February 20, 2015

3 Blogs on Stewardship #2 Just What Exactly Are We Funding?

As I mentioned in my last post, Southside Abbey's funding is up. More accurately, my funding is up with the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee in August. It has really been on my mind of late that I am confusing these two issues. Nothing about the funding of Southside Abbey's ministry is jeopardy. The Holy Spirit doesn't call us to ministries without providing for them. No, the only change will be in my compensation.

If I think back to three years ago, I was perfectly willing to do this ministry for free as this was as clear a call as I had ever heard. It's fascinating to me just how quickly I got comfortable with the notion of full-time employment once it was offered through the diocese.

Without going too far down the rabbit trail, I am concerned about the two-tiered system of those who follow Jesus. There are “professional” Christians and “amateur” Christians. Before I spark a firestorm with this distinction, remember that Olympians are considered “amateur.”

This two-tiered system is less about lay and ordained as it is about paid and unpaid, but don't think that ordination isn't often a deciding factor in who is on what side of that line. I really have to face the fact that I am a professional Christian. I get paid to do all of the great and wonderful things to which Jesus is calling me everyday. Would I do the same if I didn't get paid? Does the pay merely free me up to do that which all of us should be doing anyway? What a blessing, right? Before the reader jumps up in arms over “the laborer deserves to be paid”-type cherry-picked bible verses, hear me out.

Recently, clergy from our portion of the Diocese of East Tennessee gathered for conversation, led by our bishop, George Young. When we were asked to share our anxieties, I spoke up. I do not think that the model of professional Christians is either sustainable or, truth be told, very biblical. Routinely the best Followers of Jesus I know are those who don't get paid for it. This shut the conversation down. It was too much for those who had dedicated their lives to this system. No more fears were shared and the conversation turned pretty pat-on-the-back-ish after that.

I have written about working myself out of a job before, but I am really starting to wrestle with what that means. Am I being called to be a tent-maker or bass-player to pay the bills? Maybe there are some places that are really making bi-vocational ministry work, but here in the South, I haven't heard too much about it. Here, it seems to be something that is done as a last resort.

These days are days of deep discernment for me. I often meditate on a would-be-throw-away line from Steve Martin's autobiography of his stand-up career, Born Standing Up. Steve tells the story of being on Johnny Carson's couch on a tonight show break. After Steve has delighted Johnny and his audience with prestidigitation, jokes, and rope tricks, Johnny leans over and whispers to Steve, “You will use everything you ever learned.”

Johnny's words both haunt and inspire me, as they could the Church. How could we use what we learned from the Early Church, a time when there was no distinction between professional and amateur Christians? How could we use what we learned from Paul who made tents or Peter the fisherman?

So, I return to the title of this post, just what exactly are we funding? If two generations of young clergy walk away from the expectation of compensation for following Jesus, what do we lose? More importantly, what might we gain? At thirty-five years old am I really already that much a slave to the Church Pension Fund? For every “the laborer deserves to be paid” I hear, I can find a “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.”

I feel like Southside Abbey has broken open a way to be church without a building. Maybe we are being called to break open the system of two-tiered Christians.

Next Friday: #3 Buy the Numbers

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