High-profile ministries complete with their own jets, mansions, swimming pools, mega-complexes, exotic cars, and audio-visual extravaganzas have gathered the attention of the United States Senate. An investigation took place in 2008 to determine if abuses of donations are taking place. This paper is one man’s attempt to bring some measure of understanding to a situation that is bringing harm to the cause of Christ.
At Prisoners For Christ I serve as Chairman, Board of Directors. I also have attended a large church in the Assemblies of God denomination for 20 years and am acquainted with their finances (as a church member I participate in voting and annual business meetings – and I ask questions at these meetings!).
With Prisoners For Christ I serve on the finance subcommittee of the Board. A copy of our annual financial report is available to anyone who asks for it, being that PFC is a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (www.efca.org). Along with Prison Fellowship, we are among the very few prison ministries nationwide with such an affiliation.
With PFC I am an active participant in the establishment of the annual budget, a budget that expands every year, and a budget that we meet every year. All of our donations are from individuals that believe in our work and ministry. We receive no donations from our direct constituency (of course, being that they are in jail or prison, we don’t have the ability there to “pass the plate”).
Be it the prison ministry, or my church, all of the pastors and leaders drive modest automobiles, live in modest homes, and lead modest lifestyles. They all are also utterly committed to people, to teaching the scriptures, and to advancing the kingdom of God, and their good testimony is well known in the community.
When the prison ministry teams travel on international trips (we take four to nine trips annually – more every year) we fly coach. When we travel domestically we travel coach. When we rent cars they are modest. We are spending money that was donated to the cause of advancing the kingdom of God. This is consistent with the stewardship example of the scriptures. Would flying first class on back-to-back 10-hour flights be more comfortable than coach? Sure it would, especially when you are six feet tall and weight 230 lbs., but is that good stewardship? Do people give sacrificially to any ministry so that those on the receiving end can live like kings? Hardly. They give so that we can get out the message about the King of Kings to a lost and dying world.
That said, for a minster to live in a nice home and to drive a nice car and to have a good income is not sin, and no one would complain about that. The minister who has built a ministry, has a support base, has demonstrated results over a protracted period of time, has a good testimony within and without the church, and has earned his keep should enjoy the blessings that a life well lived and well managed can provide. This applies to a Christian businessman as well. Living well and at the same time modestly has many advantages, including freeing up resources for outreach ministries.
Should a private citizen own a jet? Look around and tell me who you know personally that owns a jet? Is it commonplace to own a jet? Can good stewardship be displayed when one owns a jet? You decide. Should a ministry own a jet? Of course not. It’s ridiculous under any circumstances, in my admittedly limited view. Consider what it takes to own a jet: the initial cost, insurance, fuel, pilot, maintenance, storage, to name the major expenses. Someone has to pay for this. Guess who it is… the donors. The scrub lady who makes $8 per hour and believes God and believes in ministry may be a donor. What minister needs a $5,000 suit, or a $1,000 pair of shoes? Tell me, who needs that? A private jet can cost $25,000,000. A coach ticket can cost $400. Say you travel half the year, that is, you buy a $400 ticket 150 times a year. That comes to $60,000 in one year. It would take you over 400 years to break even on the cost of the jet alone, not to mention the upkeep, pilot salary, storage, insurance, etc. It is not an economically prudent decision, and let’s not pretend that it is.
Prosperity is a marvelous reality in America. Because of the prosperity of America, and because of the strength of our churches, and because of the call of God on the lives of some to reach across our borders, we can minister in foreign lands. In the PFC international missions work the funds provided by donors support the following: coach air fare, ground transportation (we fit everyone into one van), meals, humanitarian aid (food for inmates, cases of soap, soccer balls), Bibles, gifts to the local nationals, and even some of the immunizations needed to travel abroad. I have been on seven international campaigns. We live as frugally as we can. We keep the cost down as much as possible – in the first place, so that we can even afford to go on the trip at all. We negotiate with hotels, with drivers, with restaurants; we don’t toss money around carelessly. I managed the money on most of my trips. We account for every dime. There is no waste. There is no excess. There are no boondoggle shenanigans going on, not even remotely. We won’t allow it. When you are beholding the poverty of the developing countries and you know that even in America our donors are giving sacrificially, you cannot, with any conscience, squander any of the resources you are entrusted with for use domestically or in foreign lands.
When we travel domestically we share rooms (we do this on the international field also), we eat crackers and other snacks we bring with us, thus keeping down in-country expenses. This is consistent with good stewardship. Because our ministry is local and does not appeal to the well-heeled crowd, we carry on with what we have. But let’s say we had excess funds, enough to put our ministry leaders in exotic cars and fly them around first-class. Would we do it? I’ll answer it this way, we have 20 countries asking us to come help them and we cannot due to limitations on resources. We already send Bible Study Correspondence Courses to every state in the union, and our Yard Out newspaper goes into every prison in America two or three times annually. With more resources, we would NOT buy exotic cars or squander the money on first-class plane fare, rather, we’d enlarge our international trip budget, we’d get to the countries who need us, we’d double our national newspaper distribution, we’d spread out new ministry centers into other states in America, we’d put all of our PFC University teaching courses into DVD format and make them available to others, and a great deal more other ministry related activity.
Someone says, “hey, that’s easy to say, but who says you’d really do that?” To that I answer, come look at our Strategic Plan that was built by our president and Board of Directors. All of these expansion steps are in this Plan and all that’s stopping it from happening sooner is that we’re disciplined to work within our resource limits; as they expand, we will expand. The faster the resources come in, the faster we’ll get to the ministry already targeted on the books. We live modestly because our heartbeat is outreach and that’s where the resources and energy go.
The Board of Directors are people of God committed to the work of God. We aren’t looking for some new scripture out of the Old or New Testaments to twist to our gain, but we’re looking at all of the scriptures, ones like “the fields are white unto harvest” and “I was in prison and you visited me” and “follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” and are acting on these.
I watch over the finances at PFC, we pray for our donors, we have volunteers who do our mailing (tons of it!), correct our Bible Studies (hundreds of them), and teach at our semi-annual prison ministry training. We have nine international missionary campaigns scheduled already for 2013. We are running as fast as we can to send the help where it’s needed, whether on the international mission field or the local jail and prison, we’re bringing in literature, showing up with a Christian message, and advancing the kingdom of God.
Most ministries and most churches are not the head-lining mega-colossuses you see on television and hear about on radio, or read about in newspapers or on-line. Those few at the top who fly their jets, drive their exotic cars, and travel like sultans will have to answer for it one day. If they use their donors’ generosity to pamper themselves and enrich their lifestyles, God have mercy on them. As long as there are the poor, the sick, the lame, the orphan, the widow, the elderly, the infirm, the prisoner, the homeless, and the lost, then there is someplace to put resources rather than excess lifestyle. Consider that, beloved. The standards are different in the kingdom of Heaven. Let the world heap up riches unto themselves, but let the minister of the gospel show stewardship and stick to the mission.
Don’t bother sending me pet scriptures on why “God wants you to be a millionaire.” God wants you to be conformed into the image of Christ. Remember Him? Born in a stinky stable, didn’t have much money, rode around on a donkey, or he walked, made his grave with the poor? Remember Him? The Savior of the world? While you’re striving for gold, remember that in Heaven they walk on it.
I appeal to your common sense. If God has equipped you with the tools to acquire wealth, then make sure you’re using it for his purposes. Have a clear conscious before God and man. Enjoy the fruits of your labor, but remember the poor. Be generous to the work of God. Earn every dime you can, be a good steward of it, and advance the kingdom of God.
There are prosperous businessmen who bless ministers with vehicles. Nothing wrong with that, and everything right about it. But let us be wise and circumspect in our living and our giving. If our prison ministry came into a seven-figure inheritance and the board wanted to squander it on foolishness they’d do it over my vigorous objections. Of course I know the Board members and they’d say the same thing to me. We’d put those resources to use YESTERDAY and accelerate our strategic plan. Our bills are paid and we have precious little reserve, like most other ministries (and families) in America. That’s how it works. My church doesn’t have excess funds floating around either; we put our resources to work advancing the cause of Christ. More than a million dollars a month flows through my church corporation when you include our K-12 schools, burial chapel, dozens of missionaries we help support, and daughter churches around the Seattle area. My church and the prison ministry have strict accountability and godly people at the helm. This is normal and usual for Christian ministry. It’s only the high profile hucksters that get the attention and give the rest of ministry a bad name.
The Love of Money is the root of all evil. There’s a reason that verse is in there. When I was a new Christian the great evangelist Ravi Zacharias came to our church for a week of meetings. It changed my life. Many services I was at the altar crying, God was touching my heart. On the last night my wife and I wanted to give him a gift. We had $20. It was all we had (we were newly married and just starting out) but we wanted him to have it because we believed he was a man of God and we were grateful he was at our church, since we knew he was married and had small children at home. He was very gracious, and thanked us, and said he would use the money to buy books. What an example! To this day I have not forgotten that. This eminent international evangelist looking at a young, insignificant ‘nobody’ couple for whom he had prayed, was going to use what we gave him to further his own growth and ability to minister. This is how a real evangelist comports himself, not like those few that make the headlines with their yachts, mansions, jets, and designer suits.
The two major ministries I support have international outreaches, advance the kingdom of God locally, and are accountable to their donor base. Their books are open. Can the big shots say that? No, they cannot. They do not publish their financial records. Makes you wonder if something is amiss, doesn’t it? The Bible says to avoid even the very appearance of evil. The Christian has a higher standard. They must meet IRS requirements and other laws, but on top of that they have to obey the scriptures. And nothing is more dangerous than legal loopholes and twisted scripture to make any ministry go sideways. The unbeliever looks on and sees the foolishness and excess of the few and (understandably) demands that every ministry pay taxes consistent with other corporations. Even the unredeemed see through the hypocrisy and manipulation of the few at the top. This hurts all ministries and certainly doesn’t do much to win over the unbeliever who looks on in disgust and disbelief.
Check out the big names. What is their statement of faith? To what organizations are they accountable to? Are their books open? Even the rankest of sinners expects more out of a minister than they do of others. They (rightly) just expect more. A few years ago I may have shrugged off some of the excess I see in a few big-name ministries. But after personally experiencing multiple international missions campaigns I know it simply isn’t justified, no matter how you slice it. The need is so great and, like Jesus said, the workers are few.
Someone is going to ask, well, where is the cut-off point? Good question. I’d say if you are a tithing, hard working, honest, God-fearing person and you have been blessed in your work or business, and you can afford to bless ministry, provide value to your clients, have your home in order, have your life in order, while still affording the nicer things, and that’s your desire, then you have earned it and have at it. There is no issue with a very nice home a very nice, new, safe, comfortable car. A jet? Nah. That, beloved, is over the top in my book.
But if to have your lifestyle you are a miser everywhere else, have shut up your heart of compassion to the poor, give nothing, or only sparingly, then even if you live in a sandbox it’s more than you deserve. For you, the love of money is the root of all evil.
Do you want to be poor? Then don’t give. Do you want to be in need? Then keep everything for yourself, and be selfish. This is the road to poverty, if not now, then later. But also pay careful attention to where you are sending your money. Giving into ministries that are more concerned with money than souls is not the will of God.
If you support a para-church ministry, find out who they are accountable to. If you support a church, make sure you read and understand their statement of faith. Bishop T.D. Jakes is raising millions of dollars in Christian circles and he denies the orthodox Protestant doctrine of the Trinity. But since most Christians don’t know Christian doctrine themselves no one notices. He sells books, goes on Christian TV, and all the while holds to doctrines contrary to orthodox Christian teaching. If you support any ministry, find out what their statement of faith is. Guess what, it may not even be Christian. Another big name, Joel Osteen doesn’t like to use scripture when he “preaches.” I heard him say this out of his own mouth. He’s raking in millions in donations and book sales. What does he have to say if he’s not using scripture? Some ministers I used to listen to when they were younger and godly have since gone down the path of fame, riches, and wacked-out “revelations” that leave Biblically-literate people scratching their heads while the uninformed masses are taken in and opening their wallets to these charlatans.
Sorry for the strong talk. It is possible to understand money and have a proper disposition toward it and not make it the centerpiece of your life or ministry. City Church in the Seattle area holds annual Prosperity With A Purpose conferences that focuses on why wealth in the church is important and how it is to be used. This is much needed teaching because the fields are white unto harvest. Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Seattle teaches sound fiscal understanding in his book Thou Shall Prosper. It is balanced, effective, and scriptural. The late City Church Pastor Wendell Smith as well as Rabbi Lapin led and lead modest lives – this is the proper example. Concepts regarding the use and purpose of money can be taught correctly, or they can be distorted. Money can be the goal or it can be the tool used to further the kingdom of God.
Whenever a person teaches on money someone is not going to like it. But you must realize that money is important – try not paying a bill and see just how important it is. Money represents added value, participating in the economy to the good of others, so it stands to reason that if it’s important then the Bible should have a lot to say about it, and it does! Good teachers can interpret “money verses” in a God-centered context, reflecting the character of God and behaviors such as those exampled by the Beatitudes, the Fruit of the Spirit, and the ministries of Jesus, Paul, and Peter. But when you have a self-centered agenda, looking at those money verses you can see something different. You can see what you want to see, and suddenly you have a religious zeal to gather all sorts of money to yourself. Pathetic, but it happens. Be on guard beloved.
It used to be that Christians were choosing the sawdust trail, the trail of the common person living modestly. Now it’s the gold dust trail, where wealth is a measure of spirituality, and gathering and heaping unto one’s self has God’s seal of approval. Here’s the 12-step formula for wealth:
- Work your backside off.
- Be generous, give.
- Work some more.
- Work still some more.
- Give some more.
- Increase your education so you know more and can, thus, do more.
- Work some more.
- Add value.
- Work yet some more.
- Give yet some more.
- Do all this with an attitude of willingness and obedience.
That’s the formula beloved, any questions? Leave any part of that out and you will wind up with an empty sack. There are a lot of voices out there talking about money and ministry. There are a lot of verses in the Bible that deal with money and money-related themes. You can interpret these correctly by applying the backdrop of the ministry and purpose of Jesus and the apostles, or you can take the shallow road and drape your conclusions with selfish motives and be a big zero in advancing the kingdom of God. Beloved, use your head in the areas of money and ministry!