I wish I could give more” — On Generosity

We’re entering the last month of the year. People are paying closer attention to their bank and credit card accounts. Some are lamenting rampant consumerism in America. Others are already making plans for how they’ll handle their money well in 2018. In light of that, each week for the rest of the year, I’ll be sharing an article on generosity for your consideration. If you’ve followed this blog for several years, you may recognize some of these. They were helpful for me to review again. I hope they will be for you, too.

I was talking to a friend about generosity a few years ago, when I said, “Yeah, I wish I could give more than I do.”

Maybe you’ve said or thought something similar. That statement tends to mean, “If only I had more, I would give more.”

My friend didn’t let me off quite that easily. He asked, “What do you spend on other things by comparison? How about what you spend eating out?”

It’s nice to have people around who’ll ask the uncomfortable questions.

Our talk progressed to all of those different life luxuries––

  • eating out
  • coffee shops
  • home improvement & decoration
  • electronics
  • clothes
  • travel
  • entertainment in all its forms (Netflix subscriptions, music, movies, concerts, sports events).

Once it was added up, it wasn’t just a significant amount, it was more than what I had given away.

That was a humbling and convicting moment for me.

Now I’m not opposed to every luxury in life. I don’t join the ascetics who say that if I spent a dollar on luxury, it was a dollar I should have given to charity. But when my spending on life’s luxuries outpaces my giving, it’s disingenuous to say, “I wish I could give more than I do.”

We’re so often deceived by the same lie: “If only I had _____, then I’d be really generous.” Because whatever we have is almost enough to satisfy our needs. But when our means grow, our appetites tend to grow in equal proportion.

The Bible’s teaching on money consistently points toward simplicity and generosity. I’m convinced of that. But giving definition to simplicity and generosity is difficult. What exactly does it look like to live simply and give generously?

I don’t have any firm definitions. I’m not sure they exist, or would prove helpful. For me, at least a starting point was to acknowledge that if I’m spending more on my luxuries than I’m giving away, I can’t claim to be living simply and giving generously.

That was the beginning of a change in how I give. It was birthed out of conviction, not love. I don’t know that I could have been called a “cheerful giver.” But something interesting happened in that process…

As I changed some of those patterns, other things changed, too. I became more patient, less cynical, more willing to listen, less demanding of my own way.

Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.“1 It’s interesting that he says it that way. We so often assume that we follow our hearts––“let your heart decide,” “go where your heart leads,” “give where your heart leads…” But Jesus suggests that our hearts don’t always lead the way. When I began to change where my treasure went, it began to change my heart.

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  1. Matt 6:21

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, 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.

Abundance, Scarcity, and Prodigal living

abundance

Stephen Covey coined the terms “Scarcity Mentality” and “Abundance Mentality” in his excellent book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But the way he used them isn’t the way I usually hear them used.

For Covey, the Scarcity Mentality assumes there’s only one piece of pie out there, and if others get more, it means less for you. It reflects a sort of insecurity about all of life.

By contrast, the Abundance Mentality believes in an expandable pie. There’s enough out there for all of us.

That’s a great perspective. Sadly, I usually hear it (mis)applied to financial decisions. That version goes something like this…

Scarcity Mentality

Scarcity Mentality is all about fear and avoiding risk. It always sees the reason you can’t do something, the reason something will fail. And that reason is usually lack of resources.This might try to disguise itself as prudence.

It would be fair for us to ask Scarcity Mentality people where their faith is. Shouldn’t we be able to act in faith and trust that God can do more than what we imagine?

This is a pretty good application of the Scarcity Mentality. If you (personally or organizationally) have this mentality about things, I hope this challenges you to think differently.

Abundance Mentality #1

What then gets termed “Abundance Mentality” is the view that we can act in faith and God will take care of the rest. We can stretch beyond what’s comfortable, maybe even beyond what’s wise, because we trust that God will provide. It’s a step of faith.

Opposite the Scarcity Mentality, this mentality spurns caution and fear. “Just have faith,” it says.

I’ve used this kind of Abundance Mentality when talking to people about clear matters of faithfulness. You work at a job where you have no option but to lie, swindle, or oppress? I would advise you to leave that job immediately. Even if you don’t have other options. I might even say, “Let’s trust that God is going to reward your faithfulness and provide.”

But this Abundance Mentality gets used much more broadly. It can serve as justification for almost any life or organizational decision. I’ve seen people rack up massive student loan debts because they were sure God wanted them to go to seminary. And whenever a church wants to do more than their budget allows, or build more than what their capital campaign has raised, someone will bring up abundance: “Where’s the faith that God will take care of the rest?”

Unfortunately, that sort of Abundance hasn’t always come through.

After a record stint of church construction in 2002, church foreclosures have become more common. Don’t you imagine there was a lot of talk about abundance when those churches were building? “Even if the numbers don’t quite add up, let’s take a step in faith.” So why have hundreds of congregations been filing for bankruptcy or defaulting on loans? One expert says it bluntly: “Religious organizations may be subject to the laws of God but they are also subject to the laws of economics.”

Seminary graduates are dealing with stifling student loan debt and not finding the work they need to pay it back. One recent grad reflects: “I am not mad at the church. However, I wish someone had advised me against taking on so much debt in order to be trained for ministry.”

Even when these decisions didn’t result in foreclosure or bankruptcy, I’ve seen them result in a lot of compromises. I’ve seen people take jobs that compromised their values (or their stated ministry callings) because they needed to pay those bills. I’ve seen churches compromise their ministries because they had to find a way to keep paying that debt. It seems that too often, this “Abundance Mentality” on the front-end creates a lot of compromise on the back end.

The problem with Abundance Mentality #1 (Prodigal Mentality)

I’m not much a fan of this “Abundance Mentality.” It runs to the other end of the extremes that we see in the Scarcity Mentality. It doesn’t only spurn fear and risk-avoidance, it can serve as an excuse for careless and reckless decisions.

What if some of our “leaps of faith” may actually be excuses for avoiding important questions?

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?“1

Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?“2

Just as the Scarcity Mentality can disguise fear and call it prudence, this mentality can disguise extravagance and lack of discipline and call them faith. When that happens, the better proper name for this is “Prodigal Mentality.”

prodigal |ˈprädigəl|
spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant

So what if we reserved this sort of approach for when it’s truly and unquestionably about faithfulness? When it can’t just be an excuse for prodigal living. Like when it’s about leaving a job that requires us to do evil. Or when we’ve heard a clear call from God, and it has been affirmed by wise and trusted Christian people around us (not to be confused with the people most likely to agree with us.)

[If you really think this applies to your situation for using debt as your primary seminary funding, please at least read “The Modern Pastor and Seminary Debt” and consider it.]

The Real Abundance Mentality

For everything outside those circumstances, I’m going to suggest a different version of Abundance Mentality.

What God has given now is enough for now.

The prayer isn’t, “Oh God, I’m going to do this and trust that you’ll give me enough for it.” But instead, “God give me enough to do what you want.”

And then we faithfully take what God has given and trust that it’s enough to do what God wants.

Don’t confuse this for a passive or small-minded approach, for the dreaded Scarcity Mentality. Dream big!

If you work for a grant-funded organization, be diligent and creative in your grant-writing. If you’re a church depending on people’s contributions, then paint a big vision and encourage them to give. If you’re considering school, apply for scholarships and look for work that will help you pay for it.

Aggressively seek what you need so that you can do what you believe you should do. Especially seek it in prayer.

But if it doesn’t come, might you take that as a sign that you’re misunderstanding the calling? Better to let that be the sign than serious setbacks later.

And don’t confuse this for lack of faith. This can be the hardest version of faith––we don’t get to do what we had our hearts set on because God hasn’t yet provided for it. And so we wait and trust that God’s plan is better than our own.

Faithful with what we have

Be faithful with the few things God has given you now, and God will put you in charge of many things.3

We’re never called in Scripture to be faithful with more than what we have.4 I wonder if this era of easy debt has skewed our thinking about faithfulness––trying to be faithful with things we don’t have in the first place.

So let’s live with neither the fear of the Scarcity Mentality or the recklessness of the Prodigal Mentality. Let’s ask God for his biggest dreams––bigger than what we may ever expect on our own. And let’s ask God to provide for them in his timing. And then let’s trust in God’s abundance––that what he has given today is enough for today, and what he will give tomorrow will be enough for tomorrow.

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