In the Living Your Values interview series, we talk to folks from all stages of life about their process of integrating faith and finances, their stumbles and triumphs, and their commitment to using their resources to pursue a God-directed life.
Kevin Lum founded The Table Church, a young non-denominational church in Washington, DC with two campuses. He and his wife Charla lived in DC for many years and recently had a daughter, Eloise. We were interested in talking with Kevin to find out how he planted a church on a church planter's salary (basically nothing). How did he plan his life so that he could take this kind of financial risk to pursue something more impactful? We sat down with Kevin to talk about how he navigates faith and finances in his own life. Over the years, Kevin has found his calling as a pastor, applied his entrepreneurial savvy to church planting, and changed his mind about tithing and being rich as a Christian.
Kate and Alex: What has been your overall career path?
You went to college.
Actually it started before college. My most interesting stuff was before college! My first job when I was 15 was in the front office for New York Life insurance. I was the guy who sends the thank you cards and things like that. When I was 16 I started a satellite business out of my garage. I was really fascinated with giant satellite dishes so I would call around to all the satellite stores in town learning about them. I wanted to buy one, but it turns out that it was really impractical for our small backyard. Then I learned about these small dishes that were just coming out. I called up Dish Network to see what I needed to do, and they said you can just become a distributor. I set up a show room in our game room and kept all the inventory in the garage. My dad and I would go install satellites on the weekend in people's houses. They were always a little shocked when I (a high schooler) showed up. I was spending most of what I was bringing in though. I bought a car - but it was Texas so I bought a truck. The only truck I ever owned actually, I'm really not a truck guy. I saved a bit of money. In retrospect, if I'd taken the money I'd earned and put it into Dish Network stock I'd be wealthy many times over.
At the end of my senior year my family moved to Tulsa (my dad was a pastor). I went with them and took a gap year and worked for a telecommunications company. I started at the call center and worked my way up to their satellite department. At the end of the year, they offered me a job as the director of the satellite division but I decided I didn't really like corporate life, so I went to college instead. While in college I discovered you could make quite a bit of money (10% profit) doing long distance for corporations. I tried to figure out who needed long distance the most and then sold them a cheaper rate. Long distance was a competitive market for like 6 months, but it was decently successful for how much work I put into it. I basically earned spending money, paying my car bill and that sort of thing. In college I also had a couple other odd jobs. One summer I worked at a car dealership selling Land Rovers, and another summer I was the executive director for our local chamber of commerce.
So with all these odd jobs and small companies you started, how did you become a pastor?
I was a religion major in college and interned at a church all four years. But through this internship I realized that I didn't really want to work in a church. Instead, I asked if I could transfer to work in a non-profit because I had a business background. I started a jobs training program for at-risk people. We taught them how to write resumes and how not to get mad at work, things like that. I did a decent job graduating everyone who started: 10 people. When I graduated college, they hired me to manage a government grant program, then later as assistant director of HR and finance. I was there for two years and then got married and went to seminary. While in seminary I taught faith formation classes at Leavenworth Federal Prison, and was the associate pastor of evangelism at a local church.
Why did you go to seminary if you had decided you didn't want to work at a church?
During my time at the non-profit, I saw how justice needed to be integral to the church. The people in the programs I worked with needed the church and the church needed the programs to add that justice element to remind them why they existed. That began to really create in me a passion for a church that did both. So I went to seminary, worked at the local church, and tried engaging them in justice. But it was a conservative Nazarene church, and it just felt like I was hitting my head up against the wall. That's when we decided to move to DC. I took a job with Sojourners developing resources for churches trying to do justice. But after four years there I was making $42,000 a year, so I began to look for something else. I started a non-profit dedicated to resourcing and connecting church leaders. This allowed me to help get the church off the ground. We also received a couple gifts to buy sound equipment and stuff like that for the church. But that's how the church got (financially) off the ground and I was supported while starting the church.
So your experience as an entrepreneur really helped as you were starting the church?
Yes. I'm not overly pastoral by nature. My natural inclination is to be entrepreneurial and to start things. I realized that this is my gift and what I can bring to the church. At the end of the day, the thing I always really felt called to do was to ministry, although I wasn't sure what that would look like. Pastoral ministry is really where my heart is. I've never been a traditional pastor, but I love trying to figure out how to develop people and leaders and see church done in new ways and be open to everyone. At the time I started the church, I was also interested in how to design a community that's worth staying in DC for. My dream is that we'd start new campuses or programs, these things would get up and running, and the revenue would grow so we could hire full-time pastors for each location. Then I could serve in a more apostolic role, thinking through where we could go next.
What was your family’s financial background?
My family was always dirt poor. My sister and I were both born without health insurance but because my dad was known around town as a pastor, the doctors donated their services for free. When I was really young, we lived in a trailer in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas where my parents were missionaries. Then we moved to Houston, and while my dad made decent money, my mom didn't work and we lived in a really nice suburb. We never had much money, but we were able to survive. I was able to graduate college with only $10-15,000 of debt.
What financial lessons did you learn from your parents?
My dad was always smart about money. He never had much, but he was always a smart financial manager. I remember him working for hours on Quicken, figuring out where his money went. One of the things I picked up from him was leveraging resources, taking what you had and making it stretch. Every time I had an idea he'd say, that's great, let's figure out a way to make that happen. In retrospect he wasn't financially sophisticated. He would have never known about stock options or index funds -- at least until later in life. But he taught me to always be smart and to always continue learning about money and finances. He was also against being in debt. He thought it was a bad thing, and that always really stuck with me. For him, as well, property was good.
Have you kept any of these same ideas and perspectives as you’ve gotten older?
Yes, we've always been property rich and cash poor. When we first saved up a big chunk of money, instead of putting it in a 401K or something like that we bought a condo in an up and coming neighborhood in DC. Then when we saved up another chunk of money and I did more research and we bought our current house (and now rent out the condo). I also always run models (progressions in Excel) of worst case scenarios, as any good entrepreneur has a plan A through Z. We figured out a way when we bought this house that if Charla and I both lost our jobs we could rent the upstairs for more than our mortgage and live in the basement for free. I was always setting up a back-up plan. Same with the condo – we could lease it for enough over our note to pay for everything if something happened. But there isn't a lot of margin in that strategy. This is the way I've lived most of my financial life – thoughtful and well-researched, but all in.
What role has finances played in your marriage?
Charla comes from a very wise financial family. Her dad is a president of a bank and they have always been very smart with money. They are very frugal and have always done well, but they aren't very ostentatious about money. Interestingly – one of the first fights Charla and I had about money was about going out to eat. When I was growing up I was trained to order water and get the cheapest thing on the menu. For Charla, her family didn't believe in going out to eat much because it was extravagant and they were so frugal. But they had money, so when they did go out to eat it was a special occasion. So Charla and I would sit down at the restaurant and I'm ordering the $12 burger and she's like “Oh, that filet mignon looks great.” And I'm like, “No! No! We can't afford the filet mignon!” So that was a contention early on. But for the most part we see very eye to eye on money. We're pretty conservative with money and we never fight about one person spending too much money or things like that. We trust each other that whatever we spend money on will be something worthwhile.
How do you see the integration of faith and finances in your own life? How do you think God wants us to use our money?
When I was in college I was very judgy of people with nice things and nice homes. I went to a Bible study one summer in Tulsa at the home of a guy who was a vice-president of Merrill Lynch. He had a massive home. I remember pulling up in the circle drive and just thinking, how can a Christian own a home like this? Then I got to know him and I realized that he had a seven-bedroom house and there was someone staying in every single bedroom. There was a low-income person who didn't have a place to live, there was a college student. He had three Bible studies a week in his house. There were probably 110 college students that would come to our Bible study and he would feed us all with a massive spread of food. If anyone ever needed anything he was there for them. At the end of the summer he was looking to sell that house and buy a larger home because he needed more space for people. I realized that here is someone who has money and who is leveraging what he has on behalf of other people. I began to see money less as a zero sum game and instead the question became how am I utilizing those resources to help other people. Often I think what gets interpreted as being good stewards of money is actually being stingy with money, and stinginess is not necessarily a Christian value. I often hear people talk about how Christians shouldn't spend money on certain things (fancy cars, etc). But it's not just that you spend money but how you go about spending and utilizing those resources.
Also, I wrote a sermon once about giving that changed my mind about how to give away money. The sources I was reading for the sermon made me realize that we need to be more intentional about how we are giving our money. We have a bigger impact if we are not just giving away a little bit here and there. Instead, we should decide how much we want to give away (5 or 10 percent of our income, etc.) and decide where that money is going to go. But it's also important to invest in other ways in those organizations, like volunteering, working at the food bank, or mentoring. Money grabs your heart really quickly and takes you places you don't want to go – but being intentional about investing in a cause helps break the power money has over our lives. As Jesus said, where your money is, there your heart is also. I think that is so true.
Part of the reason I feel so strongly about this is that I had a friend who had a goal in college that he was going to retire at the age of 35 and be a missionary. He started his own tech company and created a website for WWF in the 90s, then sold it and started a design firm. He sold the company a few years ago when he was 36, right on time. He has more money than he knows what to do with and he's the most unhappy person I've ever met. Throughout those ten years he lost his sense of direction. I had dinner with him and his wife a couple years ago, and I asked “Dude, you hit your goal. What's next?” and he said “I don't know. We're going to buy a new house over by where our daughter (who was 2) is going to go to school. We want her to be near her school. I don't really know what else.” And I thought, how sad to have all this money with no direction. He was corroded inside because he didn't use his resources for others or invest in other people and causes.
What is your opinion about tithing?
It seems that tithing lets us off easy -- the New Testament value was giving away all we had. Ten percent should be a short-term goal that we should all be working towards, but long term -- the question becomes, how can I become extravagantly generous. The people I know who actually tithe (or give more than a tithe) are the best off financially of anyone I know, and it’s not that they were already well-off. I think part of it goes back to intentionality. When you are poor and you are tithing -- you have to be smart with your money. Even the people I know who are not religious but build giving into their lives are happier people and they also tend to do better financially. I love the Biblical idea of the way the tithe was split up. It’s reflected in how our church spends money - a tithe for religious parties and a tithe for the poor and a tithe for caring for the temple. Even though I grew up in the church I never saw the importance of giving money to the church as a religious practice, or as an actual life practice. But now I think it's super important.
A few last questions:
What would you do with a million dollars?
If I had a million dollars I would probably invest it in the church. You could leverage it to hire more staff and build out more programs and then things would really begin to take off. If we had a full time pastor at each parish hanging out in the community with the people that would be a good long-term investment. Charla, my wife, would have a different answer.
What do you splurge on? Apple watch
What would you never spend money on? Fancy cars or rotating through cars every year or every couple years.
Thanks for the conversation, Kevin!
Do any of Kevin's experiences or thoughts resonate with your own experience? What steps have you taken to live out your values? Let us know in the comments!