Conspicuous Thrift in Ministry

You’ve probably heard of the economic theory of conspicuous consumption. Where people go $350,000 into debt to buy a house in the right neighborhood. It’s ultimately a lie because they just went into debt to prove how much they were worth.

And the left-leaning Prius crowd has now lead to the study of a new theory called conspicuous conservation. People buy a Prius to look green. It’s ultimately a lie because just drinking less milk would be better for the environment than buying a hybrid vehicle. (Did you know that plenty of people install solar panels on the wrong side of their house just to be seen as green? Insane.)

The general concept of both is that we are motivated to spend money on things that represent the person we’d like to be seen as being. Even if that’s not truly who we are. Trillions of dollars per year are spent (or indebted upon) because of these theories.

Both of those got me thinking about the church and parachurch ministry world I live in. And, while very few of us have Bentley… or even Prius kind of money… many of us practice an economic theory I’d like to call, conspicuous thrift.

We fall over ourselves to show how little money we’re making. And while many of us struggled at the beginning of our careers we are doing OK now. Sure, compared to a peer who owns a car dealership or is an accountant we can’t keep up.

But we will do everything in our power to keep up the appearance of thrift.

  • I don’t go on a nice vacation unless someone from my church hooked me up with a timeshare in the Keys.
  • Vacation? Yeah, we can’t really afford that because we are so involved in short-term missions.
  • Yes, this is a nice grill. Thanks for saying that Tim. A guy from my church installed it for me as a gift.
  • I love golf but I only get to play when someone from church invites me. Plus, I’m super busy leading Bible studies.
  • Yes, our kids do attend a private Christian school. But I get a discount because I’m a pastor.
  • Yes, it is a new couch. I mean new to us. I got it off Craigslist.
  • We have student loans because I went to a private Christian college. But it was for ministry training.
  • I keep a very casual look, mostly from Kohl’s. Or the Salvation Army.

You get the idea. But the reality is that the prevailing concept is that ministry people don’t ever want to be seen as high on the hog. And they’ll got to great effort to make sure they are seen as thrifty.

I suppose we all have Jim & Tammy Faye to thank for this.

[And certainly, most of my peers in youth ministry will roll their eyes because they actually do make so little money that those are aspirations and not conspicuous thrift.]

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

15 comments

  1. over half of those lines are real for me. We haven’t even gotten a paycheck in 2 weeks because summer giving has been so low. I got a recliner for $25 dollars from a person who was moving. Vacation is taken up by missions and trips and conferences (no money for a real one anyway)… etc … so not everyone is playing a game for sure!

  2. Adam, do you actually see this sort of aestheticism happening? I guess the underpaid church leaders I know–myself included–don’t generally revel in their economic circumstances. Nor are we are a bunch of whiners. We’re just trying to do ministry well, and we’re clearly not in it for the money. We’re not trying to put up a thrifty image; that’s just the reality, especially for those of us who are not the lead pastor.

    And completely random: where did that phrase “high on the hog” come from? I can’t quite see the connection between being financially stable and mounting farm animals.

  3. I love to just brag on how nice of stuff I got on cheap while people are spending 3x as much. It has nothing to do with wanting to look poorer. I just want to look smarter. 🙂

  4. I am a youth worker and I cannot say that I am poor by any means. I have my toys that I don’t need and I do get to go on vacation every once in a while. And some of my fellow youth worker friends in the past have gone on in their churches and circles about how poor they are and then I go into their house and they have 52 inch TV’s with every gaming system and a million games. Some of them even have cable. These things are not bad but you can go around saying your poor when you have such luxuries. We should all remind ourselves of what poor is. There was only one time in my life where I believe my family could have been “poor” but even then we had a roof over our head and food, so maybe we were just fine.

    Thats my two cents, so I think the post was right on Adam. Keep it up!

  5. Adam,
    I make no bones about the fact that My family is blessed. I am constantly overwhelmed by how God provides in abundance! Our church members have monthly access to what each staff members are paid in the financial reports, so no surprises. They vote on raises (or not) each year at budget time.

    On the other hand, when I replaced a 5 year old car with another, slightly nicer 5 year old car (was not worth the money to repair…), Though my payments were nearly identical, I got the “maybe we need to re-evaluate your package” comments/jokes.

    I agree, it is an interesting paradigm though…

  6. Great points. Worthy of a conversation, for sure. I feel that I do well for a church context, but I do think that in general, churches do not pay enough for their workers. I think there remains an old school mentality that the pastor should be on the poor side, and like it! youth pastors tend to be even worse off. I think compensation should be closer to educators and with the same degree of benefits as well. thanks!

    1. Interesting to bring up educators. They are another tribe who plays this card well. Many of my friends are teachers. And I know my kids… so I know that teachers could never really be paid enough for what they do.

      But the idea that “all teachers are underpaid” and otherwise poor compared to their peer group? That’s just not wholly true. Teachers are public employees. Their wages & benefits are public information. And there are some that do fine. (100k+)

      I guess I wonder if we look the same way to the truly poor among us?

  7. @Rob

    Great points. I think most of us agree that we do not do ministry for the pay( many youth pastors and senior pastors could easily double their salary outside the church, depending on skills ), but God’s call makes all the difference.

    There is a fine line between a church “keeping the staff dependent on God” and taking advantage of the staff.

  8. I feel you Andy. I have been in student ministry for 20 plus years and now work for a parachurch org. so being thrifty is my middle name. Looking back over the past 20 years I wouldn’t change one thing because God has led every step of the way. I am so blessed to do what I do that things don’t matter. My summer has consisted of speaking at camps and a mission trip to Nicaragua where 317 gave their hearts to Christ. I do get a vacation with my family thanks to a gracious couple in our church that owns a trailer in a retirement park at the beach I might add my kids love it there too. God always supplies.

  9. Good stuff, and convicting! I certainly know (and have been there) folks in ministry-as-profession who really are barely making it, and it shows in their decisions on purchases, etc. And there are certainly gifts of ‘stuff’ I have recieved that I never would be able to get on my own.

    That said…

    I also resonate with your mentions (and some from fellow commenters) of sensing a need to defend yourself and ‘play down’ when you actually CAN get a nicer car, bigger home, etc., while still serving in ministry as your primary income. We recently moved to a new city and church, and I did get a raise in income (and much better benefits). As a result, and due to some better price-per-sq. ft. numbers compared to our last locale, was able to get a home that is, honestly, larger than I EVER expect to be able to do, in a neighborhood way nicer than I ever expected to be…but have found myself getting defensive/downplaying/feeling ‘guilty’ as some of my friends from the former locale (who are familiar with neighborhoods in my new locale) have made ‘joking’ comments about my new situation that I can read as jealous, judging, etc. Now, certainly much of that is my paranoia that I need to just deal with…but it is still there.

    So while we all need to be good stewards, avoid doing thigs just for status, etc., thanks for some perspective and honesty to us who, by Gods grace, are in situations that allow for us to actually have a home with room for a growing family, have a car that is new, trustworthy, and should work for many years, etc.

    1. Yeah, you gotta keep up with the Poorsky’s in ministry.

      It’s weird how that works. It really is an economic model for ministry-types.

      I wanted to buy a vegetable oil running old Mercedes and my wife was like, “Can you be seen driving a Mercedes?”

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