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Personal view: Have you considered ‘tent-making’?

March 2013 | by Simon Gay

Personal view:

Have you considered ‘tent-making’?

Some readers of the recent ET correspondence concerning pastors and elders may have wondered if the discussion was relevant to them, since in their small church the prospect of a full-time ministry seems beyond their wildest dreams. But is it?

The teaching of passages such as 1 Corinthians 9:14 and 1 Timothy 5:18 is crystal clear — a worker is worthy of his hire. A full-time preacher should be supported on a realistic living wage and (with reference to the recent correspondence) be paid, irrespective of whether he is a full-time elder or pastor. He cannot exist on thin air, any more than any other member of a church.

Paul’s example

Sometimes though, the situation is as it was for the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:15: ‘but I have used none of these things…’ Here Paul chose to support himself by ‘secular work’, rather than by financial support from the Corinthian church.
    This situation isn’t ideal or what one would naturally choose, but ‘tent-making’ can enable a church to benefit from a settled, consecutive biblical ministry in a way that would otherwise be impossible.
    Perhaps you’re unsure if Paul really did work in this way? Yet 1 Corinthians 4:12 and 9:6 make it clear that he was not above ‘working with his own hands’, and that the work was hard (Acts 20:34-35; 1 Thessalonians 2:9). While the exact way he went about his occupation is not the main point, making tents is surely what he did (see Acts 18:3).
    Acts 13 onwards shows that Paul’s ministry was pivotal in furthering the early church’s mission to the Gentiles and spreading the gospel across the world. He was engaged in travelling, teaching, preaching and letter writing. His letters account for a significant portion of the New Testament, yet he supported himself financially at times.

Today’s needs

Some of Paul’s support came from others (2 Corinthians 11:8-9), but Paul worked with his own hands at a profession he knew sufficiently well to meet his needs while preaching Christ.
    What does this imply for preachers and churches today? The answer is that, in certain circumstances, preachers should be willing to ‘tent-make’ — support themselves by paid secular employment, for the good of their church and its ministry.
    Does this sound like a second-rate option for ministry? Won’t ‘tent-making’ hinder a man preparing adequately for all the worship services he must lead, or from accomplishing all he could have done in a full-time ministry?
    Well, tent-making certainly isn’t ‘nirvana’! It will not be easy for the person or church concerned, but the wider church situation is becoming increasingly stretched. Unless we follow Scripture’s leading, many of our churches might not be here in a few years time.
    Even if ‘tent-making’ releases a man to take only a proportion of a church’s weekly services, this will still provide a more regular, consecutive ministry than a fully itinerant supply. And, remember, tent-making was a suitable option for Paul.

Altered church prospects

Perhaps you are a member of a church genuinely desiring a settled ministry yet depending on itinerant preaching because of low or declining congregational numbers and poor finances?
    Tent-making can alter your church’s prospects overnight. It can create a range of options previously thought unattainable.
    Although your church may not be able to provide a full salary, most churches can provide something, no matter how small; and that provision can be a starting point.
    Perhaps the man in question will have to work at a secular job some of the week to bridge the financial gap, leaving, say, two or three days to devote to ministry? But half a loaf is better than none, and those already exercising a regular, itinerant ministry as well as holding down a full-time job will readily see the advantage of releasing some free time!
    And there can be flexibility with a variety of options. Some don’t need to work a five-day-week to generate sufficient income to live on.
    Others have retired early on a part-pension or on a significant redundancy payment. And nearly all can trim their requirements, to some extent, to fit. Besides, until you have the conversation, you’ve no idea what’s possible!

Altered working schedules

Perhaps you are a preacher supplying pulpits on a regular basis while maintaining a full-time job as an employee or running your own business? Irrespective of your views on ‘tent-making’, I trust you are asking the Lord where he is leading you with your ministry, and I hope are discussing that matter with your church leaders.
    Perhaps as a preacher you feel drawn to help in a small church, but their ability to support a full-time minister currently seems hopeless? Or perhaps you already belong to such a church?
    Have you considered ways in which your current employment could be reduced, so that you have less hours or fewer days in secular work and more time with the church? Or are there other arrangements that can be made?
    Can you see a way to make your trade or skill available on a self-employed or contracting basis, so you have more say as to when and where you work? The jobs market looks good for ‘tent-makers’ right now, with many employers looking to reduce overheads and moving from using full-time employees to part-time contractors.
    Maybe you are advanced in your career and don’t, in all honesty, need to earn as much as you once did. Could this create an opportunity for the furtherance of the gospel?
    If small churches and potential ministers could get together and discuss the opportunities for tent-making, imagine what could result under the blessing of the Holy Spirit!
    Discussing these things won’t be easy; the issues are sensitive and there is need for care to avoid misunderstandings. Grace, wisdom and prayer will be required, but the potential benefits of such an initiative are enormous and the risks worth taking.
    Just imagine the help it will be for such churches to be provided with a regular, settled preaching and teaching ministry on Sundays and midweeks!

Small steps

Why not make a start in a small way?
    Maybe others in the church can help with leadership or pastoral work for some of the time? If, or rather when, the Lord works and the church grows, you can revert to ‘living by the gospel’. Tent-making is never an end in itself, but only the means to the biblical goal.
    Let me try to stir you to action! There will be others who can give their own story, but in our case a small country chapel, which over two years ago had dwindled to just four members, took the initiative of taking on a ‘tent-maker’.
    If this had not happened, the work would probably have collapsed, as one of those four members went to be with her Lord only weeks after the new ministry commenced.
    Today, after two years, local believers have joined our congregation; unbelievers from the village attend from time to time; one unbeliever has attended for six months and brought four others; around a quarter of the local village school pupils attend a weekly Bible club activity; and, at the recent carol service, the building was full to capacity, with 20-25 local unbelievers hearing the gospel.
    Is it hard work? Of course, but the Lord gives strength. As William Carey said, ‘Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God’.

New scrutiny

Why not look afresh at those men who come week by week to your church, but do it this time with a set of ‘tent-maker’ spectacles?
    Is there someone there, already known by the church to have qualities and gifts equivalent to those listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and with an acceptable preaching ministry?
    My prayer is that some churches who thought their situation beyond hope will think again, and that flickering lights, which would otherwise soon be extinguished, will become blazing beacons for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Simon Gay