"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, 'just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.'" — Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby
Limited financial resources can make for some bad decisions.
Not having money sucks. I mean it really, truly is awful. When my family moved to New Jersey 14 years ago I had just quite the ministry, and my only marketable job skill was teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language. That doesn't pay well. My wife at the time found work cleaning houses. For what I paid in rent for a small apartment that first year I could have rented a 4 bedroom house with 2 car garage and a lawn back home in Missouri. For many years, when I went to bed all I could think about was how I would pay the bills and how bad my debt was becoming. Through persistence, hard work, and the help of friends, I've managed to reach a point where I don't worry about finances every day. I make a decent paycheck and I have a very carefully managed budget (there's a spreadsheet and everything!) My fear is ever being that poor again, and it's something I think could very well happen.
In preparation for this post I went looking for a story to help illustrate. All I wanted was something about a pastor or priest stealing church funds. I got a lot more than I bargained for, and...well, it's a little depressing. Check out the search results here.
"Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 'Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?' (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, 'Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.'" (John 12:1-8 NRSV)
People who don't attend church, and many who do, think clergy people are only in it for the money. There are reasons why they think this way.
First, there are people like Joel Osteen, telling people God wants them to be wealthy, healthy, and happy, and then fleecing his flock for their pennies with a promise that doing so will bring blessings. Then there's the aptly-named Creflo Dollar, the pastor who had his faithful pay for a fancy private jet so he could 'evangelize the world.'
Second, there are incidents like the ones you'll read about in the search I shared above. News reports of ministers embezzling church funds only confirm in people's minds the image of the shifty charlatan pastor. Sometimes when I read stories like those I imagine the minister -- strained with pastoral duties and family concerns while anxiously trying to pay the bills on a very low salary -- having access to considerably more money with little or no accountability. It's easy, I imagine, to rationalize that one deserves this money because, after all, who's doing all the work? The temptation proves too much, and soon they find it impossible to stop skimming off the top.
Third and finally, there's the real financial need. Churches are non-profits, and the money to do things doesn't come out of thin air. Without regular and sufficient contributions, they will close. For many an atheist that would be a welcome event, and I agree that the church market is overdue for a cleansing. On the other hand, many religious congregations carry out meaningful, productive work in their communities and the larger world. Aside from that, members find a sense of place and being part of something bigger than themselves.
The solution for congregations is to have transparent finances, strong accountability and occasional independent auditing. What about those of us looking at a complicated, hurting world and wanting to help?
First of all, take care of yourself and your family first. That is most important. Don't give away money because of a guilt trip, threats of hell, or promises of riches. You'll hear people talking about giving a tithe and God providing. That doesn't actually work. Hang on to what you need, give what you can afford, and contribute through volunteering while seriously committing to more financial engagement when your situation improves.
Second, if we're members of religious communities, we need to insist on seeing the budget, understanding the revenue, and being informed of the safeguards. Any congregation that refuses to share that information isn't worth another minute of your time, much less a single cent from your coin purse.
Third and finally, we need to practice wisdom in giving. It's easy to be persuaded by emotional commercials on late-night television showing poor children living in filth or sad-eyed puppies in cages. These might be worthy charities, or they might be paything their executives a king's ransom and passing only a modest percentage along to help their supposed cause. One excellent way to check on it before giving is Charity Navigator. This website will give you an overall rating of a non-profit as well as a breakdown of how money is managed. There's a lot of great information in there, unless you want to know about a church. Since they are exempt from filing budget information with the IRS, it's hard to know what they're up to...and no wonder so many pastors and priests dig into the war chest!
Whether Judas Iscariot was a literal person or a representation of a type, he's known primarily as a betrayer. He's also portrayed as a thieving treasurer. Neither of which are the best of what a human being can be, and not what most people grow up dreaming to become. He stands at the opposite end of the ideal humanity dreamed of in Jesus the Christ. That being the case, whether we believe or not, there is at least this sense in which we should strive to be like Jesus.