Thursday, November 8, 2007

Pastors Peddling Products to Parishioners for Profit

Alliteration aside...I had an interesting phone call last night.

It was from a distant acquaintance of mine. She wanted to tell me about an "exciting home-based business" she was involved with. Though I knew what was going on from the start, and though I had no intention of buying in, out of politeness I obliged to listen, figuring that she was selling homemade candles, polycarbonite food storage containers, or overpriced makeup and knick-knacks out of a catalogue.

As it turns out it was an Amway pitch...or at least a spinoff of Amway.

After politely listening to her for a few minutes, and then to a pre-recorded message, she had another person join in on the line. My acquaintance remembered that I am a pastor, so she found someone "in a similar situation" whom I should talk to. A man with a deep Southern drawl got on the line and introduced himself as a pastor from North Carolina who had tremendous success with "the plan."

As he non-chalantly told me about how he thought pastoring a congregation gave him a built in base of people to work with (more like fish in a barrel), I couldn't help but sit there asking myself about the ethical parameters of selling products to congregants and making a profit.

I am of the persuasion that pastors should NEVER sell things to their parishioners. Here's a bit more about that:

Pastors should never put themselves in a position to profit from parishioners.
I'm not talking about your salary and housing allowance or your benefits. Those are necessary reimbursements for your ministry. I'm talking about making any kind of gain of a business manner from your parishioners. I've known published pastors who've given sales pitches for their books in the church. I've even heard of a pastor or two having a poker night with congregants and gaining large winnings. I've also known of a (seemingly less objectional) deal of a pastor selling a car, a house, or some other item to a parishioner.

Although some of these things are more dangerous than others, there are problems with all of them. Any time a pastor puts theirself in a position to gain from a parishioner they're causing a situation where a suspicion of abusive influence could be interpreted. What's worse, there is also a greater amount of temptation to abuse the pastoral influence. Parishioners trust their pastors, and having a pastor in a situation to profit from someone looks suspicious and can lead to dangerous places.

Friends and business don't mix.
I'm speaking from personal experience here. If you ever want to guarantee you'll get ripped off, just do business with a friend. Friends (and family) are hard to say "no" to. They're also hard to sever ties with if there are problems. If you haven't learned this lesson yet, ask someone who's done business with a family member or a friend. 9 times out of 10, it's not a good idea. When one of those people is the pastor and the other is a parishioner, the situation only intensifies.

The lemon law.
If you're a pastor and you're considering sell something to a parishioner, beware. I don't care if it's a used car, your latest book or CD, Amway, Insurance, or that personal travel shopping website you run, you're in danger of causing damage to your relationship and the other person's faith experience.

Pastors are living metaphors of the message they preach. That means pastors are living metaphors of the Gospel. Everything you do communicates something to people about the Gospel. If you're authentic, the Gospel is authentic. If you're phony, the Gospel is phony. If you sell something to someone and it's no good (this is more likely to happen with your book than anything else) you've sold a fake bill of goods. You've sold a lemon. "Hmmm..." people will wonder, "what else have you sold that's a lemon? That message you've been preaching?"

Peddling products to anyone has a risk of damage to your reputation. But when you represent the Gospel, and you peddle products to your congregants, you run the risk of damaging the reputation of the Gospel.

Some consideration
Now I know there are a lot of pastors out there whose congregations can't pay them enough to fully support themselves and their families. Making money outside of the church is okay. Notice I said "outside." If you want to work construction, substitute teach, become a dog breeder, work in fast food, or become a consultant, that's okay. If you want to sell stuff, that's okay, too. Just keep it out of church. Open a store front if you have to. And discuss ethical boundaries with your congregation. Make it known that you intend not to solicit anyone, and that your business is in no way affiliated with the Church. But don't get too excited; successfully achieving this line of separation is difficult, if not impossible.

If you're a pastor who needs extra income to make ends meet try these things:
1. Talk to your board (elders, whoever it is in your church) about your inability to make ends meet with the salary given, and be honest about your family's needs. You never know what possibilities may open up.
2. First try to get a job that will have a very small likelihood of putting you in the situation of "selling" to congregants.
3. You may want to reconsider that job offer you got cleaning up elephant "presents" at the zoo.

No comments: