I notice a trend in progressive/liberal church circles and activist circles that I think we need to talk about. It’s the idea that everything should be free, no one should charge for their services, and that asking for money is off limits. And if you violate the rules: if you charge for something or ask for money you are shamed, considered a sell-out, or told you are not a good enough pastor/activist.
I want to talk a little bit about my own experiences with money and with trying to do ministry. First let me set the stage:
In order to be ordained I had to go to seminary. This was a three year, full time program that was incredibly expensive. I have A LOT of loans from that. I live in a city where the cost of living is relatively low, but definitely not cheap.
I work an almost full time job (32 hours a week). I currently get paid less than what I made when I was just out of college. I have the insurance that the United Church of Christ provides for their ministers which does NOT cover any of my medication nor does it cover transition related expenses (which is an issue for another post). Since there are only a few doctors in my city that will treat trans* people I pay for most of my medical needs (including all of my prescriptions) out of pocket.
In addition to working full time I also have three other “jobs” (I use quotes because while they are a lot of work there really isn’t compensation): Camp Osiris (of which I am the director), House of the Transfiguration (where I am a priest), and queertheology.com (where I develop course curriculum, etc.). None of these endeavors has denominational/institutional support.
All of these things cost money to run. For Camp we have to rent cars to transport people, pay per head to rent the cabins and food, buy supplies and snacks. All of this doesn’t even take into account that the staff are donating their time, that I am spending hours and hours beforehand handling logistics, planning sessions, creating materials, etc. And then there is the website fees, design costs, the time to keep our social media presence active.
For the church we have to buy supplies for communion, we have to buy chalices, patens, Bibles, coffee, snacks, promotional materials. Website hosting. And again there is a ton of uncompensated time put in. There are also the vestments that I have had to purchase for myself, not covered by the church and not cheap.
Why am I putting all of this out there? Because the reality is that to do this work and to do it well costs money. Quite frankly it costs a lot of money.
Could we do some of this stuff spending less money? Probably. And it would suck. We could print cheap booklets for camp, but honestly the cheap booklets *look* cheap. What does providing cheap materials say about us as a community? About the God that we serve? Certainly one can be wasteful, but I think one can also live out of scarcity and that’s just as bad.
A lot of this is about priorities: Some people have chided me for wanting to buy a projector and screen for House of the Transfiguration. That’s a waste of money, they say, just print worship booklets. But one of our values as a community is being accessible. The Mass can be hard to follow. Worship booklets are confusing. Not to mention, those booklets ALSO cost money and have to be replaced every week which is a waste of paper. If we buy a projector and screen, while there is a bigger initial investment, it will last a long time. It also makes the Gatherings more accessible for people. It is a priority for us to have a screen and projector so that we can live out our values and reach the people God is calling us to reach. So that projector and screen isn’t just a “cool toy” it is vital to our ministry.
Another complaint I’ve seen is people charging for their services. There seems to be this idea that you should offer all of your services for free for the good of the movement/church. But this mentality not only burns people out, it’s also not sustainable. After I work a full day at the job that allows me to pay my rent and eat, I am often too exhausted to come home and do the work I am called to. So either the work I am called to do doesn’t get done, or it gets done at a lower level than it could be done. If people were getting compensated for the work they were offering to the world it would free them up to worry less and do better work (and we’d all be better off). When I am less afraid that I won’t have enough money to buy groceries I am able to be much more generous with my time: I’m more willing to give time and energy to folks who can’t afford to pay.
There is no shame in charging for what you are doing. There is no shame in being compensated fairly for your work. This idea that somehow activists or ministers should be “above money” doesn’t take into account the reality that activists and ministers also need to eat and pay rent. Nor does it take into account that many of us had to get higher education degrees in order to get the knowledge and skills we need in order to do this work.
People (both as individuals and as organizations) make priorities every day about what matters to them. They decide what they value and what will help them live their lives to the fullest and do their work the way they feel called to do it. Just because someone doesn’t share your priorities doesn’t mean that their priorities are bad.
You don’t have to buy what I’m selling; you don’t have to donate to my cause. In fact, the onus is on me to create a ministry or a product that you do want to donate to or buy. And just because something doesn’t resonate with you and/or you don’t want to pay for it/donate to it you don’t look down on the person for asking to be compensated for their time and efforts.
There are no easy answers here, but it seems to me like we’re spending most of our time asking the wrong questions. The questions are: how much is too much to be paid? Or how much money should I spend? Or what should I spend my money on? The question is: How do we create a world where everyone has what they need and can do work that is fulfilling? How do we create systems and structures where there is no oppression? That’s what really matters.
This TED talk was really influential. I really encourage you to listen to the whole thing. Let’s continue to have conversations about better ways to think about money.
Did you miss the announcement of the new project I’m working on? Check it out!