Faithfulness to Christ

The Lord is with you this day and always as you go about life as His child, and I just want you to know that your pastor prays for you every day. My prayers to God for you occur each and every morning—and along the way of my day as things arise or as I myself find a moment to whisper into the Lord’s ear for His help or concern for you and for my own concerns.

Funny, isn’t it? He knows what we will ask before we ask it, and yet He commands for us to pray. Why? First, because He already knows that if He doesn’t, we won’t. We need the prompting. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we have the Gospel imperative to pray—which is to say that it isn’t the Law moving us to pray, but rather it is the Gospel that moves us to see the mandate to pray as good and holy. By the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have full and free access to the Creator of all things. And just as you love to hear when your family and friends tell you they love you, so also does our God find great delight in hearing the voices of His saints as they pray, praise, and give thanks. It is a communicative relationship like none other, and it is one in which we can take great comfort.

Through faith in Jesus Christ, your prayers never fall on the deaf ears of the Divine One. He is always listening and acting according to His good and gracious will for you.

Having said all of this, we have much for which we need to pray, and this will be the only premise for this week’s email.

I can’t make you read all of it, but I sure hope you will.

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For the last six to seven years or so, much of which I have focused on when it comes to the topic of stewardship has been, in many ways, simply to reveal what the Word of God has to say about it so that you would know that stewardship isn’t to be considered a dirty word in the life of the Church, that is, something to be avoided as bothersome and maybe even a little scary. For the past two years, I’ve done my best to make sure that you know exactly what’s going on in this place financially. Here in newsletters like this, I’ve been sure to share the grittiest of details.

With regard to stewardship being a scary a topic, in all honesty, that’s sort of how I felt about it for a very long time. Maybe you didn’t, but I did. I find great ease in preaching the Gospel. I find even greater ease in teaching the Gospel. But for the longest time I was deathly afraid of the topic of stewardship, of telling folks just how important their giving was—not only for the sake of the organization’s survival, but as a fruit of their faith—as an indicator of what was most important to them in this life. Now, while I am rarely in precise alignment with Billy Graham, there is something he said that rings very true. And why? Because, quite frankly, it is an age-old verity revealed in the Scriptures. I don’t remember the wording exactly, but I think it was something like this: “Show me a person’s checkbook, and I’ll show you that person’s god.”

I whole-heartedly agree. People prioritize. People support those priorities with time and treasure.

As time has gone on, I’ve seen the Lord at work in my own life completely changing my perspective on stewardship. And I have to imagine that it was a challenge for Him. Ask anyone—my wife, our parish administrator, fellow pastors who know me, my kids—I don’t like money. It’s always in such short supply for us that it almost always seemed to be more of an enemy than anything we could ever call blessed. With that, I don’t even like to look at it. I don’t like the smell of it. I don’t like having it in my wallet. And I dread the conversations here at the church where money is the overarching topic. It almost always makes me sick to my stomach.

But money is a necessary gift of the Lord. And as I mentioned, over time, my perspective on stewardship, especially as it is tied to the financial gifts that God gives, has completely changed. With that, these past six or seven years have also been spent encouraging you to understand that a tithe—that is, ten percent—is not a suggested ceiling for giving, but rather it is for Saint Paul (as he teaches about the topic) the place to start. And so when he speaks about giving generously, he’s actually talking about going up from there.

Interesting. Somehow, so many churches seemed to have missed this very important theological point. I know I missed it, and unfortunately, it’s because it was never taught to me.

Again, over time, my understanding of this has changed. It has become much deeper. As I have learned, I have also shared with you (Philippians 4:9; 2 Timothy 3:14; Galatians 6:6). And with that, the Spirit has been at work in all of you in ways that, I dare say, many past and present people beyond our walls would never have expected.

We should not be able to afford the facilities we have. We couldn’t afford them before we built them and there’s no reasonable way we should be shouldering them now. But we are—and in some pretty astounding ways. Perhaps the most noticeable is also the most honest: We have far less people here than when we built the place—about 100 less per Sunday—and yet giving has surpassed the levels of those former days. How is this possible? Well, the answer may seem counterintuitive.

Because money isn’t what’s most important to us. It is neither our god nor our first priority. Faithfulness to Christ and His Word is our everything.

Now, here’s the hardest part of this exceptionally long note…

While we have adjusted our theological astuteness with regard to what it means to be good stewards with what God has so graciously set before us, and we are seeing our congregational giving rising from the dismal 2% or so that it used to be to somewhere closer to 4.5% (at least that’s my calculated guess), I left some very important things out of what I’ve been teaching all this time. It’s time to change gears on this.

Let me explain.

Maybe you remember that several times over the past few years, the staff has written a letter to the congregation at Christmas time in order to tell all of you that instead so generously giving toward a Christmas bonus for the staff, you should put any such over-and-above gifts toward the General Fund. We did this because we wanted you to know that we love you—and we know that you love us—and the best way to keep chiseling away at our financial concerns would be to concentrate all of our efforts on supporting the General Fund. I encouraged this among the staff several times over the course of several years because I believed that while morale was already low in our own midst, I knew that your morale was just as low. I wanted all of you to know that you were loved and that we, the staff, knew you were praying and working hard to adjust to higher levels of faithfulness, that it would take time to learn and grow in the knowledge of better stewardship and that we would keep at our tasks undaunted, all the while praying for you and for the success of the Gospel mission in this place.

You need to know that no one on staff ever entered into those efforts reluctantly. Truly, your staff loves and appreciates you.

But now the shifting of the gears.

As a congregation, it is time—no more indulgent conversations that ease our consciences—but rather, it is time to start working toward staff salary increases. We have been working long and hard to adjust toward better stewardship of the facilities, but we have not done so with the stewardship of the people who make this place what it is when it comes to the Gospel work they are called to do.

The clearest way to communicate this to you is to simply say the following.

When it comes to establishing what is appropriate for any particular servant’s salary, there is something we use called a “grid.” Essentially, it is a tool comprised from District information as well as basic demographic data. It sets before us a reasonable standard, and for the most part, it is an accurate gauge.

Right now, the staff of your church and school is being paid at 72% of what they are worth according to the grid, and each year that number drops even further. Currently, when it comes to church-schools, as I understand from a recent conversation with a district official, it’s quite possible that we are the lowest paid staff in the entirety of the English District—which is a non-geographical district of congregations and schools that spans the whole United States. This is hard enough to choke down, especially when many of us already know that even at 100% of the grid, a Lutheran School Teacher already makes considerably less than what they would if they were teaching in a public school.

By the simple fact that the staff is still here, they have already more than proven that they aren’t in it for the wealth. In fact, by way of personal example, this is my tenth year as a pastor and my twentieth year as a church professional. My salary is currently at the level (and I think, even a little less than that) of a first-year pastor fresh from the seminary.

It’s time to help our staff.

And why does this matter? Because even while we may be able to afford the facility, we are very close to making sure that there’s no one in it to do any of the work.

For example, we are in need of calling a new Principal. Andrea is retiring at the end of this school year, and right now we can’t offer a salary (let alone a reasonable work load) that anyone is willing to accept. This has already been displayed. I spoke with Bishop Hardy while I was in Washington DC last week. I’d asked him previously to get the word out to the ranks that we need candidates for the position of Principal. He seemed to have a young candidate with about four years of experience. Apparently she couldn’t get a job anywhere because no one was hiring. She comes with high marks, is keen in her craft, and is most certainly a good fit theologically. And even though he portrayed her as being somewhat desperate for a position, when she learned of the salary, she wasn’t even interested in an interview.

Right now, about $600,000 of our budget is staff expenses. $60,000 more a year in giving would be a 10% raise. $168,000 gets us to 100% of the grid. And just to keep it in the right perspective… Of the approximately 193 “General Fund” giving units in this congregation (and I define this as folks who have envelopes and give at regular intervals throughout the year to support the General Fund, which pays salaries), that’s about $17 a week more per giving unit to bring the staff to 100% of the grid.

Now, this may all be very shocking, but let me go back to something I already said.

Money isn’t what’s most important to us. It is neither our god nor our first priority. Faithfulness to Christ and His Word is our everything.

Stepping out in faith and paying our staff what they should be paid isn’t the same as having straying eyes that are much bigger than our stomachs when it comes to the things we “want” to do around here as opposed to what we “ought” to do. Paying our staff what is right and fair is to keep the mandate of 1 Corinthians 9:9, which ultimately arises from Deuteronomy 25:4. It is to see to the care of the Lord’s servants.

In His Word, God promises to bless faithfulness to His Word (Luke 11:28; Hebrews 11:6; Proverbs 28:20; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 4:2; 2 Thessalonians 3:3). This doesn’t mean that we will be rolling in cash, but what it does mean is that according to His good and gracious will, He will provide what is needed (both successes and failures), all of which will work in favor of the extension of His kingdom and the preservation of His Gospel and the believers that Gospel creates by the power of the Holy Spirit. What it also means is that as we seek faithfulness to Him first and foremost in all that we do—all of us together—we can count on Him having a care for us as useful tools in His hands for accomplishing His will.

That’s a wonderful promise. And by it, there is always before us a wonderful horizon of Gospel possibilities.

He does not fail us, and yet as His servant and mouthpiece, I fail you miserably if I do not share these things with you—even if I don’t like talking about them… even if they make me sick to my stomach. And if you don’t believe I am failing you by holding back on the information, listen to what the Lord said to His pastors in the Book of Hosea when they refused to communicate the hard news to God’s people:

“For with you is my contention, O priest… My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (4:4,6).

Now you know. Or at least you know a good bit about where we need to be headed in the upcoming budget preparations. And with that, pray. Pray hard. Pray that God would show you how you can help. Pray that God would give you what is required to see it happen—and I don’t just mean the financial wherewithal. That’s already present in this congregation. I mean the courage to actually do it.

Really quickly, by way of another personal example, my son Harrison just asked me a few days ago why I don’t seem to be afraid of much. Of course kids think that about their parents. He was referring to the fact that I think scary movies are lame, I’ve never really been afraid of the dark, and I don’t get nervous when I get into the pulpit or stand in front of crowds. My answer to him was to say that courage doesn’t mean being without fear. There are plenty of things that scare me. Courage means subduing that fear. Christian courage is to see our fears subdued by the Gospel reality that if God is for us, who can be against us—even when everyone and everything around us, even within our own selves, is telling us that the odds are impossibly stacked against us and we are certain to fail.

Subdue your fear. By His sacrifice on the cross, Christ has already bound and cast fear into the abyss of nothingness. It has no hold on you.

Subdue it.

And now act according to the faith that’s been given to you.