Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pastors and finances

Four years ago our region was blessed with a Lilly grant designed to assist our pastors with financial needs.  Since we began we have been able to assist pastors with several hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.  Much of this was to pay for medical expenses that were not covered by insurance.  We've paid off thousands of dollars of student loan debt.  We were able to help a pastor who lost his library and office equipment in a fire replace his books and equipment.  A number of pastors with automobile problems have been helped get them repaired.  I could go on and on telling amazing stories of pastors whose lives and ministries have been changed due to this grant.  Lilly believed that if pastors did not have to worry so much about bills they could be more effective pastors, and I believe their theory is correct.

This has been an eye opening experience for many of us in the region.  Going to school part time I was able to cash flow my education.  I did not know until we began doing this that the average seminary graduate leaves school with $40,000-50,000 in student loan debt.  I've personally talked to one who had over $60,000 in student loan debt.  I've been blessed as a bivocational minister to have excellent insurance through my other employer and didn't realize some of the medical debt some of our pastors were carrying.

I've also been amazed at how difficult it is for pastors to talk to their churches about their debt.  This grant requires that every dollar our region gives must be matched, usually by the church the pastor serves.  I know many pastors who should be applying for assistance but won't because they do not want their church to know of their financial plight.  As many as we've helped we know we haven't scratched the surface due to the fear or pride that prevents the pastors from admitting they have needs.  In some cases, the pastor's concerns are justified due to the size of the church and its inability to provide those matching funds.  Fortunately, we do have other avenues we can use to find matching funds.  But, in too many cases the pastors do not want to admit their needs because of pride.  This pride places continued stress on both the pastor and his or her family and is unfortunate.

Most judicatories do not have the opportunity to help their pastors as we do in our state thanks to the generosity of Lilly, but that doesn't mean the need isn't there.  In fact, our experience shows just how great a need does exist.  Many pastors are drowning in debt, not always the result of their spending habits.  Some of these will leave the ministry to seek careers that offer larger salaries in order to pay their bills.  Others will continue to struggle financially which will impact their ministry effectiveness.

Here is a way for churches to step in and help their pastors.  I know only too well how many churches, especially smaller ones, like to poor-mouth.  Although they claim to struggle financially, I also know many that have large sums of money in savings or on CDs.  What a blessing they could be if they would help their pastor with some of his or her financial needs.  October is Pastor Appreciation Month, and I can think of no better way to show your pastor how much you appreciate him or her than to help ease his or her financial burdens.

Church leaders may be thinking that their pastor doesn't have any financial challenges, but you won't know until you discuss this with the pastor.  Believe me, many of them are hiding major financial difficulties from their congregations.  You may be reluctant to discuss this with your pastor thinking it's none of your business, but if you are talking to him or her because you want to help then it is your business.  Your church may not be able to pay off the sums of money our region has been able to pay with our grant, but if you paid off even one bill it might relieve a lot of stress.  I can remember a time in our lives when if we had just one less bill it would have made a tremendous difference.

Another thing our grant enables us to do is to send our pastors to receive financial counseling.  There are pastors who are seminary graduates who can't balance a checkbook.  Some have adequate income but have never learned how to prepare a budget or manage their money.  When we find a pastor who would benefit from financial counseling we send that person to some people we have identified throughout our region as being especially competent.  Your church could do the same for your pastor.  In fact, most pastors I know would benefit from some level of financial counseling that might range from how to balance a checkbook to investing and planning for retirement.  Here's another way you could demonstrate your appreciation for your pastor in October.  I know I would prefer something like that to a Wal-Mart gift card!

Pastors are people called by God to serve God's people.  That doesn't mean they don't have financial challenges like many others.  Their cars break down, their children may need braces, they go to the emergency rooms, they misuse credit cards, and the list goes on.  As their financial challenges increase so do their stress levels.  Few pastors receive large salaries, and if they get behind financially it's very difficult for them to catch up.  How great it would be if their churches would begin to invest in the future of their pastors by helping financially when they have unexpected needs.

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