A few years ago, in a coincidence, I was seated next to an individual who was a prominent donor to a popular local Jakartan church. He worked in a business, and he expressed his respect to me as I told him that I was pursuing a career in theological academics and pastoral ministry. Along the flight and a long layover, I took the opportunity to discuss theological matters with this person. However, It became apparent, soon enough, that he had little to no interest in the discussion – two questions thus came into my mind: why, then, did he believe that my vocation was a particularly respectable one? Why, also, contribute so much to the church given that he had so little interest in the Bible and theology? The answers to these two questions left me bewildered and momentarily depressed; here is a snippet of the dialogue as far as I remember it (X is for the individual, and NGS is for myself):
X: “Well, I know many pastors, or theologians, whatever you may want to call them. I find them to be incredibly talented people.”
NGS: “Talented, in what sense?”
X: “Well they are talented because the ones that I know have the peculiar ability to get back on their feet when their businesses had fallen. You see, churches make a lot of money. Pastoral ministry, it seems to me, is the natural plan B when someone fails in a particular business. For others, it has become to them to be the best option to make quick money.”
NGS: “That’s an interesting view. Do you, then, view churches as simply another form of business?”
X: “Of course; everything is business.”
NGS: “So why do you contribute so much?”
X: “Call it an investment. Isn’t this precisely the same reason why you are pursuing a career in theology? It seems to be the easy route.”
NGS: “I’m not sure I would call it that way – theology is its own discipline, just as engineering is a discipline, or medicine another discipline. I would not simply reduce those things to the practice of business, though of course admittedly there is a business side to them, just as, in my view, there is a theological side to everything.
Theology, church, seminary-building, writing, likewise have their own norms as prescribed by the Bible. We simply do not have the right to do what we want especially in these areas – we must read the Word and seek what God wants and correspond accordingly.”
X: “The pastors that I know had no training – they seem to be doing fine.”
NGS: “Only if your standard of success is how much money they rake in, perhaps. But I fear they may be leading many astray.”
Alas, this is the danger of an unlearned ministry – pastors who have pursued their calling, without any accountability, and without proper training, and worse, because they see it as a way out of previous dead-end job. There was a host of misleading assumptions held by the man with whom I spoke. I’ll just list a few:
- The view that career and ministry ought to be pursued without first considering one’s calling: in his perspective, the doing of theology is simply another option among the myriad of other money-making options. Failed at establishing a restaurant? Perhaps you can go and try banking instead, or perhaps even become a pastor. Absent in his perspective is the reality that ministry, work, and calling are all intertwined: God has called us to particular vocations, and that vocation has to be sought by means of internal passion and external confirmation. Careers aren’t just free-for-all means of building up one’s wealth. His was a philosophy of work antithethical to the Christian worldview.
- The view that theological training was unnecessary to the work of the minister: This seems to be a more prevalent view among some societies over others. It remains odd to me: we would never want to go to an untrained or uncertified dentist – we would fear, in that case, for the well-being of something as ultimately trivial as a few of our teeth. We would not trust the construction of a house or a building to some random businessmen who decided yesterday that they would become a construction-worker or an architect. Why then, would we trust the well being of our lives and philosophy to untrained pastors or would-be theologians who were businessmen just the day before?
Of course I do not mean by this that every pastor ought to have an M.Div or that every theologian ought to be a professor (Charles Spurgeon immediately comes to mind!). But I do mean that these are proper means by which one may attest to the credibility of would-be ministers and theologians – they were designed this way to communicate how serious the theological vocation is.
- The view that the ultimate goal of our jobs is to make profit – don’t get me wrong, profits are necessary. But, from the Christian worldview, they are means to a larger end – profit is a means for the businessman to continue to provide sustainable goods and services, a means for the seminary to continue to train ministers and future pastors and scholars, a means for the artist to continue to furnish us with the tangible expressions of his creativity. Make profit a means and we will use them to value people; but make profit an end and we will end up using people for the sake of money. No career takes exception to this norm.
How do we solve this? Well, congregations must value the training of their ministers, and the work of the theological seminaries and professors. Christians ought to be aware of that which distinguishes a Christian view of work from a non-Christian one. We must avoid the reductionist and cynical mentality of reducing every career to a manifestation of crude materialism – and we must live in a way that shows the falsehood of the same.
The poverty gospel, of course, is as false as the prosperity gospel. Any church that preaches that the holiness of the pastor is attested to by virtue of how poor they are is just as erroneous as the church that preaches wealth as the barometer of God’s favor. Churches musttake good care of their pastors and trainers and their families so that the pastors can focus on serving the church. But there is a fine line between gracious generosity and hospitality with materialistic greed – woe to us who pursue theology or ministry for the latter motivation, and to those of us who have the inclination to feed that motivation.