Are Pastors Free to Accumulate Wealth?

Freedom and Sacrifice

Every pastor and church has a set of organizing assumptions that provide an implicit framework for how they relate to money. The problem is that few people acknowledge the narratives that drive those assumptions. I believe the two basic narratives of money—freedom and sacrifice—provide the subtext for the financial anxiety experienced in ministry. Certain people, owing to their wiring and upbringing, are drawn toward the freedom money can provide, while others will be inclined toward self-sacrifice. However, the truth is that we need to pursue both realities if we are to flourish as human beings in our ministries. Decoupling freedom and sacrifice leads to three distorted “gospels,” or stories, that then shape faulty assumptions about money.

Gospel of Security

If we experience too much freedom without sacrifice, we can quickly become preoccupied with ourselves and isolated from the concerns of our neighbors. Ministry in this framework becomes another vehicle for pursuing our own comfort, security, and lifestyle privilege (1 Tim. 5:5–10).

Consider, for example, the assumption in some affluent megachurches that pastoral compensation should borrow purely from marketplace principles like scale and organizational value. Senior leaders are compensated like corporate executives, including lavish signing bonuses and fully loaded benefit packages. This narrow focus on compensating for security creates a lifestyle that limits risk and vulnerability for pastors and can lead to disparity, injustice, and corruption.

I believe the two basic narratives of money—freedom and sacrifice—provide the subtext for the financial anxiety experienced in ministry.

Gospel of Suffering

If we experience too much sacrifice without freedom, we often become overwhelmed by the needs of others while ignoring the welfare of our own families (1 Tim. 5:8). Ministry in this framework becomes martyrdom, with families feeling trapped and obligated to long hours with little pay.

I’ve seen this mentality play out in historically rural denominations and lean church-planting networks where the assumption is that a low ceiling should be placed on a pastor’s earning potential. I have friends involuntarily living below the poverty line and making less than the minimum hourly wage while juggling multiple jobs to afford the rising costs of living in the city or supporting their children with special needs. While there is certainly nothing wrong with taking a vow of poverty, there is a tragic injustice that occurs when financial decision makers (many of whom are themselves financially benefiting from evangelical-based systems or are independently wealthy) force people into poverty without taking into consideration their unique needs and desires. This assumption robs pastors and their families of the dignity God designed them for as image-bearing humans.

Gospel of Stoicism

If we lack both freedom and sacrifice, we fall into the worst story: stoicism. Ministry in this framework feels like a cold war, where desire is stifled and everyone is passively resigned to waiting for others to make the first move. Nobody feels empowered or motivated to speak up for the financial health and well-being of the church or its leaders.

This is probably the most common narrative I witness in church planting. It’s rarely intentional, but so many churches (especially younger and more idealistic communities) suppress honest money conversations. Since everyone is busy pursuing their own careers, families, and hobbies, the church lacks the urgency to set good policy and facilitate life-giving practices. The result is that pastors can be left feeling frustrated, embittered, and detached.

Leaning into the Tension

What does it look like for pastors to flourish financially? God exercised his creative power in the beginning to create a world of love that was “very good” (Gen. 1:31), and Jesus came to restore this vision of “abundant life” for everyone, including those in ministry (John 10:10). While we certainly aren’t free to conflate that with the Western master narratives of individualism, capitalism, and achievement, I also think there is a subtle danger to settle for less in our ministries today than Jesus was offering. Returning to our tension, I would argue that flourishing is found in the pursuit of freedom and sacrifice that leads us to a place of active surrender.

This idea of resolute surrender is best captured in Anabaptist spirituality by the word Gelassenheit, which is a German way of combining serenity and tenacity. Gelassenheit transcends our weak notions of surrender as resignation or passivity, replacing them with a yielded fortitude that is both strong and submissive. I believe this is the heart of the apostle Paul’s radical spirituality of money, which enabled him to speak with a refreshing boldness to the Philippian church concerning his feelings (Phil. 1:7), wounds (Phil. 1:17), future hopes and expectations (Phil. 1:20), anxiety (Phil. 2:28), story (Phil. 3:4–6), journey to contentment (Phil. 4:12), and gratitude for their generosity that left him overpaid (Phil. 4:18). Struggle, adversity, and surrender created the internal capacity for him to freely enjoy good times when they came and to also embrace strategic sacrifice when the situation called for it (Phil. 4:11–13).

Faithful Endurance

Collin Hansen, Jeff Robinson Sr.

Written by a team of long-serving pastors, this book explores 11 issues that could threaten to undermine a pastor's ministry, encouraging young pastors to press on in the midst of the unique challenges that come with leading a church.

Dear pastor, rather than seeking to balance the tension of freedom and sacrifice, I want to invite you to consider leaning into the area that is most underdeveloped in your life during this season. If you’ve pushed too aggressively into sacrifice in a way that has left your family feeling depleted (my story), then maybe you need to lean into freedom and make some decisions that could amplify your joy. If you fall into patterns of comfort and security, then maybe the call is for you to lean into sacrifice and embrace downward mobility for the good of others. Either way, I’d strongly encourage you to invite a community of trusted friends and advisers into this process with you to help you see past some blind spots that may be keeping you from experiencing the comprehensive flourishing into which God has invited you.

This article is adapted from Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People for a Lifetime edited by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robison Sr.

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