Every semester when I talk to my students about the many pitfalls that ministers need to avoid, I ask them to name the most dangerous areas where a minister could make a catastrophic mistake. Inevitably the number one answer is some sort of sexual sin. As we continue the conversation, especially if I ask them to give examples of reasons why someone could be fired or asked to resign from a ministry position, the next common answer is mishandling of money.
Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, … not a lover of money.
1 Timothy 3:2-3
Here are five principles that ministers should follow when it comes to personal and church finances:
- Be above reproach in personal finances: The biblical qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 require pastors be above reproach. How can you be above reproach in your finances? The main way is to pay your bills on time. Have integrity to meet the financial promises that you have made to those with whom you do business.
- Be wise in handling church money: Never spend money where you have not been explicitly authorized to do so. And even when authorized, keep detailed records. I suggest you make copies of the receipts that you turn in and keep an electronic copy as well. Strive to make it obvious that you are above reproach with church finances. In my opinion, you are absolutely crazy if you or anyone in your family agrees to serve as church treasurer. There are just too many opportunities for issues and accusations when a pastor or family member serves in this type of leadership. We should cast vision for the use of church finances but not be in charge of the record keeping.
In my opinion, you are absolutely crazy if you or anyone in your family agrees to serve as church treasurer.
- Avoid debt: Too many pastors are so swallowed up in personal debt that they are more concerned with their finances than with the ministry to which God has called them. I encourage every pastor to avoid any debt except for a house. Why do I do this? I have learned the hard way how credit card debt as well as student and auto loans can enslave the pastor and rob him of peace and power. I strongly recommend the resources at www.crown.org and www.daveramsey.com to those who need help in this area.
- Don’t live above the average level of your congregation: We must avoid legalism in this area, but we must also stay above reproach and avoid even the appearance of evil (avoiding looking like we are greedy for money, or my favorite translation “filthy lucre”). I think it wise for the pastor to maintain a lifestyle that falls close to the median income of his congregation. You do not need to live like the poorest but probably should not have a lifestyle equivalent to the richest member either. Ultimately, we must seek God’s discernment in this area.
- Be careful when leading a church into substantial debt: “God has called us to build a new building, and we need to step out on faith.” “We NEED more space, and God is leading us to build.” We must be careful when we claim God’s leading in any area. Many times, God gets blamed for building projects that He had nothing to do with. Here are a few specific rules that I embrace in this area:
- Building debt should never be at a level where it hinders ministry.
- As a pastor, if you feel led of God to take a church into substantial debt, then have the integrity to lead them out of it. I am amazed how many times I hear that a pastor has led a church into substantial debt, claiming God’s will in the matter, just to turn around and feel “led” to a larger church across the state. I would contend that they quite possibly missed the will of God in one or both matters.
- If you inherit debt as a pastor, passionately lead them to get out of debt quicker than scheduled.
- Wait to build until you have a substantial amount of the money on hand, preferably half or more of the total projected cost. Do not give up on the fact that building projects can be paid for without any debt whatsoever. I can share with you numerous stories of how churches have been incredibly blessed to build as they go and learn to trust God in the process.
- If you do borrow money, strive to borrow with the goal of being out of debt in three years or less. I have been amazed how quickly churches can pay off substantial debt in a quick period of time when they are challenged to do so!
Remember, money is amoral—it is neither good nor evil—but how we use it can either glorify God and advance His kingdom or can cause us and those around us to stumble. May we be good stewards of all that God has entrusted to us in our personal lives and in the ministries where we give oversight.
Tommy Kiker serves as assistant professor of pastoral theology, James T. Draper Jr. Chair of Pastoral Ministry, and chair of the pastoral ministry department at Southwestern Seminary. He writes regularly at www.tommykiker.com. Follow him on Twitter @tommykiker.