Snake Oil Ministry | Itinerant ministry discussed
Would I minister anywhere God led, regardless of financial benefit?
That was the question I had to answer when responding to the call to ministry over 24 years ago. If I ever allowed the thought that I was God’s “special chosen one” to enter my mind, I would be disqualified on the spot. My service must be just that—service. That’s what ministry is. It is a commitment to serve with no thought of personal gain. My passion must be for the transformed lives that are hanging in the balance! They are my motivation!
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment… Romans 12:3
The thought of analyzing just how financially beneficial a particular ministry opportunity might be is actually quite sobering for me—the fear of the Lord rests on me quite heavily. The idea that I may be tempted to choose one assignment over another based on money is enough to drive me to my knees in preemptive repentance, if there is such a thing! I can’t allow the enemy’s offer of material gain to weigh on me whatsoever.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Matthew 4:8-10
Snake oil salesman showed up in America’s historic towns on wagons filled with tonics and elixirs. Their motivation was not making sick people well. It was actually the exact same motivation the money changes in the temple had:
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” Matthew 21:12-13
The money changers’ sin was simple—they attempted to use God’s temple for personal gain. They were focused on making a profit. This resulted in one of Jesus’ most violent reactions, and I believe a similar reaction is coming to a corrupt ministry scheme today. Notice how Jesus immediately restored the temple to it’s proper function in the very next verse:
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. Matthew 21:14
Snake oil ministers aren’t looking to heal the sick or save the lost as much as they are attempting to build their own ministries. For some it’s clear and intentional deception. For others it’s simple compromise that results in a focus on prosperity.
Brian Ming included the following lyric in one of his worship songs:
God forgive us for building kingdoms of man on doctrines of demons in your name.
That’s snake oil ministry.
Over the last few decades I’ve traveled to regions to launch local ministries and also as an itinerant minister, and the principle remains the same—go where God sends you. The decision on where to go is much easier when you eliminate irrelevant arguments against the move. Listen to God’s voice and respond immediately. Don’t think about money, don’t take the prosperous road. Just go.
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:6-10
If God tells you to go somewhere that will cost you instead of benefit you, will you go?
A year and a half ago I had scheduled a very important ministry trip. Their ministry was struggling and my assignment was to show up, rally support and encourage people to financially sow into their mission. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be receiving a cent, and I was thrilled to serve with that in mind. I actually rented a van and drove 24 hours with my team to this critical assignment. The mission was mine and God made that clear.
Just after I made the commitment, I received, entirely out of the blue, a last minute invitation to replace another speaker (who had to cancel) at a large conference in an influential, sizable church in the UK. All expenses would be paid and I’m sure the honorarium would have been wonderful. That surely would have been a fun and powerful trip! I immediately replied with my regrets, thanking them for the offer. I had to decline.
The reason I share that story isn’t to trumpet my own valiant decision. I simply want to communicate just how easy that decision was. When God speaks, every other voice and every other invitation loses significance. If God is sending you somewhere as an itinerant minister, NEVER consider the financial reward, the accommodations, the size of the platform or other benefits. That is a prostitution of your service. We are called to lay down our lives, expecting nothing in return.
Might I suggest to other itinerant ministers, if you have lost the passion for investing into people and are thinking more about mesmerizing and entertaining the crowds, you should probably step away for a season. To grab the mic, shout your lungs out and then disappear into the green room just won’t cut it anymore. God won’t allow snake oil to replace the oil of the Holy Spirit.
When I travel it’s extremely important that I capture the vision that God has for that region. If I don’t own that vision, why would I even be called on to serve there? I have my strategic intercession team spend hours on conference calls where they pray together and receive prophetic direction from the Lord. They then forward that on to me just before I head out. They then shift to covering me in intercession as I travel and minister. They also own the vision, even they they aren’t on the trip with me. My team is amazing, and I believe a model for itinerant intercession. Their investment matches my own and I would suggest we need to even go further. The places I go burn on my heart before and after I leave.
If I lose that passion, it will be time for me to step away.
A pastor recently shared with me the experience his church had with a rather well known itinerant minister. The guest preached, received a large offering and moved on. There was no relational investment into the people. The report from the body was that they just sowed significant finances into someone who just preached at them for an hour. That’s it. That minister probably doesn’t realize it, but he apparently won’t be returning.
These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Matthew 10:5-14
I received an invitation to minister at a church in Houston recently. I listened to one of their young ministers teaching with unbridled passion out of my book 20 Elements of Revival. He was owning that message maybe even more than I was! I was provoked! Soon after, the pastor wanted to let me know something that he felt would cause me to cancel. They only had four members.
All I could think about was that powerful message by that young man. The numbers didn’t matter at all! He told me that they were yearning for some consulting and investment into their ministry. I told him that all he had to do was get me there, keep me there, feed me there and get me home. If they wanted to take an offering for me, that would be nice. My heart was to eliminate as many hurdles to a fulfilled assignment as possible.
I didn’t care if I slept on the floor, ate beans or had a small offering—I was craving to serve and pray with them! I was passionate for revival in a city that was not my own!
Again, I knew that if I allowed finances to make an entrance into my decision making process, I’d risk joining the ranks of the snake oil salesmen. I must believe that God is my provider, not the people I’m serving.
Might I suggest to all of you itinerant ministers a simple protocol:
- Communicate what your travel expenses are, and request that they are covered.
- Request a love offering of any size be received for you.
- Go at your own expense if God calls you to.
- Be willing to sleep on the floor, eat little and minister to any sized crowd without a minimum required honorarium.
If you’d like to take a look at my personal booking form, which includes a lot of specific communication, you can do so here: www.johnburton.net/booking.
LET’S TAKE A LOOK FROM THE OTHER SIDE
If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 1 Corinthians 9:11
In addition to spending a lot time traveling as an itinerant minister, I have also led local ministries for years. I know what the other side of the coin looks like.
I’m not saying I have mastered hosting out of town guest ministers—others have hosted me more elegantly than I have done so myself—but I have learned to value the importance of honoring them as well as I can.
As Paul stated in 1 Corinthians, material blessing is expected. We should do all we can to ensure guest ministers are leaving town honored and financially prosperous. The responsibility to provide financial blessing is to be handled by the host church, not by the itinerant minister. Paul knew this as well:
If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights… 1 Corinthians 9:12-15
We need to understand that a typical itinerant minister has four paydays per month, and they always fall on a weekend. What I mean is, if they are with you on a single Sunday morning, they have surrendered one fourth of their workable days to you. This means that they need one fourth of their monthly expenses to be covered by you. Paul also understood this.
On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come… 1 Corinthians 16:2-3
Itinerant ministers aren’t being paid for only one hour of preaching. They have given more than that. They have invested much by leaving their family, expending energy as they travel, paying for their food on the road, sleeping in unfamiliar beds and, possibly most importantly, stepping out in faith believing that God would provide their every need.
If their monthly family budget (you know, money to pay for their teenage monsters to devour entire sides of beef, braces for crooked teeth, Christmas presents, car payments, vacations, toilet paper, shoes, etc.) is $6000 a month, that means anything less than $1500 puts them in a compromised position. It’s usually their spouse who is handling the bills and taking care of precious and wild kids who gets hit the most when the finances aren’t coming in. Being an itinerant minister is an extremely challenging life and I want to do my best to relieve the financial pressure from them and their family.
If we have someone come in, and we aren’t confident a sufficient offering will come in, we will communicate very clearly before they commit to the trip that the finances may not be what is necessary for them to live on. I don’t want them to leave with a sad surprise.
I have found that people love to give, especially when I tell them 100% of the offering will be going to the guest speaker (after expenses are covered). If one million dollars comes into the offering, the church receives nothing and the guest is now a millionaire! I believe this approach deals with any scrutiny that may be in people’s minds when giving. They love the fact that they are able to have 100% of their gift go directly to the guest!
I also want to honor the guest’s time and other needs as they travel. If they are most comfortable being left alone most of the time, I will set them up in a comfortable place and leave them be. I find that most itinerant ministers prefer a lot of down time to re-energize and spend time with the Lord. Others may want to hang out for each meal and after the service. If that’s the case, I’ll be at their beck and call!
A gift basket is a great way to bless someone who has been traveling all day and, instead of heading out to eat after they get off the airplane, they can go to their room, jump in a cool, clean bed and chomp down on bananas, candy and nuts!
The point of this entire article is that we are to serve, to minister.
If we honor other well, and refuse to use them or withhold from them, the Kingdom of God will truly advance with great integrity and power.
We are going to need the circuit riders to hit the road again, completely unhindered.
For the circuit rider, they must head out without any excuse or hindrance.
For the host ministry, they must honor the man or woman of God with excellence.