I learned a good lesson about evangelism after receiving a “20 dollar bill” that was actually a tract that read “Disappointed? You won’t be if you try Jesus.” Surprisingly enough, the “let’s give them fake money and they’ll become instant disciples” tactic doesn’t really work.
One last lesson I received while waiting tables is that you’re wise to question the numbers your colleagues give you. Time and again I saw that those eager to tell you how much they averaged a night in tips were almost inevitably disingenuous. The number they gave was either the most they had ever made or perhaps (to give them the benefit of the doubt) a number they wished they were making. Training new servers, I began telling them to take whatever amount someone told them they made and cut that by a third. There was no reason for them to either needlessly get their hopes up or to think that they were not good at what they did because they couldn’t reach our peers’ inflated numbers.
Appropriating the counting lesson to the ministry has caused me much grief over the last few years. Don’t get me wrong. I knew that pastors could inflate numbers. It was no great surprise to me last year when the Southern Baptist Convention spoke of the inflated numbers rampant in their denomination. It even supplied us with one of the funnier lines of the year when a Southern Baptist pastor said that even the F.B.I. couldn’t find half of their members.
Yet my laughter at the Southern Baptist predicament has waned as I have noticed that perhaps we Presbyterian pastors are equally susceptible to this numbers inflation. I’m not even talking about the discrepancy between “active membership” and those who are actually active members. That’s another article for another day.
What I’m speaking of is simple out-and-out lying. With the use of a bit of truth serum [also known as the statistical report on the PC(USA) Web site], much to my chagrin, I have discovered over the last few years that we, sisters and brothers, have much to answer for. In the last month alone I have seen that a pastor’s claim for what she had in worship actually needs to be cut by one-third in order to achieve accuracy (ironically enough, the same number I used to tell my fellow servers). I saw a Web site where a Presbyterian pastor claimed his church had grown in membership by five hundred during his time there when it had actually dropped by 150 during his tenure. Truth be known, what may seem like harmless “fudging” is actually quite damaging to the church, to fellow pastors, and even to the pastors themselves.
Firstly, when one decides to play with the numbers, it affects the integrity of the church’s witness to Christ. It should make us all uncomfortable if we easily preach against materialism and corporate greed while engaging in the same corporate chicanery of Enron. “Cooking the books” in order to appear as if we are something we are not undermines the crucial gospel claim that God takes us wherever we are and that we need not dress ourselves up in order to be loved and accepted by God. The sad reality is that unless we are willing to be true witnesses of this in our own lives, we have little chance of gaining a hearing from those who desperately need to know what grace is. Our own honesty and vulnerability will certainly say more to others about Christ than imaginary numbers crafted from our own insecurities about God’s grace.
Secondly, these pastors are betraying their own colleagues. The people I am often able to be completely free around are my peers in ministry. This freedom is the result of knowing we share the same struggles and joys. We can be brutally frank about life as a pastor without fear that they will think we hate our job, are angry at God, or have completely lost our faith! But when pastors opt for “creative counting” rather than candor, they erode a pivotal lifeline to all those who are fellow workers in the soil. This loss of relational trust ends up isolating us from one another in a vocation that can ill-afford such detachment.
Finally, inflating numbers robs these very pastors of an essential struggle — that between faithfulness and numbers. While we may not always enjoy this struggle, the tension is actually a healthy one. On the one hand, being mindful of numbers forces us out of our complacency and reminds us of our incredibly important mission of reaching out to the lost and the hurting. On the other hand, making sure that faithfulness includes more than just numbers compels us to remember that though we are called to work the soil, God is in charge of the harvest. Thus, we are impelled to rely on the Spirit rather than ourselves. By controlling the numbers themselves and thereby playing “god” by creating something ex nihilo, these pastors are essentially eliminating this incredibly important tension. Ironically, while they hoped to gain peace by showing growth in their churches they have actually eliminated the healthy tension in which real peace in the ministry is achieved.
Perhaps the most surprising thing I have learned about being a pastor is just how risky a vocation this is. While the risk may not be as tangible as being the target of a robbery (as we were while I waited tables), it is still very real. So often our worth and success are contingent upon numbers. (If you don’t believe me, look at the bylines of almost any church conference.) The risk we must take is to believe that our worth is based upon who God says we are rather than on how others or we view our worth. That is scary but incredibly freeing. It is a risk at the heart of the gospel, and it is a risk that will allow us to be examples to our churches and each other of what it means to be vulnerable, honest witnesses to the grace of Christ.
Jeremy Deck is pastor of Heritage Church in Carol Stream, Ill.