This is a guest post from Steve Ross, a pastor at a church in rural Oregon.

I learned something about how wealthy I am recently.

I am a pastor in a congregation that is in a financial crisis. We’re reaching new people, but as our older givers die the losses exceed the gains in terms of financial support. This year we have a $100,000 deficit in our budget. Yikes! As our Finance Committee worked on the problem it became clear that we needed to cut $20,000 out of our staff costs over the final six months of 2008.

I decided that our staff members should talk about this situation so that they could give me feedback before the Finance Committee made final decisions. At a staff meeting I laid out the causes of our current financial situation and the goal of a $20,000 cut in staff expenses. I told them they didn’t have the responsibility or authority to make the decisions, but that I would like to hear their ideas. I expected it to be a very anxious and depressing meeting.

Instead, we had a very energetic and forward looking session in which our staff members offered up $30,000 in cuts to their own compensation! I and my co-senior pastor each offered to reduce our compensation over the final six months of the year by $5000, about 10% of our salaries. Of course, we are continuing the tithe we had committed to before the reduction.

I was astounded by he ease and sense of power and purpose with which I came to this decision, and the grace with which my spouse affirmed it, and with which all the staff shared in like decisions. When do people ask for a significant cut in pay? And why would they do it?

Now that I have had a couple of months to reflect on these questions, the answers are clear. They are surprising only in that our experience demonstrates what has often been said in principle. I confess that I doubted these principles would actually feel good in reality.

  • Enough is enough. First, none of us are actually being forced to give up necessities in order to take these cuts. None of us will lose our shelter, or go hungry or naked. We will be giving up things like vacations, eating out regularly, spending as much on gifts, helping our young adult children as much as we would like, and so on. We have been told it, but now I know it: happiness and a sense of contentment in life is not a matter of wealth once the basic needs are covered. No matter how much we say this, we all think a new car will make us happier. It won’t.
  • It’s not what you have, it’s what you do (and who you do it with). Second, those of us who are making this “sacrifice” are doing it for very self-serving reasons. We are a team of people who like working together. We believe in the work we are doing (this is a terrific church with a powerful purpose and a promising potential). Each of us is appreciated for the gifts we bring, we trust each other, and our interests are complimentary. In other words, we would rather do this work with these people for reduced compensation than some other work with some other people for more money.
  • Bet on what you believe in. Finally, we believe that we are investing our effort in the future of a community of people, and in an institution that is worth our investment. We believe that this investment will “pay off” as time goes by in increased contentment and purpose in our lives.

Sometimes being who you want to be means choosing to do work that pays less than you could make by being someone you don’t want to be. I have learned this year that I am fortunate to be able to do work that helps me be the person I want to be, and to do it with others who are of value to me. And I am fortunate that this work is able to meet my needs. Financially, needs are all that matter.