The Honey and the Money

As I entered into ministry a few years ago, I was given some odd, yet insightful and memorable, words of wisdom.  United Methodist Pastors, for generations, have enjoyed a "guaranteed appointment" system, wherein we are guaranteed a job and our churches are guaranteed a pastor.

For generations, it's been hard to lose your credentials as a pastor.  Those words of wisdom spoken to me: "Stay away from the honey and the money and you'll be here for a long time."  Yet every year, we hear about pastors and staff members who just can't stay away.  They have extramarital affairs or they misappropriate/embezzle church funds.

Since becoming a pastor, I've witnessed the exodus of 4-10 pastors per year from our annual conference, most for "the honey."  In the last year, I've seen two staff members, one that I used to work with and one that I used to be friends with, get caught with their hand in the cookie jar - both will likely face criminal prosecution for embezzlement.

It's sad that all Christian leaders can't have more integrity than this, but we have a long history of ministers, staff members, and lay leaders caught with their pants down or helping themselves to church funds.  When these things happen, the betrayal usually hurts dozens, if not hundreds, of people.  The physical ramifications are bad enough, but the emotional and spiritual damage goes very deep, destroying people's trust and fracturing relationships.  These acts will stunt the growth of any church, both in the relationships within the congregation and between the church and the community. 

If you're a pastor, staff member, or lay leader within a local church, beware of the honey and the money.  Churches are trusting places and opportunity abounds to make poor decisions.  Should you find yourself dealing with those temptations, don't look away, don't walk away, but RUN AWAY!  Find accountability with someone you trust and let them help you avoid the opportunities that will be your downfall.

Most pastors who have extramarital affairs aren't caught the first time they do it.  Usually once the truth is revealed a trail of prior relationships emerges, usually affecting multiple churches. 

As for those who steal from churches, both of the people I mentioned above absconded with thousands of dollars.  Both started with small amounts and gradually took more and more.  One took more than $30,000 over the course of 8 years. 

I believe that both are addictions, much like drugs and alcohol.  There is a high involved - a feel good moment - followed by the need to do it again.  Each time gets bolder and bolder and most people don't stop until they are forced to stop.

So I say again, if the temptation is there, just saying no isn't going to cut it.  Find a strong friend to hold you accountable and to keep you on the right path.  And avoid the opportunities.  I never meet with someone alone and I handle as few funds and possible, always with someone looking over my shoulder.

If you do get into the honey or the money and you think you're getting away with it, you may be for now, but you will be caught.  The outcome will not be pretty and will likely affect the rest of your life in horrible ways, not to mention cause massive destruction for others.  The consequences are much greater than the gratification you may be getting in the moment.

So what about the victims?  What should we do if someone commits these acts against us or our church?  I believe there must be a balance between grace and accountability.  I believe that there is a need for forgiveness and also for prosecution.  We strive to forgive others because that's what Christ taught and exemplified for us - it's our model for life.

However, we often neglect the fact that the church is much greater than our own local church.  If we choose to forgive and forget, the violator is free to gain employment in another local church and commit the same acts again and again, never facing consequences.  When we call for a person's resignation without attaching any sort of asterisk to their resume, we tell the fox to stop raiding the hen house, send him on his way, and hope that he becomes a vegetarian.

If we become too vigilant, we risk our own salvation.  If we are too forgiving, we become complicit when the would-be felon strikes again.

The bottom line is this: stay away from the honey and the money.
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It's been a while since I bragged on my church.  It's not that I don't love the people here, I'm just bad at stopping to praise them on my blog.

Before I brag, let me give you some background...

For the last eight weeks, we've been in a conversation about the "E-Word."  What's the E-Word you ask?  I'm glad you did. 

That's what we've been calling evangelism for the last eight weeks.  What are the first images that come to mind when you hear the world evangelism or evangelist?  For me, it's probably some blowhard, fire and brimstone preacher wearing a worn out suit  with white socks and pants that haven't been introduced to the tops of his shoes who doesn't make much sense, but makes a lot of noise anyway.  Or maybe a plastic woman with LARGE pink hair and makeup done by Sherwin Williams who asks you to send in $50 and she promises she will pray for you.

Evangelism is a word that has been taken over by some ridiculous people for some less-than-reasonable endeavors.  It's been abused and misused.  For many, it has taken on a wholly different meaning that it was originally intended to have.  For that reason, it has become something that we dare not to speak of in polite company, as well as the truly lost art form of sharing faith with others.

Evangelism is quite simple when you strip away all the false connotations.  It's about sharing our faith with others.  It's about being a source of God's good news to the rest of the world - painting a picture of hope in hopeless situations and becoming the answers to the prayers that we pray.

At the conclusion of this sermon series, the challenge was issued to each member in attendance: bring someone to church with you.  Sometimes that's the best start to sharing faith with someone else.

We set the date for July 18th.  We talked about it, we prepared for it.  I began to get discouraged when a handful of members told me that they just didn't have any unchurched or dechurched friends or that they just couldn't talk their friends into coming.  I honestly wasn't expecting much at that point.

Sunday at 10:55, I broke away from a conversation with a member to get settled into the sanctuary.  As I turned the corner I was overwhelmed.  The sanctuary was packed! 

We've grown slowly over the last three years as a church.  In terms of membership, we've just barely outpaced deaths in the church with new members.  Worship attendance has grown from 65 to close to 90 on average and each time we convert regular attending visitors to new members, new visitors take their place as regular attenders. People are finding faith for the first time and are growing, not only as disciples, but as disciple-makers.

Imagine seeing anywhere from 80 to 95 people on a normal Sunday.  Imagine that it's July and people are on vacation, so 80 is a solid attendance number.  Imagine walking into the sanctuary and seeing 120 people!  We had at least 33 guests on hand Sunday.  At least 17 of those had never seen the inside of the sanctuary before.  People brought their family members, their neighbors, their coworkers, and their friends.

I was blown away.  I immediately got anxious with excitement but couldn't wipe the smile off my face.  You see, I'd been praying for this day especially for months now.  Some of my leaders had been praying with me weekly about it for over a month. 

The most exciting part for me?  Probably the looks on the faces of our own members.  I've seen that look before.  It's the one that says, "Look what I did.  Aren't you proud of me?"  And I am proud of them.  I'm especially pumped because they've figured out how to do this and for many of them, this is only the beginning.

I always tell people that the math is simple.  Imagine if we all did our best to bring others to church.  Who have you invited lately?  Who will you invite next Sunday?

If you're reading this and you are the person who hasn't been invited, come hang out with us.  The preaching is ok, but you won't find better people anywhere.



Why do we attend church?  Why do we participate in the community of faith?  Why do we spend our time, energy, and resources on these things?

Because the church is the avenue through which we come to, grow in, and live in faith.  It meets needs for us.

Do you remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs that you learned about in your basic sociology or psychology class?  The most basic immediate needs are physiological, like breathing and eating.  Once those have been met, our next most urgent needs are for safety, then love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

As a minister, I've learned that the that the best way to introduce someone to Christ is to show them that he will meet these needs.  Christ fed the 5,000 because he was meeting their most basic needs.  (Jesus does show us that there is an even greater basic need, forgiveness of sin, which he grants a paralytic before he grants him physical healing.  See Matthew 9.)

Let's focus for just a moment on that second tier of needs: safety.  Safety is a need that every living creature holds in common.  Back a dog into a corner and make it feel like it's safety is threatened and expect to be mauled.  Endanger the safety of my wife and watch a beautiful, kind, loving woman turn into a raging, unrelenting, commando.

Hopefully, if you're a Christian, you've discovered that in your faith you can find safety - the kind that is supernatural and goes beyond the temporal.  Jesus is the calmer of the waves and the master of the storm (see Matthew 8).  No matter what life throws our way, we know that God has already conquered the world and we already know the end of the story. 

Unfortunately, for many church-goers, that sense of security comes from church affiliation.  Long-time church members are typically the most guilty and when change comes to the local church, they begin to act like cornered animals.  Conflict erupts, often devoid of reason and going off like a shotgun blast that hits many people at once rather than a sniper rifle hitting the intended target. 

When I arrived at Mt. Bethel three years ago, a long-standing tradition had been on life support for a number of years.  Every fall, an auction was held to raise money for the church and a series of sermons were preached by a guest preacher.  Attendance had dwindled to very few people and the fundraising "festival" ended up costing more than it was making.  Newer members didn't participate or understand why this tradition even existed.  In the days when every member farmed, this event made sense and people from the community would file through the doors to be a part of it.

I took the harvest festival off of life support.  We tried it my first fall here, but immediately afterward, I began making plans to replace it with something that would better serve and reach the community. 

Have you ever poked a hornet's nest? 

I got angry emails and phone calls.  Members refused to shake my hand on Sunday morning.  Thankfully we've gotten past that and even more gratefully, my instincts proved to be right.  We now redirect our energies in the fall to serving the families that have moved to the community and we've increased our involvement in the schools around us.

People were upset with me because I threatened their security by changing tradition that was older than me.  The face of the church changed, ever-so-slightly, and the waves of conflict began to kick up.

In Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Reese says toward the end, "If you only get one thing from this chapter, make sure it's this: safety lies in God, not in our habits."  I love that.  You see, when we are faithful to God and pursue the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives and our churches, the scenery will change.  When Jesus commissioned his disciples, he didn't say, "Build a building here in Jerusalem, send out glossy 5x8 postcards to all the world and wait for them to come to you."  God has, throughout history, been moving his people from place to place.  He has lead us to places we never knew existed and connected us with people we probably wouldn't choose on our own.

Write this down in the front of your Bible, hang it on your fridge, tattoo it on your...wherever:  GOD IS ALWAYS IN THE NEW PLACE.

That's the Gospel.  God never forsakes his own people but always goes ahead of us.  In fact, we may discover that if we refuse to move, God will move on without us.  Where are we then?

Where does your stability/safety/security come from?  If it comes from God, then nothing can ever threaten it (or you).