensation pastors are in the top 27% of all U.S. income earners,2 with a very generous retirement and insurance plan on top. The average pastor in Kentucky is in the top 14%, and our director-level positions are in the top 8%. I would venture that never in Methodism’s history have our pastors been so highly compensated, relative to our society.3

Our pastors are good people. They work hard and have hard jobs. In the business world, many of them might be highly compensated for their work and talent. But the church is a different entity, and the church’s offering is no ordinary source of revenues. If John Wesley himself were among our highest-paid UMC pastors, I would be questioning his pay. Though I doubt I would need to. I think his voice on this issue would make mine sound weak and soft.

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  1. That number will decrease next year––my church is giving me a generous raise.
  2. That figure includes their housing, as I’ve argued it should.
  3. I haven’t run all the numbers on this, but see the chart in my interview with Wesley Sanders for a representative sample.