Bruce Powers, a widely-known Baptist professor of Christian education, cautions seminary students to be careful about where they “spend the rent.” In my ministry I have come to understand “the rent” as a metaphor for what some call personal capital: the reputation, credibility and influence that you gain by fulfilling or exceeding expectations. You earn the rent by being there when people need you, by preaching and teaching the Word, by leading effectively, by being a person of good character and sometimes just by being the kind of person people want to be with.
Sometimes you earn rent without knowing it. Sometimes you feel every ounce of exertion for a measly dime’s worth.
When we are inexperienced, ministers “spend rent” on our own mistakes: speaking more than listening, not showing up when we need to, failing to give attention to the needs and traditions of the congregation. We learn to spend the rent wisely, saving it up for big things like leading the church to try something new, or on behalf of someone else who needs grace and acceptance.
As I read and reflect on the pressure church leaders are facing to resume “normal” worship and other ministries and programs in this time of pandemic, and as I work with peers to try to determine the safest and most effective ways to fulfill the missions of our congregations in times like none of us have seen, I keep returning to one thought: It’s time to spend the rent.
“If our churches get this wrong, people will die.”
As ministers, some of us have been accumulating rent for decades, spending it parsimoniously on pet projects when we feel like we have enough to spare, never knowing when we might need to cash it in to preserve our jobs until retirement or at least the next church. We have been careful, oh so careful, to measure risking our credibility and influence against supporting an unpopular cause – and losing. We have hidden behind congregational polity and priesthood of the believer when our churches made decisions that were unwise or even un-Christlike, yielding when we should have stood our ground.
But today the stakes couldn’t be higher. If our churches get this wrong, people will die. People we know and love, people we have never met, folks that count on the church to do the right thing. And with higher stakes comes greater pressure to open our churches sooner rather than later.
Some officials at all levels of government are saying this needs to happen now. Some members in every church are saying this needs to happen now. So, what are pastors and other ministry staff to do?
It is time to spend the rent – all of it. It is time to stand before our congregations and say, “I love you. And because I love you I can’t lead you to do something that I believe is harmful to you and to our neighbors whom Christ called us to love. If this is where you insist on going, you will have to go without me. If you want to figure out a new way forward, we’ll walk together every step, even if some steps are slow and painful.”
In the process, we may find that all our rent is spent, and we will have to start over somewhere else. Or by the grace of God, we will find that we have exceeded our people’s expectations and there is rent for years to come. Either way, it’s time to spend the rent.
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