The Vile Practices of Church Leadership
By Nate Berneking
Copyright © 2017 by Abingdon Press
At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation.
On April 2, 1739, apparently at the specific hour of 4 p.m., John Wesley decided to set aside his own preferences and interact with people who weren’t attending worship, men and women toiling in mines or fields, laboring in trades, drinking in pubs, living ordinary lives, often in squalid conditions. The notion of preaching in fields or meetinghouses, rather than churches, seemed so culturally and religiously uncouth that he, an ordained priest, a member of a “higher” class set apart from peasants, tradespeople, and workers, resisted. Yet his own need to share the good news with all people overwhelmed his sensibilities.
Submitting to be more vile, he embraced field preaching, class organizing, and in the end, even ordaining preachers and superintendents for America, an act of explicit disobedience to his bishop, all as the means to support one priority: sharing the gospel. This is the way of life in any mission field. In order to yield fruit, we must be ready to be more vile, to set aside sensibilities and declare sharing the gospel as our priority.
United Methodists are steeped in the mission field metaphor, an understanding that the communities in which they work need translation and enculturation. As pastors and laity, we must set aside sensibilities and preferences to prioritize the gospel. Ideally, church leaders work to learn the appropriate strategies for sharing the gospel even when those strategies take them outside their preferences.
In recent years, many American Christians have come to understand pastoral leadership in terms of an ability to strategize for evangelism. One might even say evangelistic strategizing has become the central pastoral activity, changing what it means to be in pastoral ministry and requiring us to be more intentional in outreach efforts. Unfortunately, not every area necessary for reaching new generations has been addressed so intentionally.
Stating the Issue
I’d like to use this book to draw attention to one lagging area, to a set of practices many prefer to ignore, while others dread having to consider. Many of the same pastors who adeptly strategize in matters of evangelism, faith formation, and mission activities, likewise exhibit fear and ignorance when considering matters of finance and administration. Despite extensive literature relating to stewardship and generosity, many even struggle with those activities, while finance and administration practices are left unaddressed. However, effective ministry practices must be undergirded by healthy practices of budgeting, accounting, and financial reporting. The truth is, given the reluctance to explore finance and administration with greater intentionality, many pastors have never even been presented with the opportunity to grasp the most basic skills.
I use finance and administration as a shorthand for a huge range of topics that touch upon congregational life: budgeting, accounting, retirement savings/pensions, other employee benefits, staff management, real-estate matters, and other general legal issues. It isn’t that authors have failed to make the connections between generosity and a congregation’s administrative health. Instead, many pastors simply haven’t been able or willing to submit to the vileness necessary to learn these skills.
Many aren’t even able to take that step to improve their personal financial practices. With the rest of the population, student debt and poor financial planning nag clergy. Any financial, legal, or administrative issue has the potential to strike fear in the hearts of faithful and otherwise competent pastors. As a result, pastors often leave the finances and administration of their local church to laity who are equally fearful and ignorant of how such practices ought to be conducted at church. Laity may be well versed in business, but struggle to make translations needed for Christian communities, lacking spiritual language or United Methodist particularities, feeling self-conscious in matters they pursue with confidence at work or home.
If we are to support our priorities in ministry, pastors and laity need more resources and greater clarity when it comes to finance and administration.
Basic Assumptions: Holy People for Holy Congregations
Before we get too far, I confess to certain assumptions, some the subject of vigorous, even healthy debate. For example, I take for granted that the church must develop local congregations with an ability to translate things usually understood as secular into inherently spiritual language. I embrace the notion that Christians must always move from their congregations into the communities around them. I further embrace the notion that sharing the gospel is the world’s greatest hope for transformation and healing. This movement and sharing is always the central task of Christians and local churches. In other words, I embrace Wesley’s priority of sharing the gospel.
These assumptions about the central task of churches shape my understanding of congregational leadership. All people are called to ministry, but pastors and some laity are set apart for a unique task with two parts: leading the congregation to share the good news with the communities around them, and strengthening those in the congregation who conduct that work.
From the beginning, Jesus sent his disciples, the spiritual leaders of the early movement, with “power and authority” to share that “God’s kingdom” was near and to offer healing to broken people (Luke 9:1-10). They were sent as holy and empowered people to share a holy message. That’s still the central task. Secondarily, leaders were charged with strengthening those doing the sharing. In Acts 14, the Holy Spirit sent the newly converted Apostle Paul to several towns and villages. Paul and Barnabas visited the cities of Iconium and Lystra. They did just as the first disciples in Luke 9. They shared the good news. People were intrigued, even converted. Then, Paul and Barnabas moved elsewhere. In the last verses of 14, however, they returned to Iconium and Lystra and “strengthened the disciples and urged them to remain firm in the faith” (v. 22). They also “appointed elders for each church” (v. 23). In other words, the model set forth by the early Christians was to proclaim the message and then, to establish communities to assist people in keeping and sharing the faith.
This was John Wesley’s model. He preached in the fields gaining converts, then organized people into classes and societies. He sent his preachers to those societies to do just as Paul did in Lystra and Iconium: to strengthen souls and encourage people.
The church has always needed the work of both evangelists and leaders entrusted with the work of soul strengthening, with the encouragement of the body they inhabit. Pastors lead in both roles, and the trust required for it has never come cheaply.
The Apostle Paul was at his best when his churches trusted his intentions and motivations. When trust was eroded, his work became more difficult. When United Methodist pastors lose the trust of their congregations, regardless of a pastor’s guilt or innocence, a conversation with the district superintendent is almost certain to come.
From Jesus and his early disciples to Paul to John Wesley and now in our era, pastors and certain laity are understood in terms of a holy people sent to lead holy communities, communities charged with the task of sharing the good news, thereby transforming the world. People don’t have to be perfect for this role, ordination vows notwithstanding, but we must always maintain integrity with our congregations. If pastors call for holy living such that the greater community might develop its own trust of the congregation, the members of that congregation must always be assured that the pastor engages in the same patterns of holy living. Pastors must keep priorities straight, even when it means acting in ways they feel are “vile.” Without a clear and firmly rooted priority for the good news, without living into behaviors consistent with that priority, calls of hypocrisy will grow louder, always nagging, hindering ministry.
Leaders must constantly strive to maintain their own personal and social holiness in order to retain their authority to lead congregations in their quest for the same personal and social holiness. It’s a bit too simple to say that they must lead by good example, but practicing what one preaches is simply the basic cost of doing ministry.
In each generation, this has meant something different. In our own era, much emphasis is placed on strategy, facilitation of resources, and administrative oversight. With these emphases, it is troubling that pastors (not to mention laity leaders) struggle in matters of personal finance and administration, a struggle that manifests in personal and congregational life. Finance and administration are key aspects of healthy communities in the eyes of many. And, too many congregations lack meaningful spiritual leadership when it comes to budgeting, accounting, managing resources, and facilitating generosity. When leaders are unable to provide effective leadership with respect to finances, the whole congregation begins to erode in its effectiveness. The perception of outsiders may be worse. When a pastor is unable to lead through times of financial concern or conflicted budget processes, the congregation loses sight of the real purpose of financial resources. Blind to these purposes, a congregation’s ability to discern the work to which it is called erodes, unsettling the very ground on which it builds shared life.
I contend that learning basic financial and administrative skills, something considered vile by so many, becomes a gateway on the path to holiness, and therefore a means toward individual and congregational discernment of actual ministry. Learning how to care for one’s God-given resources is part of what it is to listen for what God might desire.
Addressing the Issue: Becoming More Vile to Be More Holy
This book’s purpose is twofold: (a) to provide a primer on several financial and administrative matters; and (b) to articulate a basic theological understanding of the work around finance and administration. Despite the lack of intentionality, I’ve found an audience aware of the need for integrity and starving for information that would help them achieve it. Most leaders want to be healthier in matters of finance and administration, even as they resist it. It is important to articulate these matters in a manner consistent with the polity of the United Methodist Church.
Beyond the pragmatic, pastors must develop an ability to translate. As Christians, we live in a world with two realms. On the one hand, we operate in the ecclesiastical realm. In the United Methodist Church, we are comfortable with the language of conferencing, sacraments, and scripture. We speak easily of discipleship processes, even when we aren’t sure what they ought to be. We use the language of prayer, and theologically, we deploy eschatological terms to discuss the church’s purpose. We believe God is “transforming the world” and at least our clergy can talk about their work and the work of their churches in those terms. We’re even well versed in language that at first blush seems administrative: the book of discipline, church council, trustees, finance, charge conference, and end-of-year reports.
At the same time, the world we inhabit has a second realm, one that understands itself as secular. It isn’t that no one believes in God anymore. But, in this realm, people, some even attending church, fail to articulate the connection of things in this secular realm to any sort of divinity, higher power, or God. Pastors certainly inhabit this realm, and in some matters, move easily in and out of the ecclesiastical and secular. On their best days, pastors even articulate a theological vision that encompasses both: one world, created by God, but broken and at least partially separated from the God seeking to redeem the whole thing.
In matters of finance, however, pastors and lay leaders struggle (a) to understand the secular language and approach, (b) to comprehend how those secular approaches might interface with ecclesiastical structures, and (c) to translate both the secular and their own ecclesiastical knowledge into terms that will facilitate health in their congregations. I want to offer the basics of the language of finance and administration while also articulating a theological understanding. I want to offer theological language that might be used when thinking through and translating these matters for a Christian community.
I’ve broken the book into two parts. In Part I, I sketch out practices for the personal finances of pastors and other church leaders. I do this out of the conviction that it takes people striving to be more holy, to lead holy congregations. I don’t want to be misunderstood as holding leaders to an unattainable standard of perfection. Rather, I seek only to encourage colleagues to be more vile; to be better, more informed, and more consistent with their own financial behavior. I’ve shaped the chapters around topics about which I am asked most frequently—personal generosity, personal budgeting, retirement savings (specifically United Methodist pension programs), and planning for taxes. I begin with personal generosity, a practice pastors are often quite good at fulfilling, many much better than me. My intent is to articulate how generosity might flow through all other financial practices.
In Part II, I transition from writing of holy people to discussing matters in the congregations they lead. Churches always want to know how to “get more money.” I just don’t have the answer. Instead, I offer ways of talking about generosity that I believe are more compelling than others. I’m aware that churches believe they need more money, but that’s grounded in fear about the future. I advocate an approach to finances shaped by the courage and trust required for great acts of generosity. Using trust as the central theme, I move on to matters of budgeting, accounting, basic tax, and a few legal issues.
I’m not naïve. This book will not end anxiety in matters of finance and administration. Instead, I hope to offer a starting point. Even limited changes can yield results. I hope that pastors and laity who see finance and administration as the nastiest parts of congregational life will, with Wesley, submit to be more vile. I hope they gain more traction in leadership; I hope they find themselves a holy people leading holy congregations.