Right out of college, Kristen and I were full of ideals about where we wanted to serve in a local church.
We had a list of things we were looking for: Having been in the midwest for eight years we were ready for a geographical change. We wanted to see mountains and take a break from winter weather. We wanted a ministry in a small town that reached out to kids from broken homes, loving the unloveable. And we wanted to leave the big church world for the medium-sized church world where I could be involved in more than just one program.
When we found the right place in Northern California. We looked past the rough parts of the job (Which would lead to us staying only a year) to tried to see the diamond in the rough. The ministry was in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It boasted the highest teen pregnancy and teen drug abuse rates in California. It was a strong, medium-sized church, and I’d have responsibilities in a bunch of areas.
In truth, being my first experience in looking for a full-time ministry I asked all the right questions but didn’t listen for the right nuances to the answers. It was perfect and wrong at the same time.
Worse yet, when it came down to talking about my salary package I based our salary off of what I hoped we could live on instead of what things were really going to cost. Visiting this small town with a big city mindset I just couldn’t have seen some of the hidden costs of living in the middle of nowhere.
About 60 days into our new life in rural California I came to a painful realization. I had misunderstood what my utilities were going to cost in making my budgets and we were in trouble every month. (Water and electric were about 400% more than our place in Chicago. Combined, they totaled what I was paying in rent.) I had flat out negotiated for the wrong salary.
I sweated out a couple of months hoping that it was just a fluke and we’d settle into a more affordable reality.
It didn’t happen.
Every month we had too much expense and not enough income. Kristen and I cut back and cut back. We cut back to the point where we were spending less but we just didn’t have enough for groceries. (About $100/month was all that was left over after fixed expenses.) A hundred dollars was basically covering formula and the basics. In truth, the only way we were making it was by accepting every offer for a meal that came our way! (After church every Sunday, every party people from the church had, stuff like that.) Another trick to hide our meal shortage was that I started taking tons of high school students out to talk so I could take them out so I could buy a meal and put it on the church credit card. (Taking home the leftovers was part of the deal.)
But, as financial pressures tend to go, this was really stressing us out and stealing our joy.
With my tail between my legs I took our budget to the elders. It was humbling to look at these older men and admit that I was going broke and needed help. I’ll never forget opening up my laptop and showing them the numbers on Microsoft Money. It was humiliating.
Since the church was doing well financially I had hoped they would just increase my salary by a few hundred dollars per month to alleviate the pressure.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
They chuckled. No, they laughed at me. They gave me the small town vs. city slicker grin I had long ago tired of. And they came back with two possible solutions. (Three if you count the sarcastic “you can live in a tent in my backyard” comments.)
- Apply for WIC and/or welfare.
- Allow the people of the church to offer you welfare.
I chose the latter. And the elders quietly began to let it be known that those city slicker McLane’s needed food.
From humiliation to humbled
You know, as a pastor, you know in your head that your salary comes through the offering plate and that you, in turn, have enough to pay your bills because people give. You feel it but you don’t really see it as the process is rather sterile.
But when you hear someone pull into your gravel driveway and get out of the car with a paper bag full of vegetables from their garden or a hen they’ve raised from a chick– it changes your perception of an offering.
Our little family literally ate people’s first fruits of our churches labor.
And it changed us forever.
What had once robbed our joy became one of the few sources of joy in a ministry experience of sorrow.