Saturday, March 10, 2012

How Much Do We Love? Sacrifice? Give? Or Is It Just Leftovers...

I am preparing to lead a spiritual formation time in the midst of a difficult season. Like most district superintendents, I am in the midst of projecting pastoral appointments for the next conference year. I find myself in more prayer and introspection than at any other time in my life. I think this is a good thing. It is also frustrating.

I read the book Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (Francis Chan) a few months ago, and found myself convicted and rebuked of things I thought I had grasped: sacrifice, agape love, surrender, taking risks. The reality is, we are always on the journey to master these, and usually come up short. We Wesleyans love to talk about the process of sanctification, and going on to Christian perfection (lessening or abolishing our bent to sin), but more often than not it results in resignation that we can't do it, instead of adopting prayerful mindsets and disciplines that might actually help us attain such. I am as guilty as anyone.

Chan asked some very direct and harsh questions in his book: Do you grasp the beauty and deep joy of walking in genuine intimacy with God, our holy Father and Friend? Do you want to see God more than you desire security? Do we have enough faith to do what others might see as crazy but God would see as faithful? Are we willing to do things that might cost us in this life but worth it for the Kingdom? Are we willing to give, being motivated by nothing except love? Are we willing to 'downsize' so that others might 'upgrade?'

I bought a very modest house last year - something that I can pay off fairly quickly. All of my vehicles are paid for. Yesterday, on a day when I really needed to be able to work in quiet and peace, I was having work done on a chimney that needed repair. It was loud; a mortar-mixer was running, old brick was being knocked out. I was perturbed that my quiet, safe sanctuary of a home was loud and overrun with people everywhere. This morning, I now find myself ashamed, because I am complaining about a little noise and having repairs that I can afford being done to a house that more than meets my comfort needs. Because I make more than $4,000 a month, I make one hundred times more than the average person in this world. I have a roof over my head. Running water. Climate control. High def television. As Chan points out, the sin is not in making that money - it is in not realizing how rich I really am. Rich in money, rich in comfort, rich in gifts and grace.

In dealing with pastors, I've wrestled with how to deal with our bent to sin. If a pastor is projected for a move, they want to know how much their salary will be. Can I continue to live in my house? Do you think the church could maybe pay a little more? Why am I getting a cut? (a downright sinful response from those who agreed to itinerate, and in a denomination that is in rapid decline). Rarely a question about a church's ministry and needs. Rarely does a pastor ask, "What do you think the church's main needs will be?" We sound like agents trying to negotiate the best salary and perks for a new job, instead of those availing themselves to serve. We find ourselves in competition with other pastors rather than in competition with Evil. It makes me want to ask the question: "Would you be a pastor if you got paid next to nothing? Would your heart still burn to preach the Gospel, to serve the Church in Word, Sacrament, and Order?" I think the answer to that question tells us loads about our call.

Dealing with churches is no less frustrating. They want to know, can we get a younger pastor, with a family? What did we do wrong to get this pastor? Do we have to pay our apportionments? Or the newest one: "We don't want to be part of a charge or a parish - we want to be on our own!" And when a pastor is asked to be moved, a litany of complaints follows. But when I ask, "Have you prayed with and for your pastor? Did you talk to him/her about these concerns?", I usually get silence. Pastors are expected to be spiritual leaders, but they are often treated like hirelings.

Of course everyone has frustrations - we are human beings, flawed and imperfect! But I wonder how often we examine our frustrations to see if they are founded in truth or founded in sin and self-absorption. Sometimes, there is reason to overturn the tables in the Temple. But many times, there is more reason to get on our knees and confess and repent of our thoughts and attitudes.

It seems like we only give God our best when it comes to lament and complaint! I wonder: do we really love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength - or just part of it? The First Commandment often becomes more like the First Impediment. As Chan remarks, "We give Jesus a section of our time, money, and thoughts, but He isn't allowed to control our lives." Our love of Jesus is at best conditional, comes with strings attached, and very selective.

United Methodist pastors vowed to itinerate regardless of income. We vowed to serve the church above our own comfort and to make sacrifices. Church members vowed to serve the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, and services. We all said that we would put Christ first, and minister to the least and the lost. I think it may be time to quit giving God leftovers and start giving our best. A little sacrifice and contriteness wouldn't hurt us a bit.

I am glad our God is a forgiving God, full of grace. We can be a hard-headed bunch.



Anonymous said...

I agree, Sky, and have a wonderful suggestion for a first step at addressing this issue: let all bishops, district superintendents, and other conference level appointees set the pace by cutting their own salaries to the minimum level for their respective conferences, then channel the savings to various equitable compensation funds and/or Central Conferences. Why stop there? Perhaps they would be willing to be "paid next to nothing?" Heck, they might even do it for free. That would prove the sincerity of their call. It would also knock the wind right out of the sails of all those silly pastors who have questions about thier compensations. What a wonderful opportunity to lead by example.

Sky McCracken said...

Dear Anonymous:

I usually trash anonymous emails and letters (and advise others to do the same) because they begin from a point of dishonesty and suspicion. But you ask fair questions and I'll answer them.

The salaries of all of those folks you name are set by the annual conference - and an A/C can set those salaries at any level of their choosing. And I think we ARE leading by example: upon leaving the district, no superintendent is guaranteed anything other than an appointment at minimum salary... same as any other pastor. And I think if you look at our annual conference as well as others, you can point to more than a few former superintendents that took a decrease in pay after they served as a superintendent; one, for rge obvious reason that there just aren't that many places to go that pay more. Also, just because someone has the gifts to be a superintendent doesn't mean that they have the gifts to serve a large membership church. They are entirely different animals. Being a superintendent is at best for a season. I'm certainly not "banking" on making this kind of salary the rest of my ministry - anyone that does in our conference is in a fantasy world.

The point I was trying to make, at least from the intent of the itinerancy, is that churches set what their compensation will be and then trust the Church to send them a pastor who will lead them. The itinerancy was NOT designed to be a tenure and seniority-based system for pastors. And by sheer attrition (if things remain current), resources are diminishing in local churches. I have more than a couple of churches in the district I serve that are dropping their pastoral remuneration because they wish to continue to support the conference with apportionments. How long can the guaranteed appointment and minimum salaries be sustained with continued decline and diminishing resources?

As far as my own salary - our family bought a very meager home and is living very simply so that we can be more than generous with others; we know we are more than blessed, and share that in many ways - including significant offerings to the churches in the Paducah District. If our salary were cut, I wouldn't protest a bit and would continue to serve at the bishop's pleasure. That's what I agreed to when I was ordained and received into membership.

If we're truly called by God and we avail ourselves to serve the Church... don't we think God will give us what we need? It may not by a lot by the world's standards... but isn't it enough? Doesn't God know what He's doing?

There is legislation submitted to General Conference to equalize all salaries in a manner similar to what you suggest. Perhaps it will pass!



Mike Mather said...

Sky - thanks for the posting. I imagine that I too am going to not get to the point of your article - but I thought I'd tell you my story of my experiences with our United Methodist system. I have served three congregations in my 26 years as an ordained United Methodist pastor. In one appointment at the beginning of my ministry, after serving 4 years in a large urban congregation (as an associate who was "pastor in the streets") I asked my district superintendent to convey my wishes to be appointed to a smaller congregation. He allowed as how this was a very unusual request but promised to pass it along. I loved the congregation I was serving, and the other clergy I served with, but truly felt called to a small urban congregation (wherever it might be). A year later the bishop called me at home early one morning and began my journey to a delightful and very small congregation in Northern Indiana. It was wonderful. I was there for 11 1/2 years and could have imagined staying there my remaining 20 plus years. In my last few years, my district superintendent, a very good guy who meant well (for me, certainly) would meet with me and say "I can get you a bigger place; I can get you more money." I would say "why? I'm happy, the congregation is happy and my family is happy - why would we want to mess with that?" I truly felt called to that small congregation - which had remained small - but had grown about 50 percent, from when I had arrived. I even wrote a little book for our denomination on vital ministry in the small membership church. After 11 1/2 years I got a call to return to the big urban church where I had been associate years before. When I asked the district superintendent why this move, he said "because it's a step up for you." I replied: "that sucks for a reason." He asked me to think about it and pray about it. The next day he called and asked for my decision. I said, "I still feel called to remain where I am." He said, "the bishop would like to speak with you." "Mike," the bishop said, "I'd like you to go to consider going to this church." "Why," I asked him. "Because it would be a step and a half up for you." "That sucks for a reason," I replied. "You need to take care of your family," he said. "Who in my family is complaining to you," I asked. It was at this point that for the first time I was given a ministry reason for going (but I must admit it felt forced). He asked me to consider it over the weekend. I told him of course I would. On Monday he called and asked for my decision. I told him that we had thought about it and prayed about it and still felt called to remain where we were. He said, "I'm making this appointment." And I said, "then I go joyfully and gladly." Which I did. That's what I signed up for. And I've been in my new parish for 9 years. I still feel called to the small membership church and believe that I'll have a chance to do that again before I retire. But my concern is that the only thing the bishop and the district superintendent thought would convince me to go was that it would be moving up the ladder. And I don't think I'm alone in this experience with conversations with colleagues around the country, and with my father, who also served for 40 years as a United Methodist pastor and General Conference administrator. I do not discount your experience - I certainly don't have any problem believing that you have heard what you reported. I just think that this is broken all the way around.

Sky McCracken said...


Your comments have humbled me greatly. Bless you and your ministry!