Which two areas in a local church have the greatest potential to catapult a pastor out of ministry?
According to church conflict expert Dr. Peter Steinke, those two areas are money and sex.
When I first became a pastor, I was unprepared for the value placed on money in the local church. In fact, I can’t recall even one word being devoted to the topic in seminary.
But the quickest way for a pastor to be pushed out the door is for him to mess up – even in a small way – on church finances.
Let me share with you seven brief thoughts I’ve learned about pastors and church finances:
First, the pastor’s personal finances need to be in pristine order.
A pastor needs to watch his spending and his indebtedness very carefully.
Although they shouldn’t, some people watch the kind of car the pastor drives and the kind of house in which he lives … and if they think he’s being excessive, they will rip into him behind his back.
One famous pastor bought a cabin in the mountains with income unrelated to his church ministry, but a vocal minority howled about it, and it became a factor in his eventual departure.
I remember hearing another time about a pastor who had a gambling problem. As I recall, he finally gambled away his house … and soon afterwards, his career.
My wife and I have lived by a budget for most of our married life. We both have set allowances every month, and we can spend those funds however we like, but each of us is accountable to the other for every other expenditure.
I check my bank accounts online nearly every day and balance my checkbook at the same time. At any given moment, I know exactly how much money we have and how much we have to spend.
Because when it comes to personal finances, I hate being surprised.
In 36 years of ministry, I can’t recall a single time that anyone criticized me in the area of personal finances. I’m sure some did, but their comments never got around to me.
But realize this: people assume that church funds are managed the way the pastor manages his own funds.
This area is crucial because of the next lesson:
Second, the pastor must give generously to his local church.
By generously, I mean at least a tithe, and preferably beyond a tithe.
I don’t know if he still does this, but for years, whenever he preached on giving, Pastor Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church would invite people up to the front after his message so they could view his checkbook and see how much he gave to the church.
Following his example, I did this for years, but my son Ryan was the only person who ever took me up on it!
If a pastor isn’t giving at least a tithe to his church, he can’t speak with integrity on the subject, and that will come through in his preaching.
The day after the conflict broke in my last church seven years ago, I preached on the story of the widow’s mite from Mark 12:41-44. I was so rattled that I forgot my tithe check at home. Between services, I drove home, wrote my usual check, returned to the church, and dropped the check in the offering … then shared that story during the second service.
I don’t believe that if a pastor tithes, his church will automatically do well financially, but I do believe that if a pastor doesn’t tithe, his church won’t do well financially.
And there are always a few people in the church who know the truth about the pastor’s giving, especially the money counters and the financial secretary. During anxious times within the congregation, if even one financial person tells someone else about the pastor’s giving patterns … well, let your imagination run wild!
Third, the pastor should never handle people’s donations: period.
In my last ministry, people would sometimes come up to me after the service – especially people on the worship team – and tell me, “Hey, Jim, I wasn’t able to put my donation in the offering today. Will you take care of this for me?”
I always told each person the same thing, “No, I don’t handle money, but let’s go together and you can put your donation in the drop safe.”
We had a slot carved out of the wall next to the church office where people could insert their donations. They went down a chute and instantly fell into a safe.
I treated other people’s money like poison. I didn’t want anything to do with it.
In that way, it would be difficult to accuse me of stealing someone’s donation, whether by cash or by check.
Years before, at another church, someone once slipped fifty dollars in cash under my door. Whoever put the money there didn’t identify themselves or the purpose of their gift.
When I mentioned it to the finance team leader, I thought he’d hand me the money. Instead, he immediately deposited it in the offering … and his actions protected my financial reputation.
Fourth, the pastor needs to make sure that people’s donations are protected by safeguards.
I once knew a married couple who scooped up the Sunday offerings, took them home, counted them together, and then deposited the funds in the bank the following day.
This practice was a carryover from the previous administration, and when I found out about it, I quickly put a stop to it.
Another time, a law enforcement officer in our congregation told me that after the offerings were taken in each service, a woman took the proceeds, walked several hundred feet by herself, and then locked the money away until after the service. He told me, “It’s dangerous for her to carry those funds by herself. What if someone knows her route, hits her on the head, and steals the money?”
I didn’t think about things like that because I was preaching when she made her walk, but his comment spurred me to make sure that she was accompanied by at least one other person … preferably a strong man.
We eventually devised a system that started with donations … ended with the bookkeeper writing checks … and covered everything in between.
For example, we always made sure to have three people counting money. If one person counts the offerings, they might be tempted to embezzle funds. Even two people working in concert could engage in embezzling. But when there are three money counters, embezzlement almost never occurs.
Fifth, the pastor must communicate that the church budget is a servant, not a master.
Let’s say that you have a family budget, and that you have a category marked “household repairs.” You just fixed your garbage disposal for $200 so you have little money left for other problems.
But then your refrigerator begins to leak water, and after calling out a friend, he tells you, “Your refrigerator is shot. You need another one.”
Since the “household repairs” category has been depleted, are you going to wait months to buy a refrigerator?
No, you’ll move heaven and earth to buy one right away, regardless of the budget category. Your family NEEDS a refrigerator.
Unfortunately, I’ve dealt with a handful of board/finance people who act like the church budget is a master. If a category becomes depleted, they’ll say, “I’m sorry, but we just don’t have funds for that item until next year’s budget.”
Church budgets should be as flexible as possible. Yes, God’s people need to learn to live within their means, and yes, some items and repairs can wait, but there are times when a church will limp along unless it replaces the copier or fixes that leaky toilet in the men’s room.
One of the great things about not being a pastor is that I don’t have to consult the bean counters anymore.
Sixth, the pastor needs to realize that money flows toward the most effective ministries.
In my last ministry, my wife was our church’s outreach director for nearly nine years, and she knew how to get things done.
One Saturday night early in her tenure, we had a big feast on the lawn outside the worship center. The place was packed, we had gondola rides on the lagoon adjoining our property, and the mayor and his wife even stopped by for a visit.
My wife’s vision and passion to reach people became contagious. One couple in particular began donating large amounts of money directly to her ministry through the offering.
Some on the board were very upset about this development. They wanted to ask the couple to give to the general fund instead.
While I understood their viewpoint, I pointed out that if the couple was told where to give the funds, they might stop giving altogether.
During our entire time in that church, funds flowed easily toward the outreach and missions ministries because that was the primary area that God was blessing.
But there were other ministries that weren’t as well funded … mostly because nobody was very excited about them.
I still believe this basic principle: money flows toward the ministries … and churches … that God is blessing.
Finally, the pastor needs to monitor the financial systems privately but stay away from the money publicly.
If there’s a breach in the financial systems of a church, the pastor may very well be blamed, even if he had nothing directly to do with a violation.
For that reason, the pastor needs to make sure that his church does everything in the financial realm properly, because if he doesn’t, it may be his head that rolls.
About ten years ago, a prominent megachurch here in Southern California suspended the senior pastor because of financial irregularities involving a staff member. The pastor knew nothing about the staff member’s sloppiness, yet the pastor was scapegoated and eventually forced to resign.
I believe that a pastor’s involvement … at least in a small or medium-sized church … extends even to who the money counters are. Whenever my last ministry needed a new money counter, I would make a list of potential volunteers. We needed someone who was committed to the ministry … had a lifestyle of integrity … and who would keep their mouth shut about who gave how much.
Those people aren’t always easy to find, but they are worth waiting for.
At home, I’m hands on with the money: budgeting … keeping records … transferring funds … paying bills online … the works.
But even though I could handle the funds directly inside a church, it’s crucial that I delegate those duties to others who are optimally qualified or else I will be viewed as a control freak.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, I was pastoring a new church in Silicon Valley. We had the location, the staff, and the ministry for growth, but in that resistant environment, the ministry was not growing as fast as I wanted … and that included the finances … which made me anxious and even fearful at times.
One night, during our midweek worship time, the Lord spoke to me in an audible voice … the only time I ever remember this happening.
His word was just for me. The Lord said, “You take care of the ministry, and I will take care of the money.”
And He did.
The Lord wants all of His shepherds to know that taking care of the money is a huge part of taking care of the ministry.