An Open Letter to our Pastors

Everyone has his hand out for money.

When I turn off the interstate onto Elysian Fields Avenue headed to the office, there’s a guy with a “Hungry” sign standing there in the weeds giving drivers that stare guaranteed to ruin the rest of their day if they don’t hand him their loose change.

When I joined the National World War II museum in our city, I quickly discovered the most immediate benefit was monthly letters asking for more money than the measly annual fees. Same with the public radio station here in town. And now the LSU athletic program needs our help.

Arguably, the most successful collegiate athletic program in the country–not only in football, with the LSU Tigers winning the national championship last Monday night, but in baseball and other sports where they are regular contenders for top honors–LSU has announced they need a little more money from season ticket holders.

Interestingly, the university is not raising ticket prices; they’re increasing the “surcharge” which season ticket holders pay in order to qualify them to purchase season tickets. Got that? A fascinating bit of reasoning here. According to the news release Thursday, surcharges will range from $50 to $400 per person. And why would they be doing this after a year when the stadium is regularly sold out and where you have to know someone to get on the list for a season ticket? Athletic Director Skip Bertman says they need to raise $14 million more each year to pay for the higher costs of the program and to build a new dorm for the band.

The band needs a dorm?

Here’s a paragraph from the Times-Picayune story in Friday’s paper: “Membership (dues) in the Tiger Athletic Foundation, the school’s athletic fund-raising arm (are) expected to increase. It all goes to feed an increasingly insatiable need to keep up with the Joneses, or, in this case, the Floridas and the Alabamas.”

That brings back a small memory from 20 years ago.

I was pastoring a church in North Carolina and some of us had driven down to Clemson University for a football game. One of our church members, Danny Pearman, was a starter on the team and we wanted to support him. In the parking lot, I noticed stickers on people’s cars that read “IPTAY.” Our associate pastor, Joe Burnette, said, “You haven’t noticed mine? I have one on my car.”

“It stands for ‘I Pay Ten a Year,'” he said. “Originally, someone came up with the idea of all the supporters of the sports programs to kick in an extra ten dollars a year to help things out. They called it the IPTAY club.”

I said, “How much is it now? Still ten dollars?” He laughed. “You don’t want to know.”

And that was twenty years ago. Joe was right; I do not want to know what the program costs today.

The United Way in your town needs money from you. Your children’s school is raising money. The local community recreation department needs an infusion of cash for new facilities. The college you attended has an entire department dedicated to doing nothing but staying in touch with you with their hands out. If like some of us, you attended more than one college, you have the privilege of receiving multiple calls and mailings seeking continuing evidence that you “believe in our mission” and “are proud of your university.”

And the seminary, let’s not forget about that important school; they need money for their annual fund.

If you are a Southern Baptist pastor, your church gets mailings from Baptist colleges, childrens’ homes, independent missionary agencies, and evangelists who all “depend on your faithful support” in order to continue doing the work God has called them to do. Each one is doing important work; we do not question that.

In my first church after seminary–and that puts it forty years ago in Greenville, Mississippi–I received an emergency plea for a spot in our church budget from a music evangelist whom I knew. He had worked with various evangelists leading worship for revivals and now he had “gone solo,” meaning he was on his own, and he was hurting financially. He swallowed his pride, the letter said, and was appealing to pastors and churches where he had served, asking them to consider adding him to their church budget for a small amount each month to underwrite his work.

I took the request to our chief deacon, an older gentleman whose wisdom I respected on many levels for numerous reasons. Lawrence Bryant said, “Preacher, has it ever occurred to you that maybe God is trying to get him out of evangelism?” I confessed it had not. “If the Lord has called him into this work, He will supply his needs. If his needs are not being met, it could be that God is shutting that ministry down in the same way he did with Elijah when the brook dried up and God sent him in another direction.”

It’s hard saying ‘no’ to your friends, people you believe in. But our church then–and your church now–has only so many dollars to use in the Lord’s work. It’s crucial that each one be spent wisely.

In 1925, Southern Baptists decided they had had just about enough of the unending line of agencies and mission groups descending on churches with their hands out. Most churches were taking up multiple offerings every Sunday, some for this cause, a little for that one. We were killing our people and ruining our churches with these incessant fund-raising drives.

SBC leaders created a mechanism for funding our ministries called the Cooperative Program. It’s so simple it’s brilliant. Members of a church decide what percentage of their income will go to the CP. Usually, it’s 10 percent or more. Each month, the treasurer sends a check for that amount to the state Baptist office, which in Louisiana is in Alexandria. There, the money is apportioned out in accordance with a budget which the Baptist leaders in their annual November meeting have adopted. As a rule, two-thirds of the amount stays inside the state to fund the various ministries (state convention office, colleges, childrens home, etc.), and one-third is sent on to the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive office in Nashville.

Then, the Nashville office divides the money out, also in monthly checks, according to a budget which was voted by Southern Baptists in their annual June meeting. Typically, one-half of the budget goes to our International Mission Board, about a fourth to the North American Mission Board, and the rest is allocated to our six seminaries and other entities.

Originally, the plan was to shut down all these appeals to our churches. And it did, for a time. But then inflation set in and costs sky-rocketed and the church offerings did not keep pace with the needs. So, practically every one of our mission agencies and colleges and seminaries created “development offices” for the sole purpose of finding additional money.

Pastors were already contending with the Christmas offering for international missions and the Easter offering for North American missions. Soon we added a September offering for state missions, and we needed a Mother’s Day offering for the childrens homes. The associations got into the act with a Springtime offering for their work.

You tired of this? Me too. I’m tired of writing about it, and I’m confident some of our readers cut out a couple of pages ago.

In a lot of cases pastors have combined all these mission offerings into one which they hold the winter quarter of each year, then divvy it up for all these needs.

And we wonder why the Cooperative Program percentages from the typical SBC church seems to be dropping. I don’t know what it is now on the average, but am sure someone who reads this will know.

Don’t be passive about this, pastor. Do not feel that because we sent you a mailing with an offering envelope addressed back to us that you have to do anything or feel guilty the rest of your day.

Take the lead. Be proactive. Find out what the Lord wants you to do and do it.

W. J. Smith was one of our financial leaders in the North Carolina church I pastored. I have never forgotten his philosophy regarding the deserving causes and constant fundraising going on all around him. “I do my giving through my church,” he said. “A lot of the people in my company do not give to the Lord’s work, so I let them fund the United Way and these other works. The most important thing I can do with the money I have to give is invest it in the cause of Jesus Christ.”

Nothing I have said on these pages will generate more controversy than that, probably. In fact, leaders of the Boys and Girls Scouts, Goodwill Industries, and various charitable enterprises are quick to point out that their best givers are church-going people. If Christians funnel all their giving through the church and nowhere else, some of these would quickly have to shut down.

Each one has to make his own choices. Every church has to set its own priorities. And the Lord’s pastor has to lead his congregation to give serious thought to these matters.

This may be why the tithe is such an ingenuous plan. Each believer gives a straight 10 percent off the top of his income into his church each payday. Lo and behold, the church’s needs are met, the mission work is funded, and no special offerings need to be taken.

The reason we’re taking all these special (i.e., extra) offerings is because so few of God’s people tithe.

This week, I stood in the foyer of my church prior to a funeral and chatted with Danny Moore, the church administrator. He called off the names of three young couples in the congregation who will be giving tithing testimonies the next few Sundays. One is his daughter and son-in-law.

“Jenny says tithing is hard sometimes. Things are really tight, but she goes ahead and writes the check. Then, sure enough, that month, Wesley gets a little extra or the bonus is bigger than expected. The Lord always takes care of us, she said.”

He continued, “Ty and Kai will be giving their testimony. At first, they hesitated, saying they had not been married long enough. I told them, ‘You tithed your income as singles, and now you’re tithing as a married couple. Believe me, that qualifies you. People will be blessed by your story.'”

An hour later, I sat across the table in McDonald’s with a young couple with three children. As we discussed various issues, I said, “And I think you ought to be tithing your income.” They both quickly said, “We do.” They pointed out that their parents had set the example for them. But unlike the first couple above, they’ve not seen extra income flowing their way “in the nick of time.” It’s still an uphill battle.

I typed this article on Friday and am amending it on Saturday morning. An hour ago, I read in the newspaper this exchange.

“Dear Amy: I have lived in an affluent community for several years. My husband was the breadwinner, and we had three children together. We went to a very nice church, and we were involved in all sorts of fundraising and charitable events. ”

“Last year, I found out that my husband was embezzling money. We lost the house, the vacation home, the nice cars, etc. He and I are in divorce proceedings, and I am trying to get my life back on track.”

“The problem is the church. While we were married, we gave much more than the 15 percent that was tithed from his paycheck. Now that we don’t have this money, I cannot afford to give 15 percent of my paycheck, and we have been pretty much shunned by the church.”

“Amy, I need to feed my kids with this money, and I don’t understand why the church won’t accept us and accept what we can give.”

“The pastor drives a Mercedes and his wife drives an Audi, so it seems that the church isn’t in too much of a financial bind.”

“Should I try to give them the 15 percent of my paycheck by pulling in lots of overtime, or should I just find a new church?”

It was signed “Sad Mom.”

I wanted to scream, “Find a new church, lady! And Lord–put that one out of business!!!”

Amy Dickinson wrote back, “It sems you already know the answer to your question. First of all, my research on tithing indicates that it is traditionally 10 percent of a person’s income.”

Right. That is the meaning of the word “tithe.”

She continues, “If your church is pressuring you to give more than you can afford, and shunning you when you don’t, that’s not tithing–that’s extortion.”

“It’s time to find another church community that is more inclusive and understanding.”

Amen, Amen, Amen.

The church that looks at what you put in the offering plate to determine what they think of you and to what extent they will accept you is a cancer on the body of Christ. God help us to love people the way Jesus does and to minister in such a way as to bring glory to Him.

The Apostle Peter wrote to pastors, “Shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but freely, according to God’s will, not for money but eagerly, not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (I Peter 5:2-3)

4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to our Pastors

  1. I guess that LSU’s part of the 17 million dollar Sugar Bowl payout was ate up in room service while in N.O. Marty!

  2. I think about the special offering issues a lot. I have people who see inner city New Orleans up close every day, and they want to know that their church is supporting social causes and life change in our local community. This added to the fact that a lot of my people struggle financially. I’ve also learned that if I’m not proactive in leading the church to certain special offerings that really silly special offering ideas come up. One special offering was actually taken up while Shannon and I were with you in Alexandria over the Labor Day Holiday. I wasn’t consulted at all. We have since addressed the issue of special offerings.

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