Killer # 1 Materialistic Clergy

Over the next few weeks I am going to highlight some “killers” that are preying on our rural churches. I will make some assertions about pastors and congregations that deal with character and integrity. The first killer is materialism among our pastors. A pastor who cannot separate himself from the material world will never be successful in rural America. It is my opinion, based on what I have seen and heard, that materialism is an increasing problem among my peers. You need to know before you read the rest of this post that I have to suppress the desire for “bigger and better” every day. It is a very real struggle for me. My assertion is this: Because pastors are following the money instead of God’s call, we have and abundance of pastorless churches on rural routes.

There is a greed factor among our pastors today that seems to dictate where they will minister and to whom they will minister. I don’t think it is pervasive, but I do believe that it is present. We used to joke when I was in seminary, that upon graduation we would “go where the money is since God is everywhere”. That joke isn’t as funny anymore because I understand that many of us were not joking.

Where there is money, materials, and conveniences you are sure to find many churches, church plants, and the finest educated pastors available. Why are there so many churches in the inner city without pastors? Why have so many churches moved from the inner city to the suburbs? Why are there so many churches in rural America without pastors? Is it because God cares so little for minorities and country folk that He is steering the best educated and most passionate pastors to churches with large salaries? I don’t think so. I think it is because we have become materialistic and money driven.

I believe many of us have stopped trusting that God will supply our needs. I believe many of us have forgotten the secret of being content. We are confused about wants and needs. What we want is driving us to places that can provide for our carnal desire for more. What we want is driving us away from places that desperately need pastoral leadership but can’t afford our wants. We are not satisfied. We are unwilling to do what it takes to minister to people who can’t afford our wants. What if God required you to be bivocational for a season. . . would you? Have you limited God’s call by what you are not willing to live without?

Some of you are asking, “What about my family? Does God expect them to do without their wants?” Yes, he does. When did we stop believing that God would take care of our families? The truth of the matter is that we often use our families as our reason to avoid certain low paying churches. “I don’t want my family to suffer. My kids need good schools. My wife would shrivel up out there in the sticks”. Guys, if we are not teaching our families to love God more than stuff we might as well go sell insurance.

Paul warns us to be careful of materialism. While Paul is running down the list of pastoral qualifications he points out that an overseer cannot be “greedy for money” (I Timothy 3:3 also Titus 1:7) In I Timothy 6:6-10 Paul admonishes Timothy ( a young pastor) about being content as we pursue godliness.

Pastors, let me be very clear: I believe that what we want is often dictating where we will and will not serve. I believe that over the years our list of “needs” has expanded so much that churches can no longer afford us. Should churches step up and provide for you and your family to the BEST of their ability? ABSOLUTELY! Should YOU expect a church to pay for two brand new cars, your mid-life crisis Harley, an oversized house, your high dollar hobbies, private school for your kids, golf outings, and whatever else you add? I don’t think so. Those things aren’t bad in and of themselves, but if you can’t live without them in order to go where God wants you to be, then you are guilty of following your carnal material nature instead of God. This ever increasing problem is leaving many rural and small inner city churches pastorless.  What do you think?

Published in: on July 29, 2008 at 4:53 pm  Comments (13)  


  1. Mike,
    I just wrote an entirely too long comment, that we might say ventures towards missing the point! You state it is not pervasive, but present. That it is present is no surprise. Humans, even redeemed ones, will be humans. What do we do about that? But why present it as a “Killer” if it is not pervasive? To me, for it to be a killer it must also be pervasive, and I’m not convinced it is pervasive. To say it is, is to impugn the character of MANY pastors. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not offended in the least, and I agree materialism is a BIG problem whether you’re a pastor or not.

    Your point about educated pastors not being found in the rural sections. OK that may be true. But how well really do College and Masters level guys really relate with people who did not finish middle school. I don’t mean to sound elitist, just realistic about human relations. What I think IS pervasive is an anti-intellectual bias in our smaller rural churches. They got that way for a reason, which is longer than the scope of this comment. But a pastor who’s studied hard for 4-8 years will naturally relate better to other professionals and educated people.

    So why did he go to the smaller church to begin with? That’s a bigger question as well. What do you do when the people you most relate to won’t hire you for lack of experience and the people you least relate to will hire you and regularly demean many of the things you are so passionate about? There’s a quandry. (I would add, this is not necessarily all personal experience, and I sincerely mean that). It’s just a little analysis.

    The pastor then goes to the place that will hire him (let’s ALL assume God did in fact call Him there). God never said that a pastor will remain in the same place for his whole life, though that is probably to be preferred. Reality says differently. He goes to the rural church. If he has any character at all, he works very hard, gives up much even of who he is, compromises much, loves, leads, and LEARNS with all the power of the one working inside him.

    Then God calls him to the next place. Maybe a place that better suits his natural gifts, passions, abilities, and maybe even his spiritual gifts (though that’s obviously very transferable). Maybe his experience gains him a shot he didn’t have before. So maybe the move is to a more educated group. Maybe “professionals.” Maybe wealthier, maybe not, but likely a bump up in salary. Is that WHY he moves on? I hope not. It wouldn’t be for me. Brooke and I have learned what it means to live on a modest income. But then he arrives at a new place where those things that really make him, him can flourish. And maybe God even called him to go.

    So who goes to a rural church for life? The person that flourishes there. Try as we might, we don’t all flourish there. I’m personally a very mixed bag. A mixture of flourish and depletion. But I will stay until God moves me, and that is the bottom line. Well, it seems this is a long comment as well, but hopefully somewhat to the point. As always, appreciate your passion and zeal for all things rural and church!

  2. WHOA! Really long. Sincerely sorry! Got carried away.

  3. Wow Josh you must have had a great vacation. Your fingers were really rested and ready to type. “Pervasive” would say that it is the rule and not the exception. I don’t think that materialistic pastors are the rule. I still think they are the exception, but they do exist. When you combine materialistic pastors with the next 7 “killers of the rural church” they all make quite a nasty team.

    I’ve got to go. I want to consider the rest of your response later. Now. . . we are off to the pool.


  4. Yeah, that happens sometimes. My fingers were a bit potent today. I’ll look forward to your longer response. I was using pervasive in the dictionary sense, “spreading widely throughout an area or a group of people.” So if something was not pervasive it would mean there are isolated cases of it I suppose. Semantics I guess. In any case, I’ll also look forward to the next 6 killers!

  5. Josh,

    Relating to Rural People:
    I don’t think a man’s personality dictates who he can and cannot serve as pastor. I certainly don’t think his education level should dictate where he serves. I also don’t think rural equals middle school drop outs. If having a seminary degree means that a guy can only minister to educated people, then our missionaries are in trouble. Many of them serve people groups and cultures who are suspicious of education and Americans in general. Our missionaries overcome this challenge with time, love, and contextualization. The same is true of a pastor serving on a rural route and even those who serve in the suburban jungle. It has been my experience that relating to people is a choice and is difficult at times. I believe that it is incumbent upon the God-called, seminary-educated, and Holy Spirit-equipped man to find common ground with those people that God calls him to.

    I agree that there is an anti-intellectual bias in some rural churches, but I don’t see it as pervasive. I do know of a case locally where one or two within a congregation vocally abused a pastor b/c of his education and his passion. No one within the church would stand up for the pastor, and by default they were endorsing the ignorant behavior of the minority. This is a case where a guy should shake the dust off and move on. The rural pastors I know have bright and well-educated people in their pews. Our own church has one doctorate, a handful of master degrees, a bushel basket full of bachelor degrees, and a bunch of degrees from the school of hard knocks.

    Moving Because God Moves You
    This is a good thing. You must go when God says, “go”. In like manner, though, you should stay when God says, “stay”. I want to be clear about pastoral salaries. I think a pastor who is working, loving, praying, evangelizing, equipping, preaching, teaching, and lives daily with the burden of the ministry is worth whatever a church can afford to provide for him. They shouldn’t hold back from a guy to keep him “humble”. I believe they should free him up and unleash him from financial burden if it is within their power to do so. Increasingly though, I see pastors putting themselves into dire financial situations because they want stuff, and go way too far into debt to acquire it. A local banker once told me that pastors comprise one of the most high risk groups to give loans to because of their default rate. What a terrible testimony.

    It is important to note that I am harder on pastors than I am church members because I think many of us, including myself, have gotten too big for our britches. When you couple our egos with the pitiful, unhealthy nature of many rural churches, you have a recipe for disaster. I just think we have to be right before we can expect our congregations to be right. If we have materialistic pastors who are constantly making decisions based on what they want, our people will, too.

  6. I’m jumping at the bit to comment again. I’ll be back in a bit, but I want to say we pretty much agree on this.

  7. Mike,
    OK, “Relating to Other People.” Yes of course a pastor must seek out common ground even when they share much in common. It’s the way we contextualize our messages, relate personally to them, how we care for them, etc. That’s a given. My point was simply at the interpersonal level. I’ve a new found appreciation for things that I didn’t before (gardens for example). I use that even though I’m not passionate about it. A rural person will more easily relate long term to a rural person. Over time they may even become a rural person. BUT, it’s a draining process. We certainly agree however, that it must be done. God will strengthen but I can’t pretend that being a fish out of water is the natural condition of fish. I flap around a lot, but I’m learning to breathe on land! I can forgive someone who tries hard and simply can’t do it. But not someone who won’t try. We’d agree here I think.

    Anti-Intellectualism. I believe the opposite here. I believe history backs up the assertion that our rural churches do have an anti-intellectual bias, at least from about the early 20th century onward. That’s where fundamentalism comes in, and it became very much ingrained in our rural churches. It will take a long time for this to change. This extreme response to the Liberal Academia and Liberal Theology that came from higher criticism. They were of course right to reject the liberalism, but the baby was thrown out with the bath water. When I made the statement about not finishing middle school, it wasn’t a slur. It was reality, at least where I pastor. Most of our older generation couldn’t finish school b/c they were too poor. That of course doesn’t make them not smart. In their own sphere they’re brilliant. It’s just a different kind. The biggest compliment for our iconic former pastor was that “He didn’t even have an education.” They don’t mean to belittle education, it’s simply unimportant for the most part. This all may change in time, but our past 100 year history backs this point up.

    To the materialistic point, I don’t disagree, except that I don’t know how big this really is. If a pastor defaults on debt, piles it up, etc., it may not be b/c he’s buying lots of toys and goodies. It may also be b/c there is also a fairly common attitude that paying a pastor well means the pastor is in it for the money. Few pastors get rich being a pastor anywhere. This is a hard subject, and touchy too, b/c many pastors have to barely scrape by, their wives have to work, and it’s not b/c they won’t the best of all things. Again, that this does happen sometimes is not a surprise, I just don’t think it’s the rule.

    Thanks for a good conversation. Maybe someone else will chime it too.

  8. Josh,
    I think we must live in two very different universes. Fundamentalism, except in very rare and isolated cases, is dying out here. The people that I deal with in West TN were smart enough to take the good things from Fundamentalism and throw out the silly methods and practices that made it laughable. They were also smart enough to reject liberalism out right. What they have is a balanced theology that would make any of our seminary professors proud.

    Our two regions must have had two very different education systems. There is a premium placed on education here. Most of our folks finished High School and many went to college. Education is very much encouraged and is cherished. Teachers are held in very high esteem here. One of the most loved people in our church is an interim they had several years back, Dr. Kelvin Moore. He was my professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Union University.

    I think we may be comparing two very different regions.

  9. It could be a regional thing. In addition we are a church not located in a community per se. We don’t have community traditions, parades, celebrations, etc. That takes place around us, but not in our community. There’s nothing cultural to gather around, and so our church is not a match with the culture exactly. It’s almost outside of it. It developed independently. It was in the past more akin to an Independent Baptist church than SBC, though I’m sure there’s some overlap. I doubt there is too much difference in our regions, but that independent mountain type culture figures more prominently in us, in the foothills near the mountains.

    Our people don’t disparage education. The problem is that the younger ones who are seeking it don’t gravitate to our church and I don’t know that they will. The ones who seek out an education (ie. post high school) tend to wind up in more contemporary type churches. You have to know this is probably the norm in the SBC? Or do you think it is otherwise? If so, point me to all the rural churches with folks with higher education levels. There may be exceptions, but I believe it’s the rule. We don’t have a single school teacher in our congregation, but we have several school lunch ladies. It’s pretty much all working class. I don’t disparage it. I respect and value it highly. It’s just not much like me.

    The bottom line is I do not believe I am alone as a seminary educated pastor who feels out of place amongst working class people. Sack lunch people who can’t ever “do lunch.” Shift workers. Etc. I do NOT in any way think I’m better. I HOPE I don’t come across that way. I would just bet that many of those pastors who have a desire to move do NOT desire it because they want a bigger house or better toys. But for those that do, we can end this conversation with a hearty “Shame on you,” and both be in perfect agreement that it’s a killer. HOPE I DIDN’T TOTALLY HIGHJACK THE THREAD. I still appreciate that rural church fire in you!

  10. Interesting conversation men. One thing we all must understand is that rural aint always rural anymore. There is a vast variety among rural communities. In fact my community is very different from our neighbor 7 miles to the west. There will be some general similarities but rural people are not monolithic.
    I do agree that many rural pulpits are empty because of a shortage of pastors willing to take a chance on a rural church. Salary may be one of the main issues here but there are others. Chief among them has to be prestige. Seminaries are designed to produce suburban pastors because students want to be suburban pastors. When a seminary develops a rural program they struggle to fill the classes. Few are willing to consider rural ministry. The attitutde seems to be that they are better than that. Their talents and abilities should not be wasted on a few people in a backwoods place no one ever heard of. However, for those willing to take the chance they normally find a group of people who will love and care for them. They will find a place where they can impact not just their own little church but the entire town and perhaps even the entire county. I am called to rural ministry. It has become my passion and I have no intention of serving anywhere else. Should God call me elsewhere, I will go but there will be lots of kicking and screaming all along the way.

  11. Tom,
    Very good comment. I would be willing to bet Mike has prestige in his “killer’ list somewhere. I am altogether deficient at diagnosing my own motives. I can easily convince myself it’s not about money OR prestige, and sometimes I might be right. The question of the influence of seminary in this is probably MUCH bigger. I do not think of myself as called to rural ministry, but I do believe I’ve been called to Little Mountain. I’ve never doubted it for a second. If and when I leave I pray it is for the right reason. Where I would go? Wherever God takes me. For now, “My name is Josh Phillips, and I am a rural pastor!”

  12. Tom,

    I know what you mean by being called to rural ministry. At this point in my life I can not fathom being anywhere else. Our seminaries don’t intentionally create an anti-rural bias but I believe they are producing pastors who lean heavily in the direction of suburban ministry.

    The next killer will be the “closed church”. My 4 and no more. This unbiblical attitude on the part of some churches colors the way people see most rural churches I think.

  13. The first killer is materialism among our parishioners.

    1. People with some money and influence who decide to weild control over the whole congregation and the clergy because they have money. I’ve seen millionares do this, but learn from the treasurer that such people hardly give at all. It’s the sacrificial giving of the elderly on social security which keeps many of these rural and small town churches going.

    2. Small minded church members driving their fancy cars to church, going to their vacation places at the beach or mountains, claiming their church is so poor to pay more than they do, but have a huge secret fund hidden in some bank account.

    3. Along with materialism among the laity are the dysfunctional relationships and unhealth boundaries in so many of these churches where everyone is basically all related and racist.

    4. I’ve known very few martialistic clergy, but I’ve seen far too many rural church clergy where their materialistic parishioners kept their pastors from being able to meet basic material needs while they lived in ‘the big house.’

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