Archive for 2010

Fair salaries and the Kingdom of God

September 15th, 2010 2 comments

Last week at church we ended a 1.5 month sermon series on the Kingdom of God by discussing what it means to participate in the Kingdom; one of the passages we looked at was Mat 20:1-16, the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.  The main point is that in the Kingdom everyone is compensated fairly, but not necessarily equally.

That reminded me of an article I had read recently about the link between pastor’s salaries and church growth:

The researchers examined whether pastors earned more in years when their churches saw congregations grow and their pay suffer if membership declined. It turns out United Methodist congregations gave their leaders a $15 boost (in 2008 dollars) on average for each new member added (about 3 percent of new revenues generated from the membership increase) and cut their pay by about $7 for each member lost.

[You can read the whole article here on Slate: The Almighty Dollar: Are preachers motivated by the desire to save souls or to make cold, hard cash?]

Things like this give me great pause as I ponder what is the most faithful, biblical, and fair way to handle financial compensation for those working in the church.

I have long stated that people in ministry should not expect to make more than the average household income for the community they are called to serve (That is a bit over $30K here in Warren County).  Of course I don’t see that as a hard-fast rule, but rather as a starting point; in fact, I struggle with the idea of pastors getting paid at all – but that is for another post.

In a multiple-staff situation things get even more complex.  What is fair compensation for everyone when we are willing to think about it “Kingdom” terms?  Here are a few models I think we can consider:

  • Compensate based on “market” value – unfortunately this is the way most churches operate without even considering other options.  This approach forces a business mindset and causes people to think about “moving up the ladder.”
  • Compensate equally – pay everyone the same wage regardless of their position.  The full time janitor makes the same as the senior pastor.
  • Compensate based on skills / training – a cross between the two approaches above.  The doctor makes more than the M.Div who makes more than M.A. who makes more than the college grad… This approach doesn’t value one role over another, but does reward people who made the financial / educational sacrifices to be better prepared.  You could easily extend this thinking to compensate for years of work, additional training / skill sets, etc.
  • Compensate based on need – The young married couple has less financial need than the single father living with his two kids, or the older lady who has high medical expenses and is taking care of her parents.  This approach is the most selfless of all, but the hardest to implement.
    These questions are especially difficult (and important) when you start working through real situations.  I came from a multiple-staff church where how you answer the “fair compensation” question would have major impact on people.  We had a 5:1 pay ratio (the highest paid full-time staff member made at least 5 times what the lowest paid full-time staff member made), a wide variety of education levels (High School educated up to M.Div and everything in between), a huge span of years of service (fresh into ministry up to several decades), and an extremely diverse set of living situations (stable married couples without kids, up to individuals with major medical expenses and other extenuating circumstances).

I don’t think there is a right answer to these questions (although I do think there are plenty of wrong ways to handle it).  The big problem is that people generally refuse to discuss these matters.  If you want to know the quickest way to shut people up in a staff meeting, then just suggest you talk about salaries.

It is generally assumed that all churches will take the first approach and simply pay based on market value.  The problem with this is that is short-circuits meaningful discussions about the theology of ministry and the call to live by "Kingdom" standards.  People in ministry are paid through the tithes and offerings of people who believe they are contributing to God’s work.  At a minimum, we all should expect those in ministry to think long and hard about what is the best use of God’s finances when it comes to compensating staff fairly.

When you take the "market value" approach to ministry it forces you to only look inward.  All of the other approaches require ministers to contemplate the Kingdom as a whole and also to consider the situation and contributions of those they serve with.  It is not easy, but I think all of our churches would be better off if we at least entertained the question.

A church where the senior pastor makes the same as (or less than) the janitor would certainly turn a few heads, and I am convinced it is a more accurate implementation of the lessons from Matthew 20.  Just imagine how strong a church’s witness could be if they compensated based on Kingdom standards instead of worldly value.  It would certainly force people to take the message of the Kingdom of God serious if ministers were willing to "step out on faith" and change the way they viewed their salaries.

How can we expect those in the church to earnestly seek their place in the work in the Kingdom, if we do not evaluate some of these basic and essential questions about how the church operates.


Conspicuous Authenticity

September 12th, 2010 1 comment

Over the past 30 or 40 years, there’s been a shift in the culture where as we got wealthier, it actually became less socially acceptable to just sort of, like, engage in raw displays of how much wealth you have or what great taste you have. And so we engage in what I call "conspicuous authenticity," displays of consumption or experience that sort of express what a deep person, how spiritual you are.….

What I’m trying to point out is that when you wrap up your consumption in a sort of moralizing guise, it ends up sort of being almost a more pernicious form of status-seeking, because it makes it seem like you’re actually better than other people and not just simply better connected.

The quotes above are from a recent interview with Andrew Potter about his new book The Authenticity Hoax.  You can listen to the whole interview from Marketplace Money here: The New Holier Than Thou

I was really struck by the criticism because I can see and sense what he is talking about in my own life and the lives of those I most closely associate with.  Many of the things he mentions Beth and I do:

  • Compost and garden at home
  • Buy locally and organically
  • Reject Big Box Stores
  • Fetishize poverty
  • etc.

It is not that these things are inherently bad (in fact, most of them are based on solid values and ideals).  I am satisfied with my path of downward mobility.  However, when we hold the idea of an action higher than the action itself, we risk falling into the trap of conspicuous authenticity – it becomes easy to do things because we want to project a certain image rather than actually live by a set of ideals. 

I am the first to admit I am guilty of this.

Wrapped up in all this is my own understanding of just how important community is.  The community that surrounds you set the bar for the ideals you pursue.  Close friends can challenge you to love more deeply and serve more broadly, or they can promote selfishness and give you an excuse to become complacent.

I can honestly say my closest friends have brought both sides out of me.

My hope is not that I will do more “things” or live by more standards, but rather that I will become more deeply committed to the values I cherish.

Mikayla and Magic

September 11th, 2010 1 comment

Here is a video of Mikayla being entertained by my slight of hand magic tricks.


She figures out early on that moving my hand makes a difference, but it takes her a bit to figure out exactly what is going on.

Categories: Family Tags: , ,

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…

August 29th, 2010 1 comment

…or I could title this post “Don’t be a prick.”

I have been doing some reminiscing lately.  Last weekend was my 10 year high school reunion and I also visited with some old friends from college at a wedding.  In both cases it was great to think back to the way things used to be.

I thoroughly enjoyed my high school years.  Beth and I started dating, I had lots of good friends, an appropriate amount of freedom, and was involved in things I really enjoyed (racing mountain bikes, playing soccer and roller hockey, etc.). 

It is easy to look back and recount all the good times.  At the same time, I have to remember that high school was not an easy world to live in if you were on the fringe.  I have several friends who look to their reunion with disdain.  One person even said to me, “why would I want to go back 10 years later – I didn’t like those people a decade ago, why would like to be around them now?”

It really hit home for me when one gentleman from my high school class said to me, “I am surprised more people don’t still think of you as a prick.”  That statement didn’t offend me because I knew he was right.  While my life was pretty great, I am sure I made high school hell for others (especially as a Sophomore and Junior).

A lot can change in a decade.  There are few things that I look back at from high school and can say I still significantly proud of (sure they were “The glory days”, but how much of it really matters?).  On the other hand, I still have several regrets – especially when I think of the way I treated people.  I know that in an attempt to make high school “the best of times” for me, I made it “the worst of times” for others.

Some people say if they had it all to do again they would do it all the same.  Well… that isn’t me… I would change things.  If I could tell High School Ben Kickert any piece of advice it would simply be “Don’t be a prick!”

Categories: Thoughts Tags: , , ,

10 Things to do before Swaziland

August 23rd, 2010 5 comments

With our move to Swaziland probably only 10 months away, Beth and I have been talking through how we should spend our remaining time stateside.  Here is a list of 10 things I want to accomplish before we leave.  If you can help me out with any of them, please give me a shout.

  1. Learn to weld – Let’s start with an easy one.  I wouldn’t consider myself a handy man, but I am willing to try and figure stuff out.  This is one skill I don’t have and would love to pick up just in case the need ever presents itself.
  2. Improve my siSwati – I learned more siSwati in the 10 days we were in the country than I did in the months before trying to teach myself.  That being said, I have yet to cross beyond the typical greetings and pleasantries.  I would love to be able to have a basic conversation before arriving in the country nest summer.
  3. Take a course on AIDS – Swaziland is a beautiful country, but it holds several dubious titles.  It has the highest AIDS rate at nearly 40%!  It also has the highest death rate and fastest declining life expectancy.  Every issue in Swaziland is impacted by the AIDS epidemic (from employment to poverty to orphan care).  I want to take the time to familiarize myself with the disease, its treatment, and its impact on society.
  4. Brush up on my Southern African history – Swaziland has a rich history.  It was largely able to avoid the strife caused by colonialism that negatively affected so much of Southern Africa.  However, much of the current climate in the area is still impacted by this chapter of history.  I want to know more about the Boers and English and tribal conflicts that shaped the area.
  5. Learn to drive a split shift – Another seemingly random skill set I would like to acquire.  I have no desire to drive a large truck, but I want to be able to do it if the need ever arises. 
  6. Become competent in PHP development – Several months ago, a good friend of mine and I began (re)teaching ourselves HTML and CSS.  I know just enough to get myself into trouble.  I would like to build on this skill set by adding PHP development so I can design websites and databases for the organizations I will work with and also as a possible secondary income stream.
  7. Sell / Give away / Downsize our stuff – We have been in this process for several years now, but still have so far to go.  I still have books to get rid of, a house to sell and plenty of household items to deal with. Most of our stuff is not going with us nor will it be saved.
  8. Visit with friends and family – This past weekend I had my 10 year reunion and also visited with college friends at a wedding.  It reminded me how many people I want to see before we leave.  If you are in the area, please take the time to give me a ring and I will treat you to a meal or coffee.
  9. Travel – This is obviously related to the prior.  I foresee many mini-road trips in the near future to visit people, but also I want to explore our own country a bit more before we leave.  I have been fortunate enough travel through most of the country, but Beth has not.  I want to be intentional about visiting places, especially in the American West.
  10.   Have a game plan for the next 10 years – This move to Swaziland has been over two years in the planning.  Beth and I have slowly, but deliberately made decisions about our future and have been willing to change them as needed.  Now that things are beginning to solidify, we need to be thinking about where we want to be in the next decade or longer.  This means working through things like expanding our family, saving for college, setting long term goals, etc.  I don’t expect to have it all figured out, but I want us to be intentional about the direction we are moving. (That is actually the key idea behind the title of my blog.)

Kierkegaard on the Gospel and Power

August 12th, 2010 No comments

After posting a few quick thoughts on power and the nature of the Christian gospel, I found this quote from Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish Theologian.  [Emphasis mine]

When preaching the gospel became a livelihood, even a lush livelihood, then the gospel became good news for the rich and for the mighty. For how else was the preacher to acquire and secure rank and dignity unless Christianity secured the best for all? Christianity thus ceased to be glad tidings for those who suffer, a message of hope that transfigures suffering into joy, but a guarantee for the enjoyment of life intensified and secured by the hope of eternity.

The gospel no longer benefits the poor essentially. In fact Christianity has now even become a downright injustice to those who suffer (although we are not always conscious of this and certainly unwilling to admit it.) Today the gospel is preached to the rich, the powerful, who have discovered it to be advantageous. We are right back again to the very state original Christianity wanted to oppose! The rich and powerful not only get to keep everything, but their success becomes the mark of their piety, the sign of their relationship to God. And this prompts the old atrocity again – namely, the idea that the unfortunate, the poor are to blame for their condition; that it is because they are poor, whereas the rich have not only pleasure but piety as well. This is supposed to be Christianity. Compare it with the New Testament, and you will see that it is as far from that as possible.

Even though this was written over 150 years ago, it rings all the more true today.  The message of the gospel is hope for the weak, not comfort for the privileged; it is restoration of the broken, not security for the empowered.

The church who panders to the powerful and caters to the upper class is nothing but a whore: trading the sanctity of the Good News of the Kingdom of God for a false sense of affirmation and well-being.

Categories: Faith, Thoughts Tags: , , ,

A quick thought on Power

August 11th, 2010 2 comments

Throughout Scripture there are some dominate themes regarding power:

  • God holds power but entrusts it to humanity.
  • Dominate (oppressive) power structures are always subverted.
  • The coming of the Kingdom of God results in the weak gaining power and prestige.
  • Power comes in weakness and sacrifice, not through dominance.

The examples of this are endless:

  • Jacob was the weaker, younger brother but fathered the 12 tribes of Israel.
  • King David was the runt of the bunch but became the most powerful King.
  • Gideon was chosen as a warrior leader because he was the least of those available; furthermore his army was culled to exclude the strongest.
  • Jesus was not a conquering King, but lived a submissive, sacrificial life.
  • The disciples were not leaders or scholars, they were regular guys entrusted with the future of the church.

The list goes on…

Despite this clear trajectory of power (re)distribution in the Kingdom, we still live in a day and time where the rich and the educated and the privileged lead the way.

What pains me the most is when scripture is used to justify and embolden the (oppressive) power structures – especially when it happens in the church.

When will we learn?  It is time for educated, rich, white, western males to step down and learn from those on the fringe.  I am convinced the gospel and Christianity can only truly makes sense when it includes and is led by those society has overlooked and disenfranchised.

My friend Terry posted a quick blog entry the other day on similar issues.  You can read it here.

Thinking about the kids

August 3rd, 2010 2 comments

We have been back from Swaziland Africa for about a week.  It feels like we are living between worlds as we look to transition from a comfortable life in the States to the unexpected.  After two weeks on the ground researching options, Beth and I are absolutely confident we will be making the move in the next year (but we are still working out the specifics).

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It is great to be back in Bowling Green and even better to be able to hold my daughter again.  That being said, every time I snuggle with her I am hit with a wave of emotion.  We are so lucky to have such a beautiful, well-behaved daughter; but at the same time, she is very lucky to have us.  I don’t say that because I think we are exceptional parents, but because in our time our Swaziland we met so many kids who aren’t as fortunate.

In Swaziland, a country of about a million people, there are an estimated 100,000 orphans and over 15,000 child-headed homes.  My mind cannot even comprehend that.  Most of them lost their parents due to HIV/AIDS, a disease that currently infects up to 40% of the population.  40% – again, my mind can’t even comprehend that and we even saw it with our own eyes.

An entire generation has been laid to waste by a horrible disease; the current life expectancy lies around 30 years of age and the was just recognized as having the highest death rate in the world.  For the most part grandparents (gogos) have stepped up to provide the care, but now many of those are dying of old age.  Thinking about what the next decade will look like for the country is like looking into a blackhole (UN estimates the Swazis could be wiped out as a people group by 2050 if things don’t change).

The point of this blog is not to just give grim statistics, but to share a bit about what I am feeling (and if you know me, I am not a very emotional person and rarely share things like this).

Knowing the situation has made me realize my love for Mikayla all the more.  Last night, before she went to bed, Beth and I gave her a group hug and she beamed up at us.  It was so cute but it made me ache for those who will never experience the safe embrace of two parents.  Every time she lays her head on my shoulder I have to fight back tears over those who cannot rest peacefully.  Today she got her shots and I was overwhelmed with emotion at thinking how fortunate she was to not only have access to medical care, but also to have someone to comfort her when she hurt.

When Mikayla was first born, I felt many of these same things but as time has gone on, those feelings have faded – until now.  What is worst is that I have no idea what to do.  I don’t know what the answer is.  In moving to Swaziland we can help some, but in the face of the current situation there, I still realize it is just a drop in the bucket.

Even though it hurts, I can’t say I desire the feelings of sadness to go away.  I want to live life conscious of the way things are and hopefully in doing so find the strength and ability to be a part of the healing process.

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[Homes in Bulembu, some of which have been renovated for Orphan Care]

It’s all connected

July 18th, 2010 No comments

We are about halfway through our “fact finding” trip to Swaziland and things are going exceptional.  We really have had no problems to speak of.  There have been a few surprises, but most of them have been pleasant (like realizing most of the places we are going are closer together than we expected).  The coolest thing so far is our discovery of just how interconnected everything is:

  • One the way in from Jo-burg we met a gentleman at the petrol station we had been trying for weeks to set a meeting up with.
  • We met with Bulembu Ministries first, and then it turns out three other groups we are meeting with also have ties there.  In fact, the guy we we stayed with last night, stayed in Bulembu the night after we did.
  • We met a girl at a brai (BBQ) on Friday and then ran into her on Saturday at a restaurant and again on Sunday church.
  • The people we stayed with last night go to church with one of the guys we were trying to schedule a meeting with later in the week.
  • On Saturday we visited an AIDS clinic and I met a random Peace Corp volunteer whose blog I had been following.
  • At the same clinic we also met the gentleman whom we had scheduled a Monday meeting with (he then took us to a game park and to lunch – very cool).  He also introduced us to a person at the US embassy.
  • While driving through town we pulled up next to one of the missionaries we had already met with.
  • One of the ladies we met at the schools went to the church we attended this morning.
  • One of the schools we visited previously employed a pastor we are scheduled to meet with later in the week.

The list goes on… and, we haven’t even gotten into the bulk of the meetings.  For the most part, we made connections with each of these groups independently, but it is obvious there is a whole lot of coordination between all these people.  It has allowed us to feel very connected even in a short period of time.

Now… just for fun…. here are a few pictures:

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[Banking for the airport over South Africa]

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[Sunrise over Bulembu]

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[Eucalyptus trees line the road from Bulembu to Piggs Peak]

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[My view this morning in Hawane]

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[The sunset tonight overlooking Mbabane]

Quick Swaziland Update

July 16th, 2010 No comments

Hey folks, things are rolling down here in Southern Africa. 

We spent two days in Bulembu and that was a great experience.  I know of nowhere else where people are being so intentionally about truly holistic development.  Their work encompasses infrastructure, enterprise, community care, social, political, etc.  It also helps that the area is absolutely unbelievable.  I kept being reminded of my days in northern Idaho.  We will post pictures soon.

Today we left the most mountainous region of the country and headed down to the lower hills and the capital city of Mbabane.  We visited two schools and an orphanage for abandoned babies.  Every meeting so far has been encouraging, yet completely different.  There are so many options and in some ways, we each could see how they could play out to be something amazing in the next few years.  We are trying to stay focused though knowing that our primary task must be getting a feel for things here rather than looking for that one specific option, because while things are not as fast paced as in the west, things change very quickly.

We were also able to touch base with Peter, our friend that we met while he was teaching in the States.  It was great to see a familiar face in an unfamiliar country.  We then checked in to our lodging for the night and were a bit worried when the owner had us follow her out to the “apartment” and kept driving further and further away from the city.  We finally ended up on the outskirts of town on a hill overlooking the city.  The nightlights were incredible.

We then ended the day by revisiting the orphanage from early in the day as they were hosting a going away party for two of their volunteers and invited us to join them.  We ate impala steaks and warthog roasted over the fire.  The impala in particular was out of this world.  Perhaps some of the best game I have ever eaten.

This evening we were able to video chat with Mikayla and Beth’s parents for a very short time.  Our internet is pretty flaky, but it was great for the few minutes it worked.  It has been hard being away from her – some times more than others.

Tomorrow we are visiting an AIDS clinic and a teen club for HIV-positive youth.  Then we might do a bit of the touristy things and will end our day in Hwane.  We are staying with a couple who used to work at Bulembu.  In fact, they were the first people in Swaziland we ever connected with.  It should be a great time.  Sunday should be a bit more relaxed (and the next time we will probably have internet) and then Monday begins 3 crazy days packed with meetings.

I am getting more used to the driving, but it is starting to wear on it.  Overall the Swazis are courteous drivers and rarely honk, but I have earned a few blows as I am trying to get used to things.  Thank goodness for GPS.  If I was trying to read street signs, we would all be in trouble.

We will try to do our best to keep you updated and to post pictures soon.

Categories: Random Tags: