The Joy of Volunteering
Increasingly I have come to see just how practically relevant the New Testament is for life and ministry. Just this past week I was reminded of Paul’s view of missionary finances while studying Phil. 1:3-11. Paul’s normal policy was to refuse support lest anyone should accuse him of selling what is absolutely free – the Gospel of grace. Thus his habit was to work night and day with his own hands so as not to be a financial burden on others. Yet for the Philippians he had waived his policy of independence and had readily accepted monetary gifts from them, impoverished though they were. This was because, in a unique sense, they had agreed to “partner” with him in the Gospel and had become “sharers of grace” with him as he went about evangelizing and teaching.
Taking a lesson from Paul, I do feel there has been something wrong with our whole approach to ministry finances – not just recently but extending back to the early period of our nation. It is not that I am opposed, per se, to congregations supporting their workers monetarily or in other ways. I am concerned, however, that rampant careerism is becoming a major problem in our churches. It seems to me that we have come a long way from the simplicity of the New Testament pattern of volunteer leadership. I doubt whether pastoring was ever considered a career in the apostolic era, when elders were home grown men with occupations, homes, and roots in their communities.
An analogy might be made to modern-day politics. Our cadre of career politicians (senators and congressmen) is a far cry from those who led America when our nation was established. Our Founding Fathers believed that those who held public office should do so as a public service, not as a profession. The men who governed our nation already had successful nonlegislative careers in farming, shipbuilding, commerce, or some other enterprise. They saw themselves as volunteers, and for them it was unthinkable to consider public life a “job.”** Likewise, in early America many Baptist congregations frowned upon paying their elders a salary. Pastors and others who received payment for their services were often considered “hirelings” – a term taken from Jesus’ statement in John 10:12.
I would not presume to tell others what I even might imagine they should do. Each of us must stand before the Lord Jesus. I will just say that for Becky and me being financially independent vis-ŕ-vis our ministry in Ethiopia has been a wonderful blessing and has given us great freedom to minister as the Holy Spirit directs us and also as He directs the church elders with whom we work. We have discovered what Amy Carmichael discovered so long ago: that the plans and decisions of a work of God demand that the One who directs it be constantly present. We have been overflowingly busy with our professional responsibilities as teacher and nurse, and in this way the Lord has supplied both our own material needs and the many expenses associated with our mission trips. He has also wonderfully sent in many of the funds needed to meet the needs of the Ethiopian churches with which we have the joy and privilege of working. For ourselves, we are sure He has led us in this direction. Without going into the details, we have seen many times how the Lord has sent just the amount that was needed at just the right moment to meet a special need in Ethiopia. It really is amazing to see the way everything has fit together since we began going to Ethiopia several years ago.
I need not tell you that Becky and I feel the need of prayer greatly. On the other hand, no one has ever been more blessed by the Lord or more graciously treated by others. It seems to me that we who are alive today will have the joy of seeing more and more “lay” missionaries stepping out in faith without any promise of financial support – indeed without asking for any. Through hard work and thrift they will seek to fund their own endeavors and allow the church’s resources to go where the needs are far greater. Thus I have a new reason not to have changed my mind concerning the dangers of careerism and professionalism. But I have changed my mind as to the reality of the Holy Spirit in leading each of us individually in these matters of personal conviction. And I might add that I am glad that I am spending less of my time in using my own strength and misplaced zeal, like Peter’s sword-wielding episode, in defending the One I love and more of my time in quietly trusting Him.
**Another example might be the volunteer fire companies we have in the rural south. When we first moved to North Carolina I joined the local volunteer fire department. The question was: Who would fight fires in our community if we did not do it ourselves? For 4 years I spent hundreds of hours in meetings, training sessions, and fighting fires, without of course being paid anything at all.
September 4, 2006
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.