Is “Tentmaking” a workable solution in Missions?
Many years ago a good friend of mine (J J Kritzinger) who was also a professor in missiology in South Africa, wrote a book in which he argued that churches in poorer areas (the areas which are traditionally seen as the “mission field”) should make use of “tentmakers” rather than full-time pastors. The term “tentmaker” comes from the Biblical example of the apostle Paul who, according to Acts 18:3 was a tentmaker by profession and in such a way earned his own money. After I had read the book, I felt that this was really an answer for the church and felt that we should implement it in the church in answer to the constant lack of funds which we had to cope with. (The book was written in Afrikaans and is out of print as far as I could gather, but a summary of his ideas can be found here.)
At present I am really split in two about the effectiveness of this practice. I have seen it work very well but I have also experienced many problems associated with this which I think one should be aware of. In my own congregation I have one extremely effective “tentmaker”. He is a qualified teacher who later went back to the University of Swaziland to do his Bachelor’s degree in Education and was immediately afterwards appointed as principal of a high school. On most Sundays he will preach at one of the branches of our congregations where we have services and he is also chairman of our church council. Furthermore he helps with the catechumens as well as doing other odd tasks which may come his way. All in all he is truly a blessing for our church. He receives no salary from the church, except for travelling costs when we ask him to help us in places far from his home.
Where “tentmaking” seems to fail is when someone wants to work full-time in the church, but because of the lack of funds, such a person starts with another job to supplement his income. What seems to be the inevitable result of this choice is that the second “secular” job provides the greater part of the monthly income and therefore the greater part of the pastor’s time is spent doing this work. The time spent effectively working in the church starts to dwindle and in the end the “full-time” pastor is also only preaching on Sundays (unless of course if that person has to work on a particular Sunday) and perhaps conducting a Bible Study or two during the rest of the week. However, because the church had appointed the person previously with an agreed salary, it becomes very difficult to stop paying that salary and in the end the church finds itself paying for services not rendered.
Personally I’m not as strongly opposed against full-time pastors as my professor friend and many other authors seem to be. I do believe they have an important place in the church. There is more than enough work to keep someone busy every day of the week. But I also believe that tentmakers have an extremely important role to play in the church. However, mixing these two, can result in many problems. Therefore, every time I hear of a full-time pastor who starts on some project (chicken-farming, back-yard mechanic, etc) to supplement his or her salary, my heart skips a beat, wondering how long it will be before the trouble starts.
I think it can work, but then only if the pastor and the congregation come to a mutual agreement beforehand. One way which I think can work is to allow a full-time pastor to take up a secular job but then to stop his salary at the church so that he really becomes a tentmaker in the full sense of the word. (If he is going to earn a guaranteed salary, this could be done immediately or if he wants to start his own business, his salary at the church could be phased out over a period of months). Obviously, there should also be some kind of restriction on what secular work the person may do. If he wants to open a bar (not so strange – it does happen!) then I for one would definitely not allow him to continue as tentmaker within the church.
But having said all this, I still wonder whether it was God’s intention that certain churches seem to be “predestined” to forever struggle financially. Is the practice of using tentmakers an emergency measure to get us out of an immediate problem or was this God’s intention of how the church should work? There was a time when I believed that this was God’s intention. Having a lot of contact with missionaries all over the world, some of them physically ill because they worry month by month where their money will come from, I’m starting to have my doubts. I’m still not convinced one way or the other. What do you think?