Of Preachers and Money

Read this article before continuing: USA TODAY: “Heath Care Costs,” 6/8/2018

Why I’m Writing Today

This is NOT an “angry post” or rant; this is an informational post. The topic may be subject to discussion, but it’s not presented to be inflammatory. This is information that church leaders need to hear about the business end of church leadership – preacher salaries. There’s probably lots I’ve missed; maybe I’ve said too much (I doubt it).

A lack of support for local ministers undermines local ministry. Every church I talk to wants quality local ministry which – as they understand it – translates into church growth (debatable, but it’s the general understanding), but few churches want to invest in the local ministers whom they bring alongside them. Financial anxiety among ministers is a real phenomenon; if they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck today, what will happen when they’re needing to retire, but are unable to? This is not necessarily because they were such poor stewards of money during their working years, but because they never had the cashflow to buy a home, put back for retirement or long-term savings.

I recently knew of a 90-year-old preacher who had to keep preaching because he couldn’t financially afford to give it up (he lived in a church-owned home and didn’t have the ability to purchase his own). The church needed him to retire so that they could move forward with renewed energy and staff; he needed to retire for his health’s sake – both will suffer because the gentleman is unable to retire and the church, out of respect and loyalty to their preacher, will not insist on his retirement. This is not the first time I’ve heard this same story; it’s more common than you might think.

Churches which want to emphasize local ministry need to support local ministers! To make sure ministers are fairly compensated so that they can support their families is in the interest of healthy churches.

Why I’ve Been Silent

This is an uncomfortable topic for many preachers to bring up. I know that when I was preaching full-time I avoided it – and most other money-related topics – if I could, because of how I thought other people would react or what I thought they would think of me. When we’re preaching about hard moral issues, we’re rightly counseled to preach truth, regardless of how other people will think of us. But, I confess, I have not been nearly so bold in this regard. It’s poor culture and conditioning. It’s preaching from a position of fear.

“…the laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7)

“…the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (I Corinthians 9:14)

Although there are more, those two verses there ought to be enough in principle and command to establish that preachers/ministers/missionaries ought to be fairly compensated for the work they do; if it’s full-time work, then a full-time salary is fair. This post is not advocating the preachers live in luxury while the congregations they serve are somehow destitute.

A Personal Statement

I would never want to try to hold a church “over the barrel” in regard to their actual financial ability. There are limits to what a congregation can support, due to their own personal financial ability and size. There are preachers who have a trade other than preaching, who can work to support themselves in other sectors, who do wonderful, bi-vocational work. The apostle Paul made tents sometimes and sometimes he was supported. There’s no right or wrong here, it’s just about pairing the right man, right congregation, and right ministry setting. Some churches are not open to their preacher having other employment to make up for what they are unable/unwilling to supply for his family’s income. Another possible solution is to raise funds and to labor as a missionary (one who is sent), supported by senders. All three of these are biblical models for ministry support, it’s just a matter of figuring out the logistics in a given community, congregation, and minister.

Are We Paying Our Preacher Enough?

When the question is asked, “What would it take for you to live in our community?,” the right answer is “Whatever it takes any other family of the same size.” Preachers are not any less hungry, nor their groceries any less expensive; preachers and their families have no less need of clothing, nor their clothes any less expensive; their special occasions are not any less worthy of celebration; they are not in any less need of time away from work to refresh and rejuvenate, etc.

A family’s minimum financial threshold should be understood and respected, just like a congregation’s maximum threshold. If those numbers are too far apart, let’s not automatically label the church stingy nor the preacher’s family greedy. Sometimes a church and preacher may need to discontinue an interview or amicably part ways due to one or the other’s financial ability.

The attached USA TODAY article points out that most employees have little idea what it really costs their employer to keep them employed – in addition to the take-home salary, there are benefits to be paid, trainings to be paid, etc. Last year, an elder in the church where we were interviewing wisely told me that I needed to be thinking about these things because most church elderships wouldn’t even know to think about them when trying to negotiate or set a preacher’s compensation package, since it all happens automatically for most employees.

Most people assume that the preachers who are hired by churches have compensation packages which are similar to other professions. However, very, very few churches in our fellowship provide any employer contributions towards insurance (health, disability, life, etc.), retirement, or any other non-salary compensation which full-time employees of most sectors are automatically given. Furthermore, churches are forbidden by the IRS from paying the employer’s part of FICA/taxes typically withheld from a paycheck (in 2018 that’s 7.65% of the check). Also, like school teachers, every minister I’ve known has used their own personal funds to meet benevolence needs, buy office/classroom supplies, underwrite meetings and meals, etc. (it’s not right for teachers, either!).

So, if you ever hear what your preacher’s salary is, subtract at least $13,430 (for the one benefit of employer contributions to health insurance premiums) and 7.65% and then you’re beginning to compare apples-to-apples with other full-time employees, regarding remuneration.

Other professions are encouraged to ask for raises, be paid what they’re worth, and maximize their earning potential. Preachers, though, are fearful of being seen as “in it for the money” if they ever bring up pay-scale. Friends, I’ve never personally known a preacher who was motivated by greed (though I’ve heard of them and know they’re out there; cf. Philippians 1:17).

None of my above discussion includes a perspective on how we should factor experience into the mix, but preachers are notorious for only getting raises (even COLA/cost-of-living raises) when they move to another work. Consider keying your preacher’s salary to a local school district. Those workers receive a certain increase each year, based on accumulating experience. When a preacher moves to your congregation, he’s not starting over as a preacher – he’s bringing lots of experience with him. Think of it not as something new for him, but simply a transfer within the same company (vacation time, salary, etc., should move with him).

Outside Resources and Developing a Compensation Package

There are resources out there to help churches make informed decisions about how to pay their staff ministers, including guidelines published just for this purpose.

Sometimes a suggestion is made that the average income of all the families in the church should be averaged and that number should be the salary. Take into account that many of those families may be made up of retirees or other non-workforce members. A better comparison might be to take all the average full-time workers or all workers which meet the same hiring criteria (experience, education) to which you’re holding your preacher.

Do not take the minister’s spouse’s job into consideration. Often churches will penalize the preacher (paying less) because his wife has her own job. Again, there are times when creativity is required to make ends meet for preacher or for congregation, but don’t start there. Start with the idea that we’ll pay a respectable, God-honoring salary to our preacher because of the benefit his work, education, experience, etc., brings to our congregation.

Oh, that congregation where the elder gave me the good advice about keeping in mind the total cost of an employee? The other elders at that congregation did not share his perspective, and they – in their words – were “offended” that I’d asked for $X-amount. $X was what a school teacher made in their community, per the district’s posted/public information, without factoring in benefits cost (insurance, retirement).

Does This Matter?

For generations, the churches of Christ and their preachers have looked at ministry staff as “hirelings.” Hireling is a biblical word, but it’s a very negative term that Jesus uses in John 10 to describe the person who watches after God’s flock sheep only until it costs him. He’s an evil shepherd (in contrast to Jesus’ own depiction as “the Good Shepherd”), because he only watches sheep for what he gets out of it. One could say that he’s a preacher who only preaches, serves, and looks out for others because he’s paid significantly for it.

This attitude scandalizes our ministry staff. We tolerate our preachers – though we wouldn’t know what to do without them – but wonder if they shouldn’t have taken a vow of poverty. After decades of asking “What’s the least we can get by on as a church?” and “What’s the least you can get by on as a preacher?,” we’ve pushed many good ministry families out of full-time ministry. Not because their hearts weren’t in ministry, but because their stomachs were in ministry, too! That is to say, when you’re in something full-time, you can’t be paid a part-time wage.

Too often church finance committees have written this off as “well, God will take care of them.” Folks, God intends to take care of his preachers through the church/congregation with whom they work! This will generate a culture of appreciation – instead of making preachers feel like they are a necessary evil, mooching off the brotherhood.

Churches, your preachers love you. That’s why we knock ourselves out in preaching and ministry. What so many preachers and their families need is support, a solid foundation from which to work. If you think your preacher is always worried about, or talking about, money it’s very possible that financial anxiety is due to a very low compensation package. We should ask ourselves as the church, “If we supported the preacher’s family enough that he didn’t have to worry about money, would he be as preoccupied with it?” It’s hard not to seem hungry when the stomach growls.

Financial support is no substitute for fellowship and spiritual support, but as much as your preacher may love his Bible, he can’t eat his Bible; he can’t send his kids to college with his Bible; he can’t put gas into the tank with his Bible.

“Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” (Galatians 6:6)

2 thoughts on “Of Preachers and Money

  1. Amen and AMEN. Further, who will be the most in tune with benevolence opportunities–the people working 40-60 hours per week in a secular job (some of whom are elders in our churches) or someone full time working with the brethren and the community? Right or wrong, this is generally the case. Let’s equip our evangelists to be able to live comfortably AND benevolently (which, frankly, is at greater than a school teacher’s wages).


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