Earlier this week my interview with Jeremy Pryor was published at TGC. If you haven’t seen that yet, do check it out. As I wrote in my intro to the interview, Jeremy consistently makes me think about things differently and see them from a new angle. Recently he managed to ruin a new kids’ TV show that I thought was pretty good – Bluey. Well, considering many of the alternatives, it still manages to shine, but the issues he raises about its portrayal of fatherhood and motherhood are valid. He offers some further thoughts here. My kids even noticed it: “The dad never goes to work!” While I was charmed at first with the portrayal of a fully engaged father, which is a course-correction of sorts from the absent and disengaged father, and which I try hard to be for my own kids, I also noticed a number of subtle things that didn’t sit quite right. Jeremy merely helped me put words to what those things were.
So back to the interview. At TGC we had a certain word-count that limited us from including the longest interview question and answer from our conversation. I thought I would include it here below. My question was trying to point in one particular direction, but Jeremy took things in a slightly different direction with his answer, and it gave me a lot to think about. Until recently I haven’t ever thought about the categorical difference between working for a wage and owning assets which generate income. But that’s why I read people like Jeremy who force me to examine my own assumptions.
Here is the Q & A, with some further comments afterwards:
Phil: Looking back at the history of evangelical leaders, we see quite a wide range in terms of family life. On one end we might look at John Wesley, who famously did not seem to be a stellar husband; On the other end, we can look at Jonathan Edwards and see not only a vibrant and loving family but a multigenerational family legacy. Pastors and Christian leaders today have a demanding and complex vocation that places unique stresses on their families, and I know most of them want to emulate Edwards here rather than Wesley. What is your advice to them? What do you think ministry minded Christians can miss when it comes to the family?
J.P.: I have a pretty unusual position with regards to this question. One of the things you see with Abraham is that a big part of how a man grows into fatherhood is through facing the multiple challenges of providing for his family. Working to provide for one’s family disciples a man into fatherhood; it’s a really important element. But one of the problems with ministry is that it’s a difficult vocation for that kind of discipleship to take place in appropriate ways. So you have Paul saying in 1 Timothy 3 that the people who should be overseeing the church are essentially the most successful fathers in the city — that’s how I read what he’s saying there.
This is really strange when you think about the challenges of ministry because a lot of times the ministry pathway has not properly discipled men to become the kinds of fathers who know how to manage a complex household. They can tend to live a very atomized life where they have disintegrated their spiritual lives from their ministry lives and their family life. There’s a lot of strangeness that can happen when you’re not working in a more traditional way to provide for your family.
I see it as an alternative pathway or narrative: a ministry narrative. In this narrative the driving concerns are things like what it means to grow a church, or to expand in ministry. Part of the goal of that pathway is freeing up one’s time from having to do the kinds of things that men typically do: pleasing a boss, serving clients, building assets, and doing traditional fatherhood things. In Jewish culture this is very different, and I think maybe this is one of the things we can learn as Christians. For example, most Rabbis have businesses. So I’m drawn much more to a bi-vocational approach.
One of the things I’m very concerned about for every family, whether they work in ministry or not, is what happens to the father when he’s in his 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. This is where I think the wage-earning model breaks down the worst. This is a season of life where you should be dedicated to your grandchildren and available to disciple and lead that growing and expanding household. This requires you to have access to your time in a unique way. But in the way most career paths are designed in our culture, that is the time when you reach your peak earning potential, when work responsibilities are heaviest, and so you have less access to your time. So that’s just one example of where living this disintegrated life, where your source of money is distanced from your household and how it functions, causes problems.
There’s a lot more to be said, but I do believe every family should pursue asset building at a young age, even young ministry families. Build assets. Churches should be assisting people who have a ministry calling to acquire assets and not to be endlessly dependent on the church for their income all the way into their old age. To me that’s bad family design.
It’s important to say as well that there is one group that is totally exempt from this kind of thinking and that is single people who have made a lifelong vow of singleness. I think they represent one of the most untapped resources in the church. Many if not most of the stories in the NT are of single people who are on mission who are “undivided,” as Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 7. They have particular gifts and they’re an incredible resource to the kingdom. There’s a constant synergy happening between the single missionaries going out in teams and the households supporting them in various cities. You see this throughout the book of Acts and Jesus talks about this specifically as a strategy in Luke 10. This ministry strategy seems to have been almost completely abandoned, and so you have this epidemic of single people living like they’re married and married people that are in ministry living like singles.
This whole issue of the financial viability of entering full-time ministry is increasingly important in our Canadian context. With the price of living increasing year over year, especially near urban centers like Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, and the salaries of pastors being very slow to follow, what was already a very dicey prospect is becoming simply untenable. I personally know of multiple ministry families forced to live in small apartments with two or three children long after their age cohort has by and large found semi-detached or detached housing where one can have just a bit more room and a little yard for the kids to run around in.
One such family had a bit of a sweet deal in terms of the rent they were paying for their apartment. Then all of a sudden the owner announced he was selling the place and they would have to move out. There was literally nothing available in their price range, given his salary as an associate pastor. So now they are leaving that city and looking to take up a pastorate where they can afford even basic housing. In a number of these cases the churches themselves are healthy and, as far as I know, not ungenerous. But the economic realities are simply brutal.
My anecdotal observations of ministry families is that more and more of them are adopting the modern two-salary approach where both parents work. While some of this may be preference, it is also increasingly a necessity. As someone who has been considering pastoral work on and off for the last ten years (that’s a story for another day), and who has even gone through one candidating process, I can tell you that it’s really hard to make the numbers work on one salary. In fact, our conclusion was that the math simply didn’t work no matter how we sliced it. And it wasn’t like we had a penchant for expensive dining out or regular tropical vacations that made the math difficult. We stripped that budget down to the bare necessities (as the song goes) and could not find anywhere to rent or any mortgage where we’d have enough left over to live on, as in have basic food to eat, second-hand clothes to wear, and a beater of a car that I keep running through doing my own mechanical work and ordering parts on rockauto.com, which I like to do anyways.
This experience had us wondering just how the heck ministry families are making this gig work. And the answer, for many, is to have both parents working. Another avenue would be to have a generous patron, such as a grandparent who provides housing or some other significant assistance. For families who feel strongly about the wife staying home with the children, or even homeschooling them, is vocational ministry even possible? As I think of the Millennials I know currently in ministry, only two of them among more than a dozen are able to survive on the one income. And in both of those cases, they either got into the housing market before it went crazy or have free housing as part of the position.
See this Facebook post by Paul Carter, as well as the comments, for a sense of how pressing this issue is for the Canadian church. Over the years I’ve often come across the attitude that says something like “keeping the pastor poor will keep him holy.” There are other variations of it: “When I started in ministry I made $200 a month but God always provided.” For which, let me be clear, I certainly praise God. But the premise leads some to say we needn’t worry about paying pastors a fair wage on which they can support a family. Surely God’s past provision does not mean we ought to presume upon it when He has given the church the financial resources to be the vehicle of that provision.
What Jeremy Pryor describes in the answer to my question above is an interesting alternative track. By and large the modern ministry pathway follows something like the Charles Spurgeon trajectory: early identification of spiritual gifts, encouragement to take on roles of spiritual leadership, perhaps some special training like Bible College or Seminary, and then entry into full-time paid ministry in one’s early 20’s, perhaps as an associate or youth pastor, or perhaps as a lead pastor of a smaller church. The trajectory then is increasing responsibility and ministry success with increasing wages over the years. And obviously in many cases this has worked just fine.
But the alternative is interesting to consider as well. We would be mistaken to assume the sequence above is somehow the only Biblical model. A lot of it is cultural and a reflection of the forces at work in our modern society to professionalize every vocation. The bi-vocational model can be controversial. I admit that when I think of it I often picture a man pulled hard in two opposite directions, working two jobs that demand too much time and deliver not much money, so that it ends up being a kind of trap. He can’t focus enough on the ministry to grow it and make it financially viable, nor can he devote enough time to advance in the other job and earn a significantly better wage. But that is just one poor variation of it. I think it would be good if the church at large elevated multiple models providing alternative approaches to how this can be done well.
As the boomer generation retires from church leadership these matters will take on ever-increasing urgency, and I’m thankful for those who are doing their best to raise this issue. We may have to start thinking outside the box, learning from other models and adapting to the needs, while being careful to remain faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture about the qualifications for ministry.