Are we free to pick and choose what inspired counsel we will follow and what we will ignore?
For over one hundred fifty years, Adventists have affirmed the gift of prophecy given to our church through the ministry and writings of Ellen G. White. However, it seems that we "believe" in her counsels more firmly if they fit our preconceived notions, and we tend to "disregard" her counsels if they inconvenience our own plans or procedures.
While this may be true in other areas, at this moment I am speaking specifically to her admonition concerning remunerating pastoral wives who participate with their husbands in team ministry.
The inspired counsel
What is the counsel from Ellen White? "God is a God of justice, and if the ministers receive a salary for their work, their wives, who devote themselves just as interestedly to the work as laborers together with God, should be paid in addition to the wages their husbands receive, notwithstanding that they might not ask. As the devoted minister and his wife engage in the work, they should be paid wages proportionate to the wages of two distinct workers, that they may have means to use as they shall see fit in the cause of God. The Lord has put His spirit on them both. If the husband should die, and leave his wife, she is fitted to continue her work in the cause of God, and receive wages for the labor she performs" (Manuscript Releases, 5:323, 324).
Why was this counsel given? Ellen White recognized the value of team ministry both to the pastoral couple's marriage and to their ministry—the enhanced impact that comes from a woman ministering alongside her spouse. White also spoke out against the injustice of expectations to serve without appropriate remuneration for service. However, notice what she did not say. Ellen White does not demand that all pastoral wives engage in team ministry with their spouses. Rather, she says that those who do should be paid for the work they do.
It seems permissible to Ellen White that a pastor's wife might wish to engage in another line of work or to train for a different profession. However, she clearly understood the expectations that local churches, as well as the denomination, place on pastors' wives and instructed that those who are willing to engage in team ministry should be paid accordingly.
Expectations for a pastor's wife
What expectations are there for pastoral wives? Only the naive would assume that there are no expectations for a pastor's wife. In fact, one of the greatest areas of stress for many pastoral families is the high level of expectations placed on the pastoral family, particularly upon the wife and children.
Such expectations include, but are not limited to, being an example to the believers, a winsome influence to unbelievers, a source of help to those seeking counsel, a model parent with exemplary children, a listening ear to complaining members, a receiver and deliverer of messages, a conduit of information, a life lived in public view, a willingness to provide hospitality, music, leadership, food, or advice—often at short notice—an ability to cope on a tight budget without complaining, and expectations of attendance at every church function. The list can be extended. So you can imagine my amazement when someone recently asserted that "there are no expectations for a pastor's wife."
While this statement was made within the context of the growing trend for pastoral spouses to seek their own professions and, thus, to have diminished time that they can give to ministry, it was said by an individual who either had never personally experienced the reality of parsonage life or has developed selective amnesia.
An integral involvement
Rightly or wrongly, our churches have traditionally expected the pastor's wife to be integrally involved in ministry. And although it may not be fair to committed pastoral wives who have their own careers, churches have always thought the "best" pastoral wives worked along with their husbands in ministry. And speaking of expectations, have you ever known of a congregation that was not interested in meeting both the spouse as well as the potential new pastor?
How strongly did Ellen White react to disobedience in this regard? "There are minister's wives... who have been devoted, earnest, whole-souled workers, giving Bible readings and praying with families, helping along by personal efforts just as successfully as their husbands. These women give their whole time, and are told that they receive nothing for their labors because their husbands receive their wages. I tell them to go forward and all such decisions shall be reversed. The Word says, 'The laborer is worthy of his hire.' I will feel it in my duty to create a fund from my tithe money, to pay these women who are accomplishing just as essential work as the ministers are doing, hunting for souls, fishing for souls" (Manuscript Releases, 12:160,161).
Imagine! The prophet becomes a rebel in the face of corporate disobedience.
How long should it take for all such decisions to be reversed? Should we wait until treasury leaders calculate that we have sufficient funds to obey the Lord?
Taking God at His word
Would you use this principle with new converts regarding the Lord's commands? As a public evangelist, I have instructed thousands of new believers regarding faithful stewardship, and many have questioned whether or not they can afford to return tithe and give offerings.
I always encourage them to take God at His Word and to "prove" His promised blessing on the money that remains after their tithe and first-fruit offerings are returned to their Creator.
Can we afford to follow prophetic counsel? A more appropriate question might be to determine the cost we incur by ignoring this admonition.
Could it be that the church organization needs to exercise the same faith that we expect from our membership?
Could it be that when we become obedient in this area, the Holy Spirit will open the windows of heaven?
Could it be that regarding our failure in this area, God deems us as "robbing" Him when we fail to utilize the tithe as He instructs just as we rob Him if we refuse to return His tithe?
You see, Ellen White uses strong words regarding these issues. "This question is not for men to settle. The Lord has settled it. You are to do your duty to the women ... whose work testifies that they are essential to carry the truth into families" (Manuscript Releases, 5:324, 325).
Action is needed. Right now this is a particularly relevant topic as the new North American Division (NAD) retirement plan moves toward implementation. And it has wider impact than just NAD, because some divisions may follow NAD's lead and because NAD-based employees serve in virtually every division.
As the change is made from the current DB plan (defined-benefit retirement plan) to a proposed DC plan (defined-contribution retirement plan), the spouse allowance, which historically has been part of employee benefits, will be eliminated.
In fact, unless a decided change occurs, the statement of NAD's deputy director for retirement will remain accurate when he said, "The new retirement plan does not recognize pastoral spouses."
Now, things may change. Let us eagerly pray and labor toward ;.his objective. I am encouraged that a committee has recently been established to study the issue of spouse allowance and the impact of its absence in the proposed new DC retirement plan. However, without due vigilance on the part of all who will vote to implement this concept as well as by those who will be impacted by it, the new plan could be implemented while spouse allowance remains excluded or while the issue is "still being studied."
Shame on us if this happens. In addition to disobeying the counsel of the prophet regarding paying pastoral wives who work in team ministry, we may now take away a benefit that has provided security for pastoral families.
While it is accurate that many pastoral spouses seek their own professions and, thus, by establishing their own retirement plans do not qualify for or need denominational retirement benefits, it is equally accurate that about one-third of pastoral spouses do not seek other employment and thus are totally dependent upon their spouse's retirement plan for their own future security.
Furthermore, I believe that if prophetic guidance was believed and practiced, many more wives would eagerly engage in ministry rather than pursue other avenues of employment. Numerous pastoral wives state that they seek employment only to provide sufficient income for their family to survive or to pay school tuition costs.
Likewise, just as NAD tithe has grown faster than the rate of inflation for every year in this decade, I believe that if our members understand the jeopardy in which we could place pastoral families, they would respond with even greater generosity to correct the injustice that plagues us.
While much of the proposed DC plan is beneficial to pastors, a careful analysis should be made of the proposal's impact on the security of pastoral families, particularly young families whose educational and health benefits would be jeopardized by an untimely death of the wage earner and also of the impact for those pastoral wives who willingly eschew independent careers in order to participate in team ministry.
But as the prophet says, "This question is not for men to settle. The Lord has settled it." Humanity's task is to implement what God directs.
More than the future of pastoral wives and families depend upon our obedience. Perhaps the very prosperity of God's people awaits our obedience.