In all the conversation about churches and change, one particular topic seems to be the unmentioned gorilla in the room — clergy pay. By clergy pay, I mean what most of us had in mind when we went to seminary — “I’ll get this great theological education so I can work full-time at — and get paid by — a church.” In other words, today ministers have the same vocational formula as any other professional — aspiration>education>employment=pay.
The evangelical world has also built a lot of expectation into the idea that ministers should be paid. Church planting is mostly built upon the idea that a church planter has to grow a church to a sustainable level financially, so that he or she can get paid. Julie Clawson wrote about her experience in a failed church plant. The reason for the failure? They didn’t gather enough people to support them financially.
Frank Viola has created his own cottage industry by railing against the idea of paid clergy in the church of today. While I am grateful for my bimonthly paycheck from the church where I serve, I’m not sure that Frank doesn’t have a point, particularly regarding the future of the church. Of course, bivocational pastors exist, but this usually means a church can’t afford to pay the pastor enough to be full-time, so he or she has to work to supplement their income. This secondary job is just that — a second job to make ends meet, not a fulfilling aspect of a life’s calling. But I’m not talking about bivocational versus fully-employed pastors here; I’m asking the basic question — What if clergy were supported, not paid?
The Early Church Model
There is some precedent for my question. Of course, we have to assume that in the early church, Peter and the other apostles weren’t paid initially. We also have to recognize that our idea of “pay” is culturally tied to our own experience. I am sure that Peter and the other apostles were “supported” by others as they ministered, but that support probably took the form of meals, lodging, clothing, and travel assistance. I doubt if they received a regular stipend or “walking around” money, but that’s speculation on my part. Paul, of course, worked at tent-making in his early ministry, but later received support from collections from other churches “eager to share” with him. One reason for Paul’s support later in his ministry was his house arrest, which made working difficult, if not impossible.
The Plight of Newspaper Reporters
But, back to the practical aspect of clergy pay. Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor and author of What Would Google Do?, contends that reporters believe they should be paid not because of the value they add, but because of the inherent good that reporters do for society. He quotes Robert Picard, a media economist, who sounds off about reporters’ expectations for pay:
Picard’s quote might apply to clergy, too. Most of us think we are a necessary and valuable part of the society in which we live. But that argument could equally be applied to doctors, lawyers, butchers, and street-sweepers, all of whom contribute to the overall good of society. Neither reporters nor clergy get a pass on the “intrinsic good” argument, in my opinion.
The Buddhist Model
Actually, the purest form of clergy support I know of is found in Buddhist countries. I remember taking an early morning walk down Nathan Road in Hong Kong several years ago. Nathan Road is crammed with hundreds of shops, restaurants, night spots, hotels, and other tourist attractions, but in the early morning hours most are not open; their folding metal security gates still locked down over shop windows. Walking down the street from the Holiday Inn, I encountered a Buddhist monk clothed in the traditional red robes, carrying a bowl. In rural cultures, Buddhist monks literally receive a meal in their bowls from their supporters, who in turn receive “merit” from supporting the monks. But, in Hong Kong the monk’s begging bowl is often the recipient of cash, as it was on the day I encountered the old monk. He stopped in front of me and held out his bowl with his head bowed. I found some Hong Kong dollars in my pocket, which I deposited into his bowl. The old monk smiled at me, bowed and then continued on down the street. I found the whole exchange quite rewarding, and I felt like I had received more than I had given the old monk.
Of course, I am not arguing that clergy, Christian or Buddhist, don’t need some type of support. Even hermit monks are beneficiaries of the support of the cloistered monastery, which in turn receives support from the outside world by selling its goods, which can range from wine to cheese to jellies. Economics are economics whether you have taken vows of poverty or not. In even the most basic societies, there is usually some type of economic exchange system of value given and received.
Support vs. Pay
But what if clergy were “supported” instead of paid? How would that change things? Of course, there are several models for clergy support stretching all the way back to the Old Testament. The Levites, the tribe of priests, were to be supported by the other 11 tribes. When sacrificial offerings are described in the Old Testament, there are instructions about what the priests may take from the pot for their own sustenance. Of course, by Jesus’ time in the first century, the religious leaders were not only supported by Temple activities, but were probably on the payroll of the empire, both Jewish and Roman. But, my point is, intrinsic to the priestly system was the idea that the priests would be supported by the other members of the community. Just because a system becomes corrupted, as it did by the first century, doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from God’s original intent.
In the early church, as I have already mentioned, I believe the apostles were supported by the first Christian communities. At the day of Pentecost, 3,000 came into the church, plus the number of followers of Jesus after the resurrection was much greater than just the apostles. Their families, friends, proteges, and converts quickly formed a viable community. We know this from Acts 6 where the church is large enough to support widows, and sensitive enough to address a problem of some widows not being supported. During this discussion, the apostles argue that it’s not right for them to leave the ministry of the Word to wait on tables. The implication is that the apostles are being supported in some form so that they are free to carry out their apostolic ministry.
Paul also argues that “the workman is worthy of his hire” in appealing for support. Thus, the idea of support of special classes of God’s people in both Old and New Testaments is not a new idea. But, is there a difference in support versus being a paid professional?
The Monastic Model of Support and How It Evolved
As the monastic movement developed, monasteries became self-sufficient centers of trade and commerce. Celtic Christian abbeys often carried on sheep and cattle operations; agricultural crop cultivation; wine-making; spinning and weaving; metal-working; and, all the attendant activities to being a self-sustaining community. Monasteries and abbeys that could not become self-sufficient failed and disappeared. In successful abbeys, monks and nuns enjoyed the benefits of the goods and services produced by their community. Of course, they were part of the production of those goods and services, and not just the beneficiaries. They worked at keeping the monastery running, while also taking time to pray — hence the Latin phrase laborare et orare, to work and to pray. The rhythm of their days included fixed-hours for prayer (the daily office) interspersed with hours in the fields, kitchen, scriptorum, or weaving shop.
As European society developed during the Middle Ages (about 1100-1400 A.D.) a new form of clergy support emerged — the peasant-priest. The peasant-priest usually received a small stipend, but usually not enough to support himself, his assistants, and his “hearth-mate” — a euphemism for his common-law wife. The peasant-priest was also allotted a “glebe” behind the manse (housing was a form of support), and on this plot of land he could raise crops to supplement his income. Perhaps these were the earliest bivocational pastors, except the second job they held down — farming — was really an extension of their calling, and a modified form of the “work-and-prayer” rhythm of monastic life. Except the peasant-priest was on his own and his community consisted of the congregation for whom he was the ecclesiastical authority.
English society under Henry VIII and the Church of England, carried the peasant-priest idea to a slightly higher level — the manor priest. The lord of the manor might offer a stipend to support a clergyman for the private manor chapel. The manor chapel provided the component of religious life to, not only the lord of the manor and his esteemed family, but also to those who worked on the manor as well. Seating in the chapel was arranged to accentuate the position of the lord and his relatives, but lord and laborer could theoretically worship together. The stipend for this priest could vary, and some chapels were highly desired positions. The annual pastoral support could make a priest’s life very comfortable, depending upon the generosity of his benefaction. This model, the manorial chapel, is the model that was transplanted to the American colonies, and still thrived in the South particularly into the 20th century. The benefits of the manor chapel included a manse and a stipend. In the American South, that translated into a parsonage and paycheck for the preacher.
Clergy Life in The Modern Economy
In the 1970s, denominations and seminaries began to assert that a pastor needed the ability to own his or her own home in order to build their financial net worth. Parsonages were sold, often to the pastors who lived in them, and housing allowances were added to the salaries of pastors. Now pastors’ families are an indistinguishable part of the greater economy. We get paid just like everyone else, rather than supported like the Levites or the apostles.
But, of course, most of us live just like the rest of society, too, myself included. We have two vehicles — a minivan and a pickup truck — our own furniture, our own mortgage, and our own home repair bills. Clergy salaries have also risen to levels comparable to the teaching or nursing professions, in many areas. But what if clergy weren’t paid like everyone else? What if we were supported at a basic level, then free like the old peasant-priest, or monk to work to finish out our support? And, what if this were an intentional decision made by pastors and churches which could support full-time ministers?
Steve Taylor’s church, Opawa Baptist Church in New Zealand, is large enough to fully support its pastoral staff, but they are all part-time. Taylor, author The Out-of-Bounds Church, also teaches at a couple of seminaries, and speaks and writes. Others, like Gordon Atkinson, work part-time at their churches and write for the balance of their income. Not exactly the glebe, but closer than working at WalMart.
This combination of professions — clergy plus something else — was common in the first millennium of the church. Priests were also lawyers or academics, not just pastors. The Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits, has produced a number of scholar-priests in the history of their order. These scholar-priests worked at both professions, but may not have been assigned primarily to parish ministry.
Modern Examples of Clergy Support
But what would the consequences be if ministers were supported, not paid, by churches? First, let’s look at the type of support a small community could offer a clergy person. Housing, which is the major expense of any family, is probably the most obvious support. The United Methodist Church still maintains a network of clergy housing in conjunction with its itinerant ministry. In a denomination where clergy know they are going to be moved every 2-5 years, church-provided housing makes sense. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, and the UMC has procedures in place to that assure a pastoral family has a decent place to live.
The argument for allowing clergy to buy their own homes has been that home ownership is the primary way to increase individual net worth. With the bursting of the housing market bubble, this argument doesn’t hold as much weight as it once did. Also, in a slow economy, having to sell a home in one community in order to accept the call to another church can be a financial drain on a pastor’s family.
But, housing isn’t the only form clergy support could take. Churches could also provide a vehicle for pastoral use. I realize that this could be loaded with objections — when is mileage personal and when is it ministry-related? — but commercial enterprises do this all the time, so there is a way through the accounting complexities. After housing, owning and operating a vehicle is probably the most expensive item a family spends money for. Churches own buses and vans, why not a car for the pastor?
Beyond the two most expensive items of house and car, support could also come in other areas. For example, I wear a black clerical robe for worship. The church bought the robe for me, and it solves a world of wardrobe problems. I do wear a suit to church, but the robe keeps me and my clothing from being the center of attention, or derision, as the case may be.
Food is another form of support churches previously provided, and could provide again. Many 19th century pastors were paid in chickens and vegetables for performing weddings or other services. Not that we want a return to the “here’s a chicken” economy, but food could be provided in consultation with the pastor’s family.
Benefits of Pastoral Support Now and Into the Future
My point in all of this is simple — if churches were involved in the support of their pastors, rather than in paying them, a new sense of community might become evident. I realize that all the examples I have given look back to the past, and that “what is old is new again” is old saying for a good reason. But, there are advantages to supporting rather than paying a pastor, especially as churches move into the future.
If churches had the ability to support a pastor by providing housing or a car, the pastor’s salary could be reduced by that amount. Frankly, I just as soon my church own my house and car, because both of those are expensive to acquire, own, and maintain. I would happily take a salary reduction for my housing and car allowance to make that trade. The bottom line for churches in a shrinking economy is that it would take less cash to operate the church, so church budgets could be reduced.
I do believe that in the future, we are going to see more models for ministry support based on multiple sources of income, rather than just one. This applies to both churches and pastors. Pastors will need marketable skills so they can contribute to their own support, and churches will need more revenue streams than the giving of members to sustain themselves. Many churches have already opened coffee shops, art galleries, childcare centers, community development agencies, and a host of other entrepreneurial enterprises. These are very much like the old Celtic Christian abbeys which ran multiple enterprises in order to become and remain self-sufficient.
The question of the 21st century for pastors cannot be, “Where can I find a church job to support me?” Rather, the question is, “How can I find multiple sources of support to undergird the ministry to which God has called me?” Pastors and churches prepared to answer that question creatively will thrive in the next 25-years, I am convinced.
What do you think? Should clergy be supported or paid? Should we all be multi-vocational? Should churches develop multiple income streams? Finances should not be the barrier to following God’s guidance, but too often money becomes the default decision-maker. That was not the case in the first century, and we who serve God in the 21st century should not let old financial models dominate our thinking about how to do church in a new economy. Let me know what you think.