Whoever believes that giving is an easy matter, makes a mistake; it is a matter of very great difficulty, provided that gifts are made with wisdom, and are not scattered haphazard and by caprice. - Seneca
God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply. - Hudson Taylor
A distressed woman wrote to Horace Greeley, the famed journalist, saying her church was going bankrupt. She explained they’d tried fairs, festivals, suppers, mock weddings, and socials, but none had generated enough money to keep the church afloat. “Do you have any suggestions of what else we could do?” she asked. Greeley wrote back, “Why not try religion?”
Perhaps if churches would do what they’re supposed to do, God and his people would come through and meet the financial needs.
This chapter will address the recipients of giving, fundraising methods, the proper use of funds, and how to identify worthy ministries. It will also raise some disturbing and controversial questions related to various financial practices among evangelicals that are ethically troublesome and leave us vulnerable to criticism and ethical moral decline.
Finances and Fundraising in the Local Church
Giving to the Local Church
Giving should start with your local Bible-believing, Christ-centered church, the spiritual community where you’re fed and to which you’re accountable. In the New Testament, giving was not directed to the Church at large, the universal body of Christ, but to the church, the local Christian assembly. Even gifts that were sent to other places were given through the local church. Whereas the Old Testament temple was a storehouse, the New Testament Church was a clearinghouse, a conduit of gifts to help the needy and reach the lost.
Normally, I think firstfruits, or the tithe, should go to the local church. But I don’t believe in “storehouse tithing” if it means that a church hoards funds or spends them on frills or monuments to ego and prosperity. Freewill giving beyond the tithe also can go to worthy parachurch ministries.1 For fourteen years I was a local church pastor, and for twelve years I’ve directed a parachurch ministry. I believe that both types of ministry deserve support, but the church should always come first. That’s why we give more to our church than to our ministry.
Our giving should go first to the local church because it’s our primary spiritual community. (“Electronic churches” are a contradiction in terms. They’re media programs—not churches.) No mission boards, youth organizations, or Bible colleges are mentioned in the New Testament. There’s only the local church, which filled all these roles. But history has demonstrated there’s much that local churches have been unable or unwilling to do. Parachurch groups have filled the gap. Many have done a remarkable job. They’ve been servants of Christ and the Church. Others, unfortunately, have competed with churches, draining their resources.
How can a ministry in Chicago or Dallas be accountable to donors living in Idaho or New York? How can supporters evaluate whether parachurch leaders are of reputable character? I hope that most church members see their pastors in real-life situations. But all they know about the parachurch leader is what they’re told. From a distance, parachurch organizations with sharp brochures and attractive spokespeople often outshine the local church, where much of the giving supports mundane activities like paying the utility bills and the salary of a pastor who, though a man of integrity, may be ordinary. The church is small, the faucets leak, and the people are irritating. The custodian wears old overalls and putters about, jangling his mammoth key chain.
People think, I don’t want my money to pay the water or garbage bill; I want it to go 100 percent to evangelism. The television ministers, with their straight teeth and makeup, tell stories of thousands of conversions. Why fiddle with the penny-ante local church when you can send your money to the big boys? So people give their money instead to a parachurch group, apparently without realizing that it too has irritating, ordinary people; garbage bills; and a custodian with old overalls and a jangly key chain.
Paul doesn’t encourage individual believers to give to a needy cause on their own, but instead to give to and through the local church (1 Corinthians 16:2). When the early Christians sold their land and houses, they “brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need” (Acts 4:34-35). They didn’t discern on their own where the funds should go. They entrusted them to spiritually qualified church leaders, who distributed them wisely.
Writing in A.D. 390, John Chrysostom says this about the early church’s giving:
They did not dare to put their offering into the hands of the needy, nor give it with lofty condescension, but they laid it at the feet of the apostles and made them masters and distributors of the gift. What a man needed was then taken from the treasurer of the community, not from the private property of individuals. Thereby the givers did not become arrogant.2
Most of the undiscerning giving among Christians today stems from our independence. If we were honest, we might have to say, “I give to this place and that place as I see fit, rather than giving to the church to have it distributed as the spiritual leaders see fit. Why? Because it’s my money and I’ll do with it what I want. Furthermore, I enjoy receiving recognition and ego strokes from those to whom I send my money.”
If believers entrusted the distribution of their God-given funds to qualified local church leaders (I realize that some church leaders aren’t qualified), the worthy parachurch ministries would thrive and the unworthy ones would fade away.
I’m often asked, “But how can I give to my church when I don’t agree with how the money is spent?” Perhaps your church leaders are in a better position to judge this than you are. And if you actually saw some of these other ministries up close, you’d likely find as much or more to disagree with. If the Bible tells me to pay taxes (Romans 13:1-7), and I comply, even though some will be wasted and even used for bad purposes, surely I can give to God even when I don’t feel comfortable with every use of the funds. Of course, I must draw the line somewhere. If my money—God’s money—is going to Bible-denying seminaries and groups that promote immorality, it’s time to speak to my church leaders. If I still cannot in good conscience give regularly and substantially to my church, perhaps it’s time to ask God for help finding a church where I can give as he has directed.
Fundraising through Pledges and Faith Promises
Many fundraising gimmicks are used by churches, including raffles, bingo, and other forms of gambling. One church raised funds for its building program by giving cash prizes to those bringing in the highest pledges from other church members.3 But not all attempts at fundraising are gimmicks. Pledges and faith promises are also common fundraising methods. A “pledge” is a commitment made in light of known or anticipated income. A “faith promise” is a commitment to give a certain amount of money, even if the giver doesn’t know where it will come from. In either case, individuals are asked to designate an amount of money to be given by a certain date, perhaps in regular monthly installments. Some pledges are merely statements of intention. Others are serious commitments that bring a follow-up reminder from the church. Too many misses and the phone call turns into a visit from the pastor or fundraising chairman. Some pledges are actually legally binding contracts with legal liability in the event of a default. (When a pledge is simply an expression of desire or intent, or an agreement with God left for his Holy Spirit to enforce, it’s not necessarily unscriptural. However, when it becomes a legal contract, we’ve strayed far from the principles of biblical giving examined in chapter 13.)
It’s increasingly common, especially in building projects, to bring in professional fund-raisers or canvassing directors from outside the membership. No matter how well-intentioned, these programs communicate a sad message: The church leaders cannot share a compelling vision that the people will want to support, so they bring in a “hired gun” with an arsenal of ways to get money from people. Pledges are often the backbone of such campaigns.
The strength of the “faith promise” method is that it can prompt not only trust but discipline and ingenuity to earn and save money in order to give it to God. Having a tangible goal of, say, $500 or $5,000 encourages prayers for provision and acts of diligence. The weakness of this approach is that faith promises are highly subjective. They assume God has determined an exact amount of money to be given, and this amount can only be discerned through the person’s “feeling.” Because Scripture never says that God has determined or will reveal such an amount, to “trust God” for it is to obligate him to something he hasn’t promised in the first place.4 Committing to give a predetermined amount over a period of years may violate James 4:13-17, which tells us we cannot know how much money we will make tomorrow, much less months and years from now. If God leads me to relocate while I still have two years and $6,000 left on my faith promise, do I continue to give to my former church rather than my present one?
When the Macedonians gave “beyond their ability,” they were exercising risk-taking faith. This is more important than whether it corresponded to a particular amount they had promised. Whether one uses the faith promise approach or not, God honors prayer, dependence, and generosity. If we don’t set an exact amount, we may find that God still abundantly provides.
(I address two relevant issues—financial integrity and accountability in the Church and parachurch as well as the use of ministry funds for buildings—in appendixes A and B.)
Pastors should be paid to free them for ministry. “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (Galatians 6:6). Paul calls this the minister’s “right of support” from the church (1 Corinthians 9:3-12). He says, “The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). Furthermore, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. ‘The worker deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:17-18). Being paid more than he needs gives the pastor the opportunity to live as an example to the flock, most of whom—in America and Western nations—have considerable discretionary income. On hearing of his salary raise, one pastor told his elders, “This is much more than I need to live on.” The elders responded, “Yes, we know. We want to see what you do with it.”
I have no sympathy for churches that deliberately underpay their pastors, forcing them to find ways to supplement their income. It’s different, of course, when a church genuinely can’t afford to pay a pastor. Many pastors have gladly worked part-time jobs on the side to serve smaller churches, and I don’t mean to imply this is always inappropriate. However, it creates significant challenges.
Pastors and lay leaders should work side by side in financial matters. David High compares businessmen in the church to kings and pastors to priests. He argues that both have important roles but the two should not be confused:
Priests without kings chase provision to their own hurt. Kings without priests try to generate vision many times to their own hurt. Today we have churches full of frustrated kings, sitting in pews with their arms folded, listening to frustrated priests who have heard from God but don’t have the money to make it happen.…Many good, godly men have destroyed themselves and their ministries when they felt they had to become fundraisers. Once they start chasing money, something twists inside and their message and ministry begin to ring hollow.5
Pastors and Outside Income
I served as a pastor for fourteen years before becoming director of a parachurch ministry where I’ve been the past thirteen years. My heart is in the local church. A number of my closest friends are pastors. I respect and deeply appreciate pastors. What I am about to say comes neither from cynicism nor suspicion. It is intended for the protection of both pastors and churches.
The Lord decried the fact that priests and prophets alike were corrupted by money (Micah 3:11). Peter reminds church leaders to be “shepherds of God’s flock…not greedy for money, but eager to serve” (1 Peter 5:2, italics mine). He insisted that no money-lover was qualified to be a church leader (1 Timothy 3:3). In his ministry, Paul was so committed to avoid even the appearance of loving money that he often supported himself (1 Corinthians 9:18).
I recently read an interview with a pastor. When asked about his opulent home (with its own bowling alley), his response was, “God doesn’t want all his children in coach. He wants some of them in first class.” But when those in coach are paying for the pastor to ride in first class, it creates a distinctly different model than the “eager to serve” pastor advocated in Scripture.
Even at age eighty-two, Oral Roberts was still talking about shiny new cars and saying, “God wants us to prosper. And if we prosper, our people will prosper. If the pastor doesn’t prosper, the people won’t have the faith to prosper.”6 Consider the contrast between this prosperity model and the servanthood model of our Lord: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Paul warns Titus about ministers “ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain” (Titus 1:11, italics mine). These passages I’ve quoted constitute a biblical mandate to pastors and Christian leaders, and their boards and constituents, to take great pains to protect leaders and ministries from unnecessary temptations toward greed, financial impropriety, and possible scandal.
Serious problems develop when pastors are paid much more or much less than the average person in the church. Disparity can have an adverse effect on both pastors and parishioners. Years ago the tendency was for pastors to be underpaid, requiring them to neglect their calling to find other sources of income or tempting them and their families toward envy or resentment. Pastors who are underpaid—I mean, when the congregation can afford to pay them more—tend to be underappreciated, taken for granted, and sometimes patronized as “the poor pastor,” who is in fact kept poor by the church. Unfortunately, this remains true of many pastors today.
However, the tendency now in many large churches, especially with senior pastors, is just the opposite-it is to pay them as if they were company CEOs, tempting them to feel more important than the people they shepherd, setting them up, often unintentionally, to lord it over” the flock. Note the contrast in 1 Peter 5 between pastors being “greedy for money” and “eager to serve.” When a pastor encourages people to tithe and give generously in freewill offerings—which he should do as part of preaching the whole counsel of God—and his income is far more than theirs, people wonder, How can he understand our financial struggles when he lives in a house that nice and makes all that money? Sometimes this situation arises from the tendency to fill church boards with successful businessmen, instead of a cross-section of the congregation. This skews the average salary levels of board members and inclines them to pay pastors far above the church average.
I have many good friends who are senior pastors, devoted to God and the ministry. Many of them handle money well. I’m not questioning their hard work or integrity. I’m questioning instead the market that’s been created for pastors of large churches, who may make several times what other pastors on staff do, even those working harder with fewer vacations and less opportunity for outside income. Sometimes pastors are offered what amounts to bribes to get them to leave their churches. I know a pastor of a large church who declined an invitation to become a candidate for an even larger church, saying he believed it was God’s will that he stay with his present congregation. But the other church persisted, inviting him to fly out for a visit on a private jet. They wooed him and offered him an enhanced financial package, eventually persuading him to leave his church after all. (Apparently, God’s will was negotiable.)
Many churches became accustomed to doing special favors for their pastors when they were grossly underpaid. Clergy discounts were routinely offered, and in some places still are. Pastors were given free places to stay on vacation and other freebies—sometimes even cars. But today, when many pastors are paid adequately, the same favors are extended by habit. The IRS allows pastors to have tax-exempt housing allowances that save them thousands of dollars annually. I was very grateful for this exemption when I was a pastor, and I’m in favor of seeing it continue. My point is only that the old stereotype of the underpaid pastor isn’t always true—for which I’m extremely glad. Yet I’ve heard pastors who are making good salaries still talk as if they’re underpaid.
Some pastors receive outside pay for speaking engagements and writing books. This may be fine. But are paid members of the church staff using church equipment and time to do the typing, research, and events scheduling for which the pastor is being paid by outsiders? This situation sets up a temptation that pastors don’t need—the lure to say yes to out-of-town engagements and add-on projects in order to make money on the side without decreasing their regular pay from the church. These opportunities sometimes create ethical conflicts of interest that wouldn’t be tolerated in the business world. (If you’re paid by IBM to write software, can you then sell it to others and keep the profits? Anyone can do work on the side-but can you market work for which you’ve already been paid by your employer? And can you take time away from your desk to teach seminars and be paid for them?)
I believe that pastors and church boards should set clear parameters concerning the time and money involved in the pastor’s outside speaking and writing. These parameters should be fair to both pastor and church. How much time is the pastor expected to invest in local church ministry each week? Forty hours? Fifty hours? More? This should be mutually agreed upon, so the pastor knows when his church time and personal time begin and end.
Can a pastor write a book in which he draws from a message he gave to his church? Of course. But when the pastor speaks and writes in his non-vacation time, for which he is already receiving a church salary, is it ethical for him to receive book royalties and speaking honorariums for the same work hours? What message does it send if a pastor is paid by the church while writing a book, then is also paid by the book publisher, and then is paid again when he delivers the material at a conference that takes him away from his church? Is this really in the pastor’s or church’s best interests? (Ironically, when it comes time to set salaries, the board may reason, “He’s become very well known through his books and conferences—he deserves to have his salary increased, whereas our lesser-known pastors don’t qualify for a merit raise.”)
Sometimes these ethical dilemmas discourage a pastor because he wrestles with his conscience. This happened when I tried to write my first book when I was still a pastor. Every hour I spent on the book was one more hour I wasn’t available to the church. I was writing in the middle of the night to avoid a direct conflict, but that kind of a schedule took its toll. For several subsequent book projects, I requested one- or two-month unpaid leaves of absence, allowing me to focus on writing the book with no conflict of interest and no double pay. Most pastors want to do the right thing—and they want to know they’re doing the right thing.
When a pastor accepts a speaking invitation, he receives an honorarium on top of his regular salary. For a book contract, he may receive tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps a hundred thousand dollars or more, upon signing. For a full-time author, this may be business as usual, but for a pastor or parachurch leader, it may present a serious temptation for personal advancement partially at the expense of his church. If the board and church want and encourage him to write and speak, that’s fine—but clear guidelines should be set so that no one misunderstands.
If an unpaid leave isn’t used, an alternative might be to schedule a daily writing time (say, from 6:00 to 8:00 A.M.) before the pastor’s church duties begin. In this case, the book royalties could go to the pastor, because he’s writing on his own time. If the church decides to sponsor the writing project, the pastor might be allowed to write during regular office hours at his normal salary, with the royalties going to the church.
A church might grant a pastor a certain number of outside speaking engagements to be done on church time, with honorariums going to the church, or they might allow the pastor to keep the honorariums if they want to compensate for underpaying him. Pastors and boards should discuss how much time is appropriate for a secretary paid by the church to type books, articles, and materials for conferences, and to make related phone calls, if the proceeds from these activities will not go to the church. Examining various company policies for comparable arrangements might be advisable.
I offer these suggestions not to make life more difficult for pastors but to make it easier. It isn’t that I distrust pastors. Rather, I desire to protect them and their churches from temptation, impropriety, and the appearance of impropriety. When things are unclear, people always talk. If people don’t understand the pastor’s working arrangement, especially as it relates to writing and outside speaking and seminars, if it isn’t perfetly clear and in writing, then staff and church members are always tempted to gossip-which is in no one’s best interest.
Financing and Fundraising in Other Ministries
If Philippians 4:19 is true (“My God will meet all your needs…”), why do so many Christian organizations constantly publicize their financial woes?
“Please be sensitive to God—send us your contribution,” pleads a radio and television preacher. “We must receive $300,000 by the end of the month or we’ll have to close our doors!” (Yet when only $100,000 comes in, the doors stay open. And it never seems to occur to anyone that God might want to close the ministry’s doors.)
Hudson Taylor, a pioneer missionary to China, said, “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” If a work is constantly in want of money, always begging for donations, either it’s not God’s work or it’s not being done in God’s way. Money is not an organization’s greatest asset. God is. Godly people and the goodness of the cause are additional assets. If a ministry has the right God, the right people, and the right cause, then the finances should also be right.
Should Needs Be Made Known?
Some “faith missions” don’t believe that specific needs should be made known. Instead, they say, God should be trusted to move people’s hearts to give. I understand and respect this position. However, it should be balanced with what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:8: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia.” His missionary team informed their supporting churches about their trials and needs. He saw other believers as participating in his ministry through their prayers (2 Corinthians 1:11). It’s difficult to pray effectively when the facts aren’t known. The same is true of giving. Most often, I give in response to a known need—but someone first has to inform me of it. Paul didn’t manipulate people when he shared a need, nor did he make them feel that without their giving God would not provide (Philippians 4:10-19). Paul also made the Corinthians aware of the needs of the Jerusalem poor (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). Then he went one step further to encourage them to take an offering for that need, to be distributed by his ministry team. He moved from information to persuasion, but never to manipulation.
The abundance of ministries in our society produces a competition for donor funds. For the leaders of these ministries it creates a sense of urgency—an unspoken philosophy that “we must get these funds before someone else does.” Some organizations come up with a new enemy each month, requiring huge amounts of money to combat, giving people a reason to choose them because their cause is more urgent. To undercut this sense of competition and to remind everyone that God has only one team, I recommend that ministries give away a percentage of their assets to support other ministries. In kingdom work, we all win or lose together, and we should rejoice at the gains of every Christ-centered ministry.
As ministries have grown and technology has developed, quality promotional materials are more easily produced—in stark contrast to the products of ditto machines and offset printers that were prevalent decades ago. Some ministries now produce full-color reports with stunning photographs and layout and design that is comparable to those of America’s top businesses. This isn’t necessarily wrong. But what if the money spent on slick, expensive publications was instead spent on the actual work of the ministry? If a television program costs $100,000 to produce and $200,000 to purchase the airtime—and then results in $400,000 in contributions to the ministry—is it a success? The ministry may come out $100,000 ahead, but in proportion to the $300,000 investment, can the expense be justified? What would donors think if they knew that three out of every four dollars given merely paid back the organization for what it spent to produce the invitation to give?
Many missionaries say that support raising is the part of their work they dread. Ironically, some of those who are most effective in doing the actual work of ministry are least effective in raising funds. The best approach to support raising involves prayerfully presenting the ministry, sharing the facts, and extending the opportunity to form a partnership. When it goes beyond that into “selling yourself,” with follow-up contacts pressing for a commitment, support raising loses its innocence. Churches and missions organizations need to become actively involved on behalf of their missionaries so they do not have to become something they aren’t—and shouldn’t be.
As a pastor, I came to believe that the raising of personal support had gotten out of hand. Support is one thing, but the “support mentality” is another. I’ve talked with men attending seminary who expected the church to pay their way. Their assumption was that if they were doing anything for God, his people should pay for it. But who pays an engineer, a physical therapist, or a nurse to get their training? They take a job, work extra hours, and make sacrifices. If God provides another way, they gladly accept it, but they don’t assume that someone owes them a free ride. Why should a seminary student be less willing to sacrifice for his sense of calling than those going into other professions? If he’s working hard and needs help, the body of Christ may well get involved. But he shouldn’t live in expectation of it.
George Müller’s Guidelines
George Müller was a nineteenth-century Englishman who founded orphanages that cared for thousands of homeless children. He was known for not soliciting funds or sharing facts and figures, but believing God would provide for every need of the ministry. For reasons they couldn’t explain, the hearts of people were often moved at particular times”the exact times they were needed—to give funds or provisions for the orphanages. The following are George Müller’s fundraising guidelines. Although I don’t believe the first guideline is universally valid (as I’ve mentioned above), I think the others should be prayerfully considered by any church or ministry:
1. No funds should ever be solicited. No facts or figures concerning needs are to be revealed by the workers in the orphanage to anyone, except to God in prayer.
2. No debt should ever be incurred.
3. Money contributed for a specific purpose should never be used for any other purpose.
4. All accounts should be audited annually by professional auditors.
5. No ego-pandering by publication of donors’ names with the amount of their gifts; each donor should be thanked privately.
6. No names of prominent or titled persons should be sought for the board or to advertise the institution.
7. The success of the institution should be measured not by the numbers served or by the amounts of money taken in, but by God’s blessing on the work, which is expected to be in proportion to the time spent in prayer.7
Fundraising will never rise above the level of character exhibited by Christian leaders, who are not to be lovers of money nor benders of truth for financial gain (1 Timothy 3:3, 8). We must not be “greedy for money” (1 Peter 5:2). Christian leaders and pastors need to take a strong stand for godly fundraising, not asking, “What are other ministries doing?” but, “Lord, what do you want us to do?”
Using Pressure to Raise Funds
In 1995, a charity called the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy declared bankruptcy, unveiling a fraudulent financial scheme that had taken more than $350 million from hundreds of individuals and charitable organizations. The victims had been convinced to deposit money with New Era because the foundation supposedly had a group of wealthy anonymous donors who would match the deposits and double them within six months. The operation was a pyramid or Ponzi scheme. There were no anonymous donors.8
More than two hundred evangelical Christian organizations lost money in the New Era scandal, including relief organizations, colleges, denominations, and local churches. Fortunately, more than 85 percent of the money was eventually recovered. But the scam revealed a disturbing financial desperation among evangelical organizations.
I’m the director of a small nonprofit organization. We receive support from donors. But because my book royalties are assigned to the ministry and we distribute them to others, we give away a large proportion of the amount we receive. You might ask, “Then why not just pay your own way and not take donations?” Because we want and need prayer, partnership, and accountability. We don’t keep a large amount of money in savings because we desire to use and give the money we’re entrusted, not stockpile it. I understand that many organizations have times of particular financial need, because we’ve had some ourselves. When we do, I go back to the seventeen financial principles I wrote when we started our ministry in 1990. The first principle is as follows:
Eternal Perspective Ministries belongs to Jesus Christ. EPM staff are privileged to be his servants (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). EPM will exist only as long as God wants it to. If it becomes evident that his purpose for EPM is finished, we will close our doors. The sun does not rise or set on this ministry. It is simply a tool at God’s disposal (2 Timothy 2:21), for him to use as—and as long as—he chooses.9
When EPM’s financial inflow dropped two years ago, we decided to close our ministry office on Fridays and lay off our most recently hired employee. When our revenues increased again, we realized that being closed on Fridays had saved money without significantly hampering our ministry. Through the shortage, we discovered a better way of operating, and we’ve continued it ever since. Not everything that requires more money is progress, and not all progress means spending more money. Sometimes it means spending less.
Ministries need to learn not to panic at financial crises. Speaking of “all kinds of trials,” Peter says, “These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7). Who brings financial struggles to our ministries? The default answer, judging by fundraising letters, is “Satan, to destroy God’s work and make us less effective.” But the better answer, based on this passage, is “God, to accomplish his work and make us more effective through deepened character and greater dependence on him.” We should not focus only on what measures will get us out of a financial crisis, but what God is wanting to teach us while we’re in the thick of it.
Concerns with Donor Conferences
I mentioned previously an invitation from a ministry active in developing countries that was offering a luxurious stay at an exclusive resort in the Bahamas. I have in front of me an invitation from another organization to which our ministry made a one-time contribution of $5,000. The offer is for a two-week luxury cruise visiting seven countries. The ship stops at three ports where there are brief opportunities to observe ministries. It offers veranda rooms starting at $2,899. There are a number of extra charges listed, not to mention airfare to get to the port.
In today’s mail I received an invitation from another major evangelical ministry to a gathering called “Realities of the World’s Children in the Twenty-First Century,” centering on the plight of poor children. Enclosed is a picture of where the conference will be held—a gorgeous hotel sitting on a lake, described as “a world class destination…a beautiful resort with a blend of casual elegance, superb service, and world-class recreation. Throughout your stay, winding walkways will lure you through stunning displays of lush fountains and manicured courtyard gardens.…The resort offers breathtaking golf courses, smashing tennis facilities, a wonderful spa with staff to pamper you.” Then there’s the dinner cruise on a boat that’s no less than “exquisite.” True, some people are already taking such trips. So, why shouldn’t ministries offer them in a way that can stretch people’s vision for ministry? A great deal of money will likely be contributed by those going on these cruises and staying in these luxury hotels. Does the end justify the means?
Isn’t there something fundamentally inappropriate about using places steeped in luxury for people concerned about helping dying children, when the costs for the weekend, if spent on helping children instead, would keep thousands alive? Isn’t feeding into the allure of excessive lifestyles a problem rather than a solution? How can we wish our supporters would forgo luxuries to support kingdom causes, then turn around and offer them luxuries to support kingdom causes? Why are we appealing to—and justifying—something in donors that Christ may be seeking to overcome in them? (And in us?)
It’s appropriate for ministries to express sincere gratitude for acts of generous giving. What seems inappropriate is pampering these givers to motivate them toward further giving. (There’s also the effect on those in the ministry who start living a rich lifestyle vicariously through their donors.) Are expensive tours, chartered fishing trips, and exotic vacations necessary?
I sometimes speak at donor events in very nice surroundings, realizing that Paul says, “I have become all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22). He also says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12). There are many wealthy people who need to be reached with the liberating truth of joyful giving. To reach them, we must go where they are or invite them where they will come. Yet perhaps we are doing a disservice to many, assuming that we must have the nicest possible accommodations to win their attendance at a conference, when if we focused on the opportunity to use money for God’s kingdom they might come just as willingly—and perhaps more so.
Shouldn’t we teach donors through our words and deeds that God is their rewarder, not us? The giving of good books and helpful gifts can be appropriate, but churches and ministries should be careful not to overshadow the biblical reasons for giving.
Ministries should not allow donors to determine policy. One mission was offered the free use of a beautiful luxury ship to take its donors up and down the coast of Africa so they could see their work among the poor. Fortunately, the ministry president saw that this would be inappropriate. But anything that a donor offers to pay for—including weekends in extravagant resorts—can be tempting. “We can’t really refuse something if it’s offered us, can we?” The answer is “Yes, we can.” And in some cases we certainly should.
Just as donors need to speak up and challenge ministries to spend their money more carefully, ministries with long-term relationships with donors earn the right to gently challenge them. Certainly we should not allow some donors’ expensive tastes to change how the ministry operates. Churches and ministries should offer mature spiritual leadership rather than follow the agendas set by every wealthy donor.
A delightful twenty-two-year-old woman came to me. She had suffered a disfiguring accident, followed by dozens of painful surgeries. Then she became wealthy through an insurance settlement. In a newspaper interview, she was asked, “What will you do with the money?” She said she wanted to support Christian ministries. In tears, she told me of the phone calls that followed from ministries and a Christian college. Suddenly everyone wanted to take her to lunch. Then she told me she’d been serving on the board of an evangelical mission. I asked her, “Do you think they’d have asked a twenty-two-year-old to be on the board if you weren’t wealthy?” She sobbed and said, “Since the money came in, I don’t know who really cares and who just wants to use me.”
Many donors have become cynical toward churches and ministries, believing that they are being courted only because of their wealth. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s true. (What more effective way to ensure significant giving than to put a wealthy person on the board?) Many ministries and a fair number of local churches do it, but courting big donors seems like the favoritism of the rich that Scripture explicitly condemns (James 2:1-5).
Relationships between Ministries and Donors
Psychiatrist and lecturer Dr. Roy Menninger states,
Having money to give away and the power to decide to whom to give it is intoxicating, and foundations can be irritating examples of the “narcissism of the righteous.”…We all need to be aware of some of the darker sides of human views of money and of giving and receiving, if we are to keep from exploiting the power position of the donor or the dependent position of the seeker.10
Ministry representatives and donors should conduct their interactions in a way that’s biblical and honest. Communication should be open, and false expectations should be avoided. We should commit ourselves to no game playing, hidden agendas, or unfounded assumptions.
Donors should understand and respect the ministry’s representatives and not take advantage of them from a power position. Donors and ministry representatives are both God’s slaves, his errand boys and girls. Both should be humble and transparent. Ministry representatives who constantly pump up donors, telling them how important and wonderful they are, forfeit the right to complain when donors turn around and act in a way that’s self-important. If you want someone to act humbly, feeding his pride isn’t the best strategy. We shouldn’t tempt donors toward the very things from which God seeks to deliver them—including pride (craving recognition and status), control, independence, and materialism.
Ministry staffers can fall into the trap of ingratiating themselves and flattering donors. This is manipulative and explicitly violates Scripture: “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28); “He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor than he who has a flattering tongue” (Proverbs 28:23). Flattery never serves the interests of the person we’re flattering—it serves only our interests. Any relationship with a donor is unhealthy if a ministry leader or a pastor will not raise concerns about character or choices. Withholding the truth in the interests of not losing someone’s support is a disservice to the donors and to the Lord. Instead, we should speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
Some donors see through flattery and don’t appreciate it, whereas others soak it up. Sometimes, genuine and healthy friendships develop in this context, but most donors aren’t looking for more close friends.
Someone told me he’d called a well-known leader on a matter of some urgency. A few weeks had gone by and the leader hadn’t called him back. He said, “I’m used to calling the ministries we support and having everyone know my name. People step out of meetings to take my calls. Now I know how people feel when they’re waiting for me to return their calls.”
This lesson in humility was healthy. It’s one reason I’m grateful to be part of a ministry that both receives substantial gifts and also grants them. I know what it’s like on both sides.
I’ve suggested to ministry representatives that they send us no-frills information letting us know about strategic projects. I will read these. There is no need for me to go on fishing trips or sightseeing tours or even regular lunches. If I spent my days and nights having dinner, traveling, and vacationing with people from all the organizations we support, I would have no time to write books and therefore would have much less to give to kingdom causes. Once I explain my perspective, most ministry representatives understand. I’ve found the majority to be gracious and kingdom-minded.
Ministry representatives shouldn’t presume to know whether it’s God’s will for a donor to give to a project. Likewise, donors shouldn’t presume to know God’s will for exactly how the money should be used once it’s given. When giving, we need to truly release funds into the care of stewards we trust.
Paid Celebrity Endorsements for Ministries
One of the most disturbing recent fundraising developments is paid celebrity endorsements of charities given at conferences and concerts. A speaker or musician might give an appeal for a ministry’s child sponsorships. For every child sponsored as a result of the appeal the performer receives $25 to $50. (In the secular world, this is called a kickback.)
A pastor’s wife attending a popular conference heard a speaker strongly endorse a ministry that works with needy children. On a hunch, the pastor’s wife asked the speaker afterward if she or the organization had been paid an endorsement fee. “Of course,” the speaker replied. Speakers have been paid as much as $10,000 for a single large-event endorsement. Someone learned at a ministry board meeting that the organization was “negotiating” with a popular musician to get his endorsement. “What’s there to negotiate?” he asked. “Either someone believes in this ministry and is willing to give his money and time and name to it, or he doesn’t.” If someone is paid money by a ministry for asking an audience to give money to that ministry, it doesn’t qualify as a heartfelt endorsement. It seems more like a bribe or a payoff.
Satan is a master at twisting good things and perverting acts of grace and kindness into profit-seeking ventures. It’s commendable when speakers or musicians believe in a mission so much they would sacrifice to support it. It’s wonderful that they’d take an offering for that ministry. But to be paid for doing so—to take for themselves any amount of money given by those intending it to go to help poor children—is unethical. (If the audience knew, they would be heartsick and perhaps angry. God does know. Is he heartsick? Angry?)
I know a fine group of young musicians who were approached by a major missions organization asking them to promote its ministry. The mission offered them a 20 percent cut of all funds collected at their concerts. Suppose the lead singer made the following public statement: “Eighty percent of tonight’s offering will go to feed the hungry in Haiti; the other 20 percent will go to us as payment for bringing this to your attention.” If the truth was divulged, people would be able to act in light of it. But most ministries, musicians, and speakers wouldn’t agree to such a disclosure. Why? Because it would look bad for everyone. But if it looks bad, isn’t that because it is bad? If those involved would be embarrassed by disclosure, isn’t that an indication it shouldn’t be done in the first place? I think that veteran ministry leaders should be ashamed of themselves for putting this kind of temptation in front of young Christian musicians. They need examples of integrity, not offers that would compromise their integrity.
I have no problem with a ministry asking to present its vision to a speaker or group and then asking them to pray about calling attention to their cause. I have major problems with offering them a percentage of “the take” (once known as the offering). Unless this is done with full disclosure, unless clear verbal or printed recognition is made of this financial arrangement, the offering is a deception. Anything less than full disclosure to potential donors constitutes fraud. Such arrangements will inevitably promote abuse, and sometimes lead to public scandal. Consider the temptation to overstate or misrepresent needs or to speak with artificial enthusiasm for the poor, while thinking of the larger kickback they will get for doing so. Our enemies dish out enough temptations without us dispensing them to our friends. Think of a Christian speaker appealing to people to give to starving children, knowing what the audience doesn’t—his personal wealth will increase directly in proportion to what he says and how well he says it.
Imagine your pastor asking the congregation to dig deep and give to a mission to plant churches and give medical aid to the needy in rural Columbian villages. Hearts are moved. The church takes an offering and $50,000 is given. Praise God! Now imagine it’s a week later, and a church board member mentions that the pastor was paid $10,000 for making the plea and only $40,000 actually went to the mission. How would you respond? It may sound absurd—but that’s exactly the deal arranged by some Christian ministries with musicians.
Some say, “We don’t publicly disclose this arrangement, because even though we know it’s right to spend money to raise money, people would get the wrong idea. They’d misunderstand.” The real danger isn’t that people would misunderstand—it’s that they would understand. If they understood that part of the offering was going to the celebrity, not to the cause, they would see it for what it is, and probably not support it. (If I believed in the cause and knew of these arrangements, I would send my check directly to the organization, so more would go to needy children instead of to the celebrity. Shouldn’t I be given the information to allow me to make that choice?)
Taking an offering should be an opportunity to serve the needy, not a means to make money off the cause of the needy. The only way to know one’s motives are right in making the appeal is not to profit from the arrangement. Those in ministry should seek to serve, not to be served. (Isn’t that what ministry is about?) They should look for the right organization to support—which would presumably not be the one that offered them the kickback.
“But speakers are paid an honorarium—what’s the difference?” The difference is that people assume the speaker is being paid. If you attend a seminar, it’s understood that part of the cost goes to the speaker. If you pay for a concert, it’s understood that the funds go to the music group. No one’s being lied to or misled. But in the case of paid celebrity endorsements, people are being misled. Poll those attending and you’ll find that most believe the speaker or musician is voluntarily endorsing the ministry because God has touched his heart by it. The audience has no clue that the first several thousand dollars given, or a percentage of the total, goes not to the cause but to the speaker or musician.
The ministry may argue, “It costs money to make money. If we put a full-page ad in a magazine, or if we produce an infomercial, it will cost us a higher percentage of what’s given than if we pay 20 percent to a music group. If people realize it’s okay to spend money to advertise in a magazine, why isn’t it okay to pay to get the endorsement of a speaker or music group?”
The operative word is “realize.” Everyone knows that it costs money to put an ad in a magazine. But unless it’s explicitly disclosed, they have no clue that a speaker or music group is being paid for its endorsement.
“But the poor get more help than if we didn’t do this.” Who says we have to choose between misleading people and helping the poor? Believing that honest fundraising can’t be productive is an insult to God and his people. Personally, I believe that speakers or musicians who are endorsing a ministry and receiving nothing in return should make this clear. Doing this would be a great example to other speakers and musicians and would reassure the audience (who might otherwise become cynical as they learn about deceptive practices). Best of all, the speaker or musician’s reward would then come not from the ministry but from the Lord. We’re not to do things for those who can benefit us, but for those who can’t—and then God himself will reward us in heaven (Luke 14:12-14).
Buying and Selling the Spiritual
Opportunism and attempts to buy and sell the spiritual are not new. Simon Magus was the first entrepreneur to see “money” written all over ministry:
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.” (Acts 8:18-22)
What makes us think that God has changed his opinion of attempts to profit under the veil of ministry? Every church and ministry leader should ask, “What are we doing that would make us embarrassed or uncomfortable if people knew it?” As I write this, I am asking myself that very question concerning our own nonprofit ministry. If we think of something—and I just did—isn’t that a good indication we should stop it now?
Donors should ask the ministries they support whether they are paying to get celebrity endorsements or are spending their funds in some way other than it appears. If the answers aren’t ethically and biblically satisfactory, donors should say that until the ministry’s policies change, they can no longer in good conscience support them and must give their money to ministries that are operating at a higher level of integrity. For everyone’s sake, including their own, ministries need to be held accountable by their supporters—and so do Christian musicians and speakers.
We should be stimulating each other to love and good deeds, setting ethical examples, raising the bar for each other, not lowering it. Jesus will examine the motives of our hearts—including our truthfulness and the sincerity of our words spoken on behalf of the poor and in support of kingdom ministries (1 Corinthians 4:5). If we have given to the needy for their good and God’s glory, he will commend us. If we have taken from them for financial gain, he will not.
Imagine standing before Christ someday and hearing him say, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for—yourself!”
The Ethics of Ghostwriting
Ghostwriting is when someone else writes a book that is credited to a celebrity as if he or she wrote it. The usual rationale for this practice is that because the real writer’s name isn’t well-known and marketable, the book won’t sell unless it’s released under the celebrity’s name.
This is so commonly practiced that many Christian publishers, authors, and celebrities see no ethical problem with it. Some of these people are sincere in their beliefs—I know because I’ve talked with them. I have great respect for my publishers, and many others too, but all of us, including me, naturally become desensitized. Sometimes those of us who are on the inside of publishing—including authors, agents, and publishers—fail to see what those on the outside immediately recognize as unethical.
I’m not talking about the legitimate process of coauthoring, in which authors invest varying levels of work and expertise into the writing. Nor am I talking about books that, after being written, need substantial editing provided by the publisher. By ghostwriting, I’m talking about when the actual writer’s name is not on the cover, or when a person’s name is on the cover (even as a coauthor with the real writer) who did little or nothing to actually write the book.
I know of cases where the celebrity didn’t write a word and only skimmed through the book for the first time late in the editing process, yet their name is prominent on the cover, as if they were the author. Is this honest?
Consider what this practice does to immature believers who are athletes, musicians, or public figures made prominent through tragic or newsworthy events. “Here’s the offer: We will make you a lot of money, and you will get to take credit for doing something you really didn’t do.” We feed their ego, and set them up for deception and pride, which is bound to cause them to fall (Proverbs 16:18). They’re under enough temptation already—why do we feel compelled to add to it by making the false claim that in addition to everything else they’re writers?
If we teach them it’s okay to lie by taking credit for a book they didn’t write, why should we be shocked if we discover they lied when they claim to have graduated from a college they didn’t, or to have fought in a war they didn’t, or to have done a job they didn’t? Isn’t it ironic that Christian publishers would consider it an ethical breach if they discovered an “author” gave them a résumé containing false information, when the same publisher has knowingly led the public to believe this person wrote a book he or she really didn’t write? Which is the bigger lie?
Nothing is more uncomfortable than hearing an interview with those who are asked about their experiences writing a book they didn’t write. Their temptation is to pretend and cover up the truth. Sometimes they pretend long enough that they convince themselves they’re writers, becoming better liars all the time.
Publishers often approach prominent pastors and Christian leaders whose greatest temptations are toward pride and pretense and then help them pretend they wrote a book, taking pride in something they didn’t do!
Putting musicians, writers, speakers, and others on pedestals goes way beyond healthy respect for role models. It borders on idolatry. Arguably it’s not good for anyone, but certainly it’s not good for the young, the immature, and those already struggling with pride, pretense, money loving, and other temptations that are only fed by “I wrote a book” celebrity status.
Ask the average person what it means when a name is on a book cover, and they’ll tell you it means the person actually wrote it. That’s what book buyers believe. Hence, the book is sold to them under false pretenses. I’ve been told “the ghostwriter knows what he’s agreeing to, and if he doesn’t need to see his name on the book, that’s up to him.” But the question isn’t what the ghostwriter or celebrity believes, it’s what the potential book-buyer believes. Ghostwriters may receive far greater royalties than if they were known as the book’s true author. They may have a vested interest in the falsehood just like everyone else involved.
Why not tell the truth on the cover, saying who really wrote the book and leaving off the names of any who didn’t write it? The answer is simple: “It wouldn’t sell as well.” If the response is “the book is just as good or better than if the celebrity wrote it,” that may well be true, but people should be allowed to decide that for themselves, shouldn’t they? How dare we mislead and deprive readers of accurate information about who actually wrote the book they are considering buying? This isn’t just patronizing and insulting, it’s downright dishonest. Why do we imagine this is any different than withholding information about the used car we’re trying to sell, for fear that if we told the truth people wouldn’t buy it? Is our goal just to sell books, or to honor Jesus?
The same principle applies to columns and articles—including those in many ministry and Christian college publications—that are not actually written by the Christian leaders listed as authors. Some college presidents never write their own articles in school publications, yet their names are always attached to them. If students at the same college put their name on papers written by someone else, this would be grounds for dismissal. So why is it all right for the president to do it? Similarly, ministry fundraising letters signed by the president or CEO frequently aren’t written by him.
In 1990 a scandal occurred involving Milli Vanilli. The singing group’s name became a cultural synonym for dishonesty and hypocrisy simply because the people doing the singing for their recordings weren’t the ones getting credit for it. So why is this recognized as being wrong, but it’s somehow considered acceptable to take credit for a book, article, or letter someone else wrote? A class-action suit was filed against Milli Vanilli and their recording company, and purchasers of Girl You Know It’s True were given the opportunity to request a rebate for fraud damages. Are readers of books that are not written by their stated authors entitled to a rebate for exactly the same reasons?
Someone could argue that the real singers sounded better than Milli Vanilli. But the point is that the whole thing was a lie, and customers were outraged by it. It’s ironic that Christians would stoop to ethics that even most non-Christians, who don’t believe what the Bible says about truth, would immediately recognize as wrong.
Isn’t it reasonable for both Christians and non-Christians to be able to buy a Christian book with the confidence that the person identified on the book and publicized as the author actually wrote it?
“But ghostwriting is a well-established practice.” Many things are well-established practices, but that doesn’t make them right. I’ve seen people heartsick, disillusioned, and angry when they discover that various popular Christian books weren’t written by the person whose name is on the cover. We who supposedly esteem the truth so highly should be the last ones to participate in such deceit.
Every argument I hear for ghostwriting is pragmatic. Of course people make money by ghostwriting. People also make money from prostitution, theft, and drug dealing. The real question is not whether ghostwriting is profitable but whether it is moral. I never hear people offering biblical and ethical justifications for it, only practical ones. Why? Perhaps because there simply is no biblical justification for it.
There’s sometimes a fine line between ghostwriting and celebrity books written “with” others. Writing a book about people, with their cooperation, is certainly fine, as long as there’s no pretense or false impression about who did the writing. But when the cover puts the celebrity’s name first, followed by “and” or “with” the true writer, the implication is that the celebrity did most or much of the writing. If, in fact, the “author” did nothing more than grant interviews, answer questions, pass on a few pages of a journal, or supply a recorded speech, then he or she isn’t the author and shouldn’t be promoted as such.
If this isn’t a book by Celebrity X but about Celebrity X, that’s fine—but shouldn’t this distinction be made clear by listing the real author’s name exclusively on the cover? The celebrity can still be emphasized as the subject of the book, but not as the author. The writer shouldn’t pretend to be a world-class athlete or movie star, and the celebrity shouldn’t pretend to be a writer. Sometimes the “name” person is a celebrity author who can write but didn’t write this book. If the celebrity didn’t write it but just supplied some suggestions or advice, he or she belongs on the acknowledgments page, not the cover. Ask yourself, “Given the amount of work the celebrity actually contributed to writing the book, if the name wasn’t well-known, would it be on the cover?” If the answer is no, then the ethics are clear-the celebrity’s name shouldn’t be on the cover as author.
I believe Christian ghostwriting is a scandal waiting to explode. If we in the Christian community don’t clean up our act soon, we’re going to face widespread loss of credibility. What a tragedy if 60 Minutes were to expose a practice we should never have tolerated. Can’t you see an interviewer holding up a book and asking well-known Christian authors, “Did you really write this book?” Envision the neatly edited scenes of embarrassment, head-hanging, evasions, rationalizations, and reports that “so-and-so author and publisher wouldn’t return our calls.”
This could be a major setback for Christian publishers and authors at the very time that Christian books have made unprecedented inroads into the mainstream culture. We need to confess, repent of, and change our policies—and stop being driven by money—love and ego building.
If we’re not telling the truth about who wrote the book—on the cover, in large print—why should people believe what’s inside the book, in small print?
False Advertising by Christian Colleges
Many Christian colleges routinely print doctrinal statements in their catalogues that are not believed or taught by some or even many of their professors. The academic vice president of a major Christian liberal arts college confided to me, “If Christian parents actually knew what their children are being taught in our classrooms, they would pull them out of college tomorrow.” And, I would add, they’d never give another dime to that college.
If Christian colleges told the truth in their promotional materials, some would read like this: “Thirty-four percent of our faculty believe in the inerrancy of God’s Word. Twenty-one percent of our science teachers believe the biblical account of creation. No one in our psychology department believes in the doctrine of original sin. Two out of our three sociology teachers are proabortion and defenders of homosexual lifestyles. The director of our philosophy department is an agnostic. The head of our Bible department hasn’t attended church for ten years because he doesn’t believe in organized religion.”
Why not be honest and admit this publicly? The answer is simple: So Christian parents will keep paying to send their students there, and so the college’s major Christian donors will keep sending money. I am a great believer in Christian higher education. But the doctrinal statements published in many Christian colleges, including some at which I’ve spoken, are simply false advertising (also known as lying). Much of the motive for this dishonesty boils down to money.
Fees for Christian Speakers
In Judges 8:22-27, we see a remarkable account of a man with a right perspective who does not crave power but makes what appears to be just a small concession. The Israelites say they want Gideon to rule over them because he is their hero who saved them from Midian. But Gideon says, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you” (Judges 8:23). But then he makes a request, that they would each give him an earring”just that much and no more—from their share of the plunder. The weight of the gold rings came to about forty-three pounds. Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in his hometown.
“So what?’ we might think. “That’s a small price for people to pay. They wouldn’t even miss it. And Gideon certainly earned it.” But the verse ends with this sentence: “All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping [the ephod] there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family” (Judges 8:27).
The hero Gideon is transformed from a man of perspective to a man as shortsighted as the kings of the heathen nations. “There’s nothing wrong with gold earrings and a beautiful ephod, and nothing wrong with a man being rewarded for faithful leadership.” Yet somehow it all turned into something terribly wrong. It became a snare to Gideon and his family, and led Israel to idolize a cheap substitute for God rather than worship the true God. Gideon, his children, and the nation paid a terrible price. I believe that some Christian speakers are in serious danger of making the same mistake today.
I attended a ministry fundraising event where the speaker made a point of saying, “I believe in this ministry so much I’m going to give 10 percent of my honorarium back.” What he didn’t mention was that the fee he required for this thirty-minute speaking engagement was $5,000. So he gave $500, but walked away with $4,500. Of course, it’s his prerogative to set a fee and the organization’s prerogative to pay him that. (Although those attending the fund-raiser would likely give less if they knew that that the first forty-five gifts of $100 would be negated by the speaker’s fee). But for the speaker to imply he was making a financial sacrifice for the ministry’s cause—or that he was there because he believed so much in the ministry—was misleading.
In Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, Jim Cymbala comments:
I am dismayed at the contracts required by some contemporary Christian musical groups. To perform a concert at your church, the stated fee will be so much (in either four or five figures) plus round-trip airfare—often in first class, not coach. Every detail of the accommodations is spelled out, down to “sushi for twenty persons” waiting at the hotel, in one case. All this is done so that the group can stand before an inner-city audience and exhort the people to “just trust the Lord for all your needs.” 11
I, too, am dismayed at fees charged by Christian speakers to come “serve the Lord and his people” for a single weekend. I don’t mean to say that all fees are wrong, but if it isn’t part of one’s income depended on to make a living, I think it’s better to leave honoraria in the hands of those who are extending the invitation to speak. But when Christian speakers are charging ten to thirty thousand dollars to represent the Lord, isn’t something wrong?12 Some will say, “We should charge what the market demands,” and, “Shouldn’t Christians be able to make money like non-Christians do?” and, “Don’t muzzle the ox that treads the grain.” Well, yes, but how much grain can one ox tread in a single evening?
A Christian physicist has the right to make as much money for his lecture on thermodynamics as any other scientist. But when you are billed as a Christian speaker and the supposed objective is representing Jesus, when words such as “ministry” and “serving” and “testimony” are used to promote the event, isn’t that a little different? Would it affect people’s attitudes to hear that the speaker demanded a fee of $10,000? If we’d be ashamed if that was known, isn’t it a good sign it would be better not to do it?
Isn’t ministry about something more than what the market demands? What about Christian conferences that are marketing extravaganzas and ministries that offer their own Visa cards so they can receive a percentage on each purchase? Have we gone too far?
Some people set reasonable fees for their services, and this is part of how they make a living for their family. This is fine. I don’t suggest everyone do this, but my own policy is not to charge a speaking fee and leave honoraria completely voluntary. I’ve received everything from no honorarium to several thousand dollars. When someone extending an invitation asks for estimates or guidelines, my assistant and I politely decline to give numbers. When organizations start to tell me what honorarium they’re willing to give, I tell them I’d rather not know. This is not because I’m so spiritual but exactly the opposite: It’s because I want to be influenced by the leading of God’s Spirit in deciding where to speak, and I don’t trust myself to remain uninfluenced by the money. In what I hope is sanctified self-interest, my desire for eternal reward motivates me to reduce the temptation of going somewhere to ostensibly “serve” God and his Church when in fact I’d be going for the financial payoff.
The Christian Celebrity Syndrome
Ron Blue and Company manages financial assets exceeding two billion dollars. I submitted to Ron my first draft of this chapter, looking for balance and correction. I expected him to encourage me to tone down my concerns about everything from fundraising to ghostwriting to speaker fees to celebrity endorsements. He surprised me by saying “I totally agree. Don’t tone it down.”
Ron shared his observations of troubling financial ethics in some churches and nonprofit organizations. He expressed a deep concern for what he called the “Christian celebrity” phenomenon that leads to serious abuses, many of them financial, which he’s in a unique position to see. Ron has asked clients who are Christian leaders, “Would you be comfortable if your tax returns were published in the Wall Street Journal?” His point is that if we would be ashamed or embarrassed by full disclosure of our finances—everything from our salaries and all other sources of income to our proportion of giving—it’s an indication we should be living differently. If we would be embarrassed for other people to know the truth, shouldn’t we be concerned about God, whose standards are much higher and who does know the truth?
In A.D. 400, Jerome warned the church, “Shun, as you would the plague, a cleric who from being poor has become wealthy, or who, from being nobody has become a celebrity.”13 In the early church, leaders led by a model of sacrifice and generosity, not by privilege and accumulation. Unfortunately, the modern evangelical culture—including the publishing and music industries—is generating Christian celebrities and lavishing them with wealth they’re often unprepared to handle.
This isn’t sour grapes. In doing many book signings and media and speaking events, I’ve had at least a taste of what it’s like to be treated as a celebrity. It’s fine to respect and appreciate someone’s writing, but some people treat me better than I deserve. I do not believe that these people are trying to dishonor God. And I personally know a number of people known as Christian celebrities who genuinely seek to honor God.
I’m as vulnerable as anyone to sliding down the slippery slope of pride, succumbing to flattery, and gradually coming to think that I deserve special attention, recognition, and material indulgences. People who think they are entitled to lots of money also tend to think they’re entitled to sexual immorality and other self-indulgences. As countless fallen Christian leaders have demonstrated, financial indulgences and sexual indulgences tend to go hand in hand.
I take no pleasure in addressing these issues. I hope it will serve Christ’s body by initiating some self-examination, dialogue, and reform.
Edited excerpts from Chapter 15 of Money, Possessions and Eternity, by Randy Alcorn (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2003), 243-276.
1 Randy Alcorn, “Nineteen Questions to Ask Before You Give to Any Organization”
2 John Chrysostom, quoted in Christian History 7, no. 2 (1987): 23.
3 Mel Rees, “Church Fund-raising,” Ministry (July 1985): 4.
4 Garry Freisen deals with these and other possible weaknesses of the faith promise approach in his book Decision Making and the Will of God (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah, 1980), 361-67.
5 David R. High, Kings & Priests (Oklahoma City: Books for Children of the World, 1997), 26, 18.
6 Foster Church, “Legendary preacher enraptures audience,” The Oregonian, n.d.
7 Eugene Habecker, “Biblical Guidelines for Asking and Giving,” Christianity Today (15 May 1987): 34.
8 Ibid, 374-75.
9 To see all of our founding principles, go to http://www.epm.org/about-us/finances/
10 Roy Menninger, speaking at 1981 Council on Foundations Annual Conference; cited from “Best Practices For Philanthropists,” a paper provided by World Vision.
11 Jim Cymbala, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997), 70.
12 Speakers arranged by fees at Christianspeakers.com.
13 “Quick Quotes on Money,” Christian History 7 (1987): 2, 4.
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.