FIRST-PERSON: Overcoming income concerns in seminary & the ministry

Baptist Press
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Posted: Apr 11, 2012 5:53 PM
FIRST-PERSON: Overcoming income concerns in seminary & the ministry
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- One of the first things that comes to mind when you begin to sense God's call to the ministry is what it means financially. I don't mean you're weighing whether or not to say yes to God, depending on the dollars. You just wonder how you will manage. You trust the Lord to take care of things, but you need to get to work on the details.

When God called me to the ministry, I was a prof at Wheaton College. Sharon and I had two boys, ages one and four, and we owned a little house just northeast of the campus. So we sold the house, moved to Fort Worth, Texas, for seminary, and lived off the equity, using it all up. Along the way, I picked up a little income writing youth material for David C. Cook, doing some military duty as a reservist at Ft. Hood, and supply preaching at a few churches. Our Toyota kept running, and life was good in student housing.

When graduation came, we hadn't connected with a church, so we put most of our stuff in storage and moved in with Sharon's parents in Missouri, where her dad was the executive director of the state convention. It's kind of embarrassing to be 33-year-old indigent, with a third child on the way, drawing an occasional army check, living with in-laws. But they were delighted to have us there, and God's timing and provision were perfect.

The church to which we were called later that year had not even formed their pulpit committee at the time of my May graduation, so we couldn't go straight there. In the meantime, I was able to finish a book on bioethics for Prentice-Hall, complete the correspondence version of the Command and General Staff course, play with my kids, and do a little more preaching. When the call finally came in November, we were astonished to discover that my salary would be more than twice what I got at Wheaton, and, before we knew it, we were once again homeowners.

I'm not saying that's God's guarantee. Many people around the world and throughout church history lose their fortunes and lives when they venture to preach. I'm just saying that God's provision can be amazing when it serves His purposes to set you up with a comfortable economic base.

And that's not just a seminary/startup story. I've seen it happen repeatedly in our experience, most recently in metro Chicago. Though an established church in Virginia had contacted me when I left Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1999 (with three months' salary, having relinquished house and car), we felt led to answer the Chicago association's call to plant a church in Evanston, in our early 50s.

For a few months before that, we lived in an apartment in Franklin, Tenn., sustained by some contract work for LifeWay, but we were just getting by. When we did pack up the old Ryder in 2000 and head north, we had only a $10,000 startup grant from NAMB under "Strategic Focus Cities" and the prospect of $1,000 a month for expenses. So we got some stationery and a phone, found a little office near the Northwestern University campus, held a few special events, did some mailings, and rented some Sunday meeting space at the YWCA.

So how did we live? Well, Sharon got a job as a middle school secretary, and we got our health insurance through that. Daughter Chesed worked a number of jobs, and son Jed was thoughtful enough to play basketball so well that North Greenville College carried him on scholarship. I cashed in some of my GuideStone annuity, and we drew on a lifetime of good credit for some help.

Turns out, there was precious little income from the church, mainly made up of students. (One Sunday, we had around 50 in attendance, with less than $50 in the offering plate.) And life is expensive on Chicago's North Shore. So something had to give.

Rather, someone had to give, and God was the giver. Opportunities for adjunct teaching opened up at Trinity, Elmhurst and Wheaton. (Sometimes, on the same day, I'd board the train for Wheaton College at 5:50 a.m. and then, after a late afternoon commute from Wheaton to a Trinity extension on the far South Side, I'd board the train back from Harvey, Ill., at 10:00 p.m., arriving home at midnight.) I also substitute taught at a couple of nearby high schools, and I did some more research for LifeWay. But we were fast approaching the crisis point. We were convinced God wanted us in that work, but we couldn't see how it was sustainable. And then God intervened -- with calls to work from Southern Seminary and Kairos Journal. So over the next four years, we had enough to both live and erase the debt. And when it came time for our daughter to go to college, her record and their needs assessment were so substantial that she was given a great deal of help. So she made it through with flying colors and little to be repaid on loans.

Now, we're solvent, indeed prospering. But either way is fine, whether living lean in seminary village or on the home mission field, or living comfortably now in Nashville, where we do extension work for Southern Seminary. It's all good.

So to those who are anxious over how they will make it, let me offer a word of encouragement. God will give you what you need, but not necessarily when you want it. As one preacher I heard in seminary put it, you have to walk toward certain doors before the electronic eyes will open them. If you just stand at a distance, hoping they'll open, they won't.

A Mennonite friend from graduate school days said we needed to always be open-handed toward God. We should always be ready to receive what He has for us and never clutch what He does give us. Just let him give and take as He pleases. Good words for the ministry, whether you're just starting or you've been at it awhile.

Mark Coppenger is director of the Nashville extension center and professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

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