How Do I Earn My Keep?

Yesterday, a person asked me how InterVarsity staff (like myself) are funded. In his words, he contrasted two models: what he called a “mission field” model of “not muzzling the ox” and being supported by donations, vs. a “tentmaker” model where I “earn my keep” by being paid for the work I produce. It was an honest question, and I think he was primarily trying to understand how InterVarsity works. But it’s a good question, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot this morning.

My position (ESN Associate Director) is funded by those individuals and churches who share my concern and vision for the university, and who want to partner with me financially and prayerfully in this ministry. I believe that this is a Biblical model (not “the” Biblical model, though), and I also think it makes sense in a general, nonprofit sort of way. When I’m wearing my other hat, I work with several hundred Greater Cincinnati nonprofits, so I think I have a good perspective on the nonprofit world.

First, I believe that ESN is a ministry that God has called into existence, through the prayer, planning, and work of several dozen Godly men and women. However, it’s easy for a single individual to deceive himself. If the Holy Spirit is truly behind ESN, then other Christians – who have communion with the same Holy Spirit – will also discern that ESN is a Godly ministry and, importantly, that I am the right person for this position. The fact that over a hundred people (and more each week, God willing!) have been led by God to partner with me financially is a testimony that God has called me to this ministry.

Secondly, money is a symbol of value. You pay a store $3 for milk because milk is worth something to you. You give the Red Cross $25 because you think it’s valuable to have something like the Red Cross in our community. You pay $600 for an iPhone because you think it’s awesome. You tithe to the church because, yes, it’s a Biblical command, but also because you see the value in what your church and its ministers are doing. Many nonprofits start as all-volunteer organizations, but eventually enough people believe that someone needs to devote themselves full-time to the work, and money is raised to fund a salaried position.

The same principle applies to any business or nonprofit: if there aren’t enough people who value what you do or make, then your organization will eventually cease to exist. Because of this, I’m not so sure that the two traditional models of ministry – “mission field” vs. “tentmaking” – are really so far apart. Even a tentmaker has to find a market for his tents. If you are called to Cambodia, and want to support yourself by being a furnace repairman, your ministry probably won’t be very successful. If you start a university, but no one is willing pay (or borrow) for your classes, you won’t be a university for long.

Thankfully, ESN has been blessed by God. Many hundreds of people around the country have invested their time, treasure, and talent to seeing ESN succeed, and, at last count, 2,700 students, professors, and “fellow travelers” have joined ESN and endorsed our mission. As we often pray before meals, may God make me truly grateful.

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