I can’t say I relate to reports of pastors earning lavish salaries and building elaborate mansions. But conversations about money and ministry can be just as awkward and frustrating on the other end of the pay scale. For pastors scraping by while working two jobs and churches struggling to meet their obligations, money strains relationships and stretches faith. How do pastors know when they need to ask for more money? How do churches know when they should give it? Such common situations won’t attract investigative reporters, but they can cause just about as much consternation.
John Piper could have lived large on his book royalties and speaker fees. So why did he chose to live much more like an ordinary pastor during more than 30 years at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis? I corresponded with the founder and teacher of Desiring God about hard work, “poverty theology,” how he would advise young pastors, and more.
When did you first realize you would need some plan to handle the money earned from your speaking and writing? Were you ever tempted to keep the money for yourself?
When I began my ministry as pastor at Bethlehem, it had never entered my mind that I would produce a lot of income by writing. I received modest honorariums of one or two hundred dollars for weddings and funerals. I accepted these with thanks. I did suspect that, if I was faithful, income would rise, and sooner or later I would make more than I needed. Therefore, I believed from the beginning that plans should be in place to put a governor on laying up treasures on earth. Otherwise, little by little I might assume that my wants were my needs, and the expenses would expand, as they always do, to fill the income. So Noël and I put in place a “graduated tithe” from the beginning. That is, we tried to give a greater percentage with each salary increase, not just a greater amount.
With the successful sales of Desiring God starting in 1987, I saw that there could be substantial income from writing and speaking. I resolved that I should not keep this money for myself but channel it to ministry. I never doubted that the Lord would provide us with a salary that would be sufficient for our family. So I saw no reason to keep the money that came in from the books and speaking. These royalties and honorariums were being earned while I was pastor of Bethlehem, and so it seemed the church should benefit from them, not me privately.
At first, I thought I could do this simply by channeling the royalties to the church, but realized soon that this had tax implications. Since these royalties were technically in my control as the copyright holder, giving all of them to the church made me liable for income taxes. So we created a foundation. The Desiring God Foundation now owns all the copyrights of my books and intellectual property, and receives and distributes all the income. I have no access to the money at all. I do sit on the board of the foundation with my wife and five others. This board safeguards the aims of the foundation, and makes the decisions to which ministries the income should be given. It is a thrilling ministry.
In addition, we made the decision that all honoraria would go to the ministries we represent, not ourselves. That was usually the church while I was pastor, and now is Desiring God. While I was a pastor at Bethlehem, I never received an income from Desiring God. So for the last 25 years or so, we have lived on one stream of income. That is still the case, as I am now paid by Desiring God. I have never been in any serious need. None of this has felt like a sacrifice. I know myself incredibly rich by the standards of the world. Beyond all doubt, it is more blessed to give than to receive and keep.
Why shouldn’t a pastor of a growing and thriving church earn more money as a reward for his hard work and incentive to stay around? After all, the church would probably suffer financially and numerically if he left.
I never felt that I was the church’s privilege, but that she is mine. To be at Bethlehem was gift, all gift. The mindset that I am so valuable I deserve any benefits that come from my ministry is alien to the spirit of Christ. He came to serve and give his life a ransom for many. Jesus was absolutely indispensable in the ministry he came to achieve, and the whole orientation of it was give, give, give—not get, get, get.
My question is: Why would a pastor want to get rich? Jesus said it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom, and Paul said that those who desire to be rich “fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9). These texts, and many others, dispose me to think: my soul, and therefore the good of the church, will be far better off if I put governors on my accumulation.
That “hard work” you mentioned is work for the advancement of Christ’s mission and the good of the church. And every pastor knows that even if “I worked harder than any of them, it was not I but the grace of God with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). And huge waves of this grace break over us from the prayers and partnership of the people in our church. Not only that, but while I am speaking outside and writing, my staff is covering for me in dozens of ways. That investment of time could have focused more directly on the church. It wasn’t. The last thought in my mind was, They owe me. They didn’t. I owed them. To this day, I know that Bethlehem Baptist Church was more a gift to me than I was to her.
Did you ever feel like your church could not or would not adequately provide for your family’s needs? How would you counsel a pastor who feels that way right now?
I never felt that way: $25,000 was more than I needed in 1980, and when my salary broke $100,000 for the first time in my last year at Bethlehem, it was more than I needed. I do not assume this is the case for every pastor. That is why I do not say that the strategies I have used should be applied by all. There are all kinds of situations that may warrant a pastor’s earning and keeping income besides through his church ministry. Paul made tents. But let us be careful here. Paul’s aim was, as he said, exceptional. The laborer should be paid his wages. Don’t muzzle the ox treading out the grain.
Paul’s aim was not to get rich with tent-making and forego church income, as though that little self-denial were a justification of making millions on tent royalties. His aim was to avoid the very appearance of wanting to get rich on the ministry. Paul feared giving the slightest impression that his life work was a “pretext for greed” (1 Thessalonians 2:5). Paul’s mindset was not what he had a “right” to do with his “hard-earned income.” His mindset was to renounce any rights that might make people think he loved money: “We have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12).
Is there such a thing as an unbiblical “poverty theology”?
Yes. There is unbiblical everything theology. For example, it would be unbiblical to glamorize or idealize poverty. The Bible steers a middle way between destitution and opulence: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8-9).
When Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20), he meant: God will show himself especially precious and powerful for the poor who trust him, not the poor who don’t know the Lord (“These are only the poor; they have no sense; for they do not know the way of the LORD, the justice of their God,” Jeremiah 5:4).
It would be a mistake to assume all the poor are humble or generous. The ten lepers were all poor. Jesus healed them all. Nine proved ungrateful (Luke 17:17). The rich have no corner on selfishness.
But it would also be a mistake to think that the Bible treats riches and poverty as equally dangerous spiritually. Riches are more dangerous. We never read, “Only with difficulty will a poor person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23).
How much is too much? Almost any of us in the developed West is much more comfortable than our brothers and sisters laboring for the gospel in the Majority World.
The impossibility of drawing a line between night and day doesn’t mean you can’t know it’s midnight. If someone is starving, they’re poor and need urgent help. If some pastor has ten-times more than the average folks in his church, he is communicating that material things are too important to him. It is a stumbling block.
The Bible commends fasting and feasting—not because food is evil or because no one is starving. It’s because it is evil to be enslaved to good things, and it is good to savor God in his gifts.
I told my children, when the behavior is questionable don’t just ask, “What’s wrong with it?” Ask, will it help me make Christ look great? That was Paul’s passion (Philippians 1:20).
Accumulating money, and buying vastly more than you need, does not make Christ look great. It looks like things are great. There is a reason why Paul said, “We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:7-8).
How would you advise young pastors with regard to their finances as they begin to be invited to speak at conferences and write books? Would your counsel be different for a rising lawyer or doctor?
Talk to your elders about all these things. Serve them long enough and humbly enough that they know you care about the church, and are not just using the church for career advancement. Don’t move into a kind of ministry they disapprove of.
Put in place an accountability group among them (not from outside) to whom you report all your honorariums and other income outside the church. Work out with them an understanding of what is appropriate for you to keep and for the church to receive. Make the church you serve the place where most of your giving goes.
Plan to live on the salary of the church as soon as possible. Once you are meeting your needs and saving appropriately, increase the percentage of your giving beyond the tithe when your salary increases more than the increase of the cost of living.
Saturate yourself with the words of the New Testament on money. You will find yourself convicted more often than confirmed in your Western wealth. Let this conviction produce wise, wartime living that loves to give more than to keep. Enjoy God’s good gifts by enjoying God in and through them. Know that you will never have this figured out completely. Therefore, be thankful for the gospel of grace that covers all our sin.