Friday, November 16, 2007

To Pay or Not to Pay. That is the Question

Through fellow Fuller alum Erika Carney Haub (whose husband Douglas is a fellow current Fuller worker), I learned of a conversation online regarding the question of whether or not ministers should be paid. Like Erika, I'm not unbiased on this matter. I can say for myself much the same as she says for herself and for her husband:
I know I am not coming at this totally objectively. I would not have done what I did in pursuing seminary studies if I did not think service to the church as a paid minister was a valid calling. That said, neither Doug nor I have received paychecks for our ministerial work for years now....
In my own case, having gotten an MDiv several years ago that has still yet to actually contribute in any meaningful way to my income, the idea that the church may be moving toward a non-paying model of church leadership is threatening. I can't help but wonder if I've devoted several years of my life and several thousand dollars of tuition fees to a foolhardy and worthless enterprise. I knew going into seminary that I was looking to enter a career that would never be especially profitable. But I still expected to be able to earn a living following God's call on my life, and so far, that hasn't really happened. Indeed, I wonder if the type of position I trained for no longer exists in form it did when I got started.*

But, having laid all that on the table, the discussion of whether or not churches should pay their leaders really has been an interesting one. Like Erika and Ms. Clawson (since I don't know her, calling her "Julie" just seems off, although I equally suspect she'd resist the formal "Ms." label. What's a blogger to do?), I want more people to recognize that they are the church, and to be invested in its work. The idea that the pastor is the "professional Christian" has been a blight on the American Christian lifestyle for far too long. It seems that many congregations abdicate the responsibility of doing Christian work to only the paid church workers.

It's not even like the idea of not having paid church staff is anything new. This blog discusses the fact that Quakers historically didn't have paid church leaders (this changed in more recent times). And I think most would agree that the original church leaders of the New Testament were not "paid" in the conventional sense. In fact, even today we speak of "tent making" (a term that references the "paying" job held by the Apostle Paul, which I've written about in the past) to describe an actual paying job done in order to fund one's ability to survive while doing the "real"** work of ministry. The first comment to Erika's post reminds me that there are cultural dynamics to this issue, too. Many minority churches in America currently have mostly unpaid or "bivocational" church leaders.

But like pretty much everybody in the blogs linked so far (and I hope that this isn't just my bias talking), I don't know if I believe that the idea of a church with no paid leaders is sustainable. Like any job, including secular ones, being paid for work implies a commitment that doesn't exist (at least not in the same way) with volunteer work. If you're just volunteering for something that becomes unsuitable, there's really not much keeping you there doing that job except your own values. If you're paid for it, you lose that income if you leave (and potentially damage your ability to get another job depending on how you leave, something that's less the case with volunteer work). And, let's be realistic, people have to be able to earn a living. Either a person has to work a "paying" job and give "extra" time to the church, or you can pay that person to work at the church, and they can then devote their fullest energies to the church job. Surely no one thinks that the church should get only the "leftovers" of a person's energy and time! But the other bloggers address this issue more fully and more eloquently than I can here.

My gut feeling on this matter is that more and more churches will find some kind of a middle ground. More of the church's work will be spread around to be done by more people. That's a good thing. But since the church's resources will likely stay at about the same level, this will be accomplished by a combination of volunteer work and having more of the paying positions handled via part-time work. Of course, not all churches will do this. I'm sure that many churches will stick to the full-time paid pastor model. I just hope that fewer and fewer that do so will see that person as the "professional Christian" who enables the rest of the congregation to fail to do the work of the church themselves.

*Actually, that kind of position clearly does exist in places, but increasingly it seems to exist only in places that the rest of the world left behind a couple of decades ago, which is hardly the type of church I'd be looking to serve!

**There's an odd contradiction in how the word "real" is often used in this discussion. "Real job" is often used by laypeople to refer to the secluar, but paying, job held by church leaders in many churches that don't pay them for their church leadership, as Ms. Clawson herself acknowledges in the above-linked entry. Yet many of the non-paid church leaders themselves describe their ministry as the "real job" as if the paying one were somehow artificial. I'll avoid using the word "real" hereafter.


  1. Don't take this as anything other than a constructive question, but...

    I do believe religion is in decline. Church attendance is certainly in decline. It's one thing for the "casual" Christian to hold to their traditional beliefs, but the number of practicing Christians is declining. (I think. I should find some numbers.)

    That said, unless there is a resurgence in the popularity in the faith, isn't it almost inevitable that you, or at least many others like you, will not be able to find worthwhile employment in Christian organizations?

  2. An interesting point, and I don't think there's any question but that church attendance, on the whole, is down (actually, conservative churches have seen a spike in attendance in recent years, but I believe this to be a short-term trend).

    But I'm not really talking about whether or not there are fewer jobs to be had, per se. I'm talking about a movement in many churches whereby the whole question about whether or not the "leaders" in those churches ought to be paid is in question. To some degree, it is a question about what the role of a pastor, or any other leader in a church, ought to be, and whether that role is one that should be handled on a volunteer basis as opposed to a paid one. This question is one that will need to be answered however many churches there are in the future.

    But, to go back to the question you're asking. It bears wondering what the ratio of "person training for church work"-to-church is nowadays. If there are fewer churches, and fewer people attending church, shouldn't there be a corresponding reduction in number of people looking for church-related jobs?

  3. Hm, it does make sense that a decline in church attendance would have a corresponding decline in people seeking church leaderships roles.

    But in the short-term, while the flock wanders away, the current leaders will likely be among the last to abscond, as it makes sense to assume that they are the more devoted adherents in the first place. If so, then there will be more shepherds than necessary, and the ones willing to work without pay will probably get the "job".

    As far as "should" church leaders be paid... well, I guess that's for the attendees to decide, if not with a vote, then at least with their wallets.

  4. But in the short-term, while the flock wanders away, the current leaders will likely be among the last to abscond, as it makes sense to assume that they are the more devoted adherents in the first place.

    Another fair point, although I would counter that the decline in church attendance is hardly a new trend. It's been happening for decades now (with the caveat already mentioned in my previous comment).

    In any event, I expect that it's a fairly complicated phenomenon, which can't be explained away by any single cause.



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