The priesthood of all; a paycheck for some

I really appreciated Julie Clawson’s honesty in looking at the issues surrounding the choice to pay pastors for their work within a faith community. I have had many conversations with many people about whether the whole “professional clergy” model is worth keeping, and whether using a community’s resources to support a paid pastor is the best stewardship of the church’s money. I talk to a lot of people who hold onto an ideal of the faith community functioning with no pastor, and while I often appreciate what they are reacting against, I am not always comfortable with their conclusions.

As a theologically trained individual who would love to serve the church vocationally, 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, nor have many others who serve alongside us at Church of the Redeemer. So I do relate to the other side of this argument as well.

In my experience, there comes a time within a faith community where someone in the body is called to a particular area of service and leadership. That person may serve and lead for some time as a “volunteer” or “lay leader”. And sometimes that is entirely doable. When I was single, for example, I was able to serve as a lay pastor without receiving a paycheck for my ministry. I lived on nothing, my time was my own, and I was energized by the commitment. At this stage of life, that would not work for me and for my family to the degree that it did back then. Something about having to make sure there is actually food in the refrigerator…

Often it is also the case that the ministry of an individual serving as a layperson grows to the extent that it is the desire of the community to see them released from other obligations (the kind attached to paychecks, for example) so that they may more fully invest in the service to which they have been called. In the history of our church, for example, when it became clear that one member was especially gifted reaching out to youth in our community, it was the will of the group to pool their resources to cover some of her expenses so that she might be freed up to love and serve the kids of our neighborhood in some more formalized capacities.

I had a similar experience the summer after my freshman year in college. I came out to Pomona to participate in an InterVarsity summer urban project. Eighteen of us lived communally in an old Presbyterian church in downtown Pomona. Some of us worked full-time. Others of us worked part-time at the local YMCA, and taught ESL classes and ran youth groups with the rest of our time. Still others did not work at all and were released financially to pastor and lead our community for that summer. That was the first time I had ever lived out that kind of an expression of shared resources, and I was fascinated.

I think the questions being asked by those wishing to re-image church with new models of leadership and a lack of hierarchy are the right ones. I am eager to see the ways different communities explore the answers to them, and it is obviously a conversation that carries great weight for me in my own sense of calling. Ten and twenty years down the road, I wonder how the landscape of pastoral ministry will be changed.


  1. Fascinating post, and like you, I am not unbiased on the matter seeing that I would love to be paid by a congregation.

    I think it will be true that more non-paid and bivocational pastors will emerge within white churches. Non-paid and bivocational pastors are the norm in many Latino, African-American, and Asian-American churches. I’m not sure how it works in multi-ethnic congregations. Also, I think the dominant size and economic class of the congregation are significant determinants whether and how much a pastor is paid.

    What I think will be equally interesting is if churches decide that paying a pastor’s salary is not the best use of their resources, will they also change their expectations of what they want from those pastors?

    It seems the Free Church (no pun intended) polity has grown in recent years and this tradition questions the paid pastorate more than other traditions do. But a lot of the matter is still theological and ecclesial. The Bible seems to make room for both paid and unpaid church leaders and what texts a congregation looks to seems to shape their understanding of the pastorate.

    There are a slew of other issues to address in this discussion. Cost of living increases seem to make depending on a pastor’s salary as the sole provider for a family less likely. A related matter is the tenstion between consumerism and tithing — if church members actually gave 10% (which I’m not saying is the biblical way of giving) rather than spend money on a new gadget, our congregations could probably support those pastors, missions, and youth groups.

  2. Great post Erika. I too am completely biased, being a paid pastor for 27 years. I no longer apologize for receiving an income from the church for a couple of reasons. 1. The church values the skills and gifts that they recognize in me and, expect a level of professional leadership and responsibility beyond that of a regular member. They certainly could do many of the things I do, but choose to invest in my leadership. 2. Nowhere else do we have this discussion in our culture (media? sports? medicine? tradespeople? accountants? etc?)
    I think the deeper issue is fairness. Is the compensation fair for both the congregation and the pastor? Is it a burden either way? When there are multiple staff, is the compensation proportion fair and just, or is the senior/lead pastor getting a pile of dough while the secretary lives on food stamps?
    Just a thought back to you.

  3. I’m a lifelong flat church guy. Glad that take is getting greater traction among the emerging.

    But I’ve never been in doubt about the importance of paying some people in organic Christian settings to do important ministry roles full time.

    Seems like gender, class and marriage v singleness issues play an important role in the discussion.

    Some of the best social science research (and everyday common sense) seems to indicate that men tend to like hierarchy and regard money as a symbol of their power. Women seem less interested in hierarchy and regard money primarily as something potentially useful. The NT, in both spirit and word, obviously leans toward the flat and the idea that money is dangerous and at best a useful tool to serve others.

    I think institutional religious hierarchies that pay their male leaders serious scratch are probably more a result of gender imbalances in Christian leadership than biblical teaching. It’s a waste of resources that could go to something more useful. Change the gender imbalance in Christian leadership and I think you’ll see a better distribution of financial resources and potentially more money invested in Christian leaders of all genders that are getting it done.

    Re class, it’s true that Latino and African-American churches tend to have a lot more self-supporting pastors. But I think that’s largely the result of the relative economic weakness of those communities. Many of those churches simply can’t afford to support a full time Christian worker. From my years in inner city ministry and from a cultural point of view I think a surprising number of those churches are even more hierarchical and less open to the Christian anarchical priesthood of all believers than institutional white churches. Add money and I think you might get something fairly close to the same old same old institutional thing.

    Re singleness vs marriage and kiddies, I think Jesus and Paul were straightforward in strongly supporting singleness for Christians. I think they encouraged singleness, in part, in order to make Christian leaders less dependent on making money and more flexible in leading what I think was meant to be a fairly anarchical and maneuverable community.

    I wonder if fighting for more women and single people in leadership might play an important role in re-distributing resources away from traditional religious institutional hierarchies to communities that look a little more like what Jesus and Paul seem to have intended.

  4. I wonder if what we need to “re-image” about the church should be our static locations (and the money required to maintain them) rather than paid clergy…

  5. Excellent post. I resonate so much with your experience, your concerns and your expectations. It is an important question to wrestle with.

    One of the most important conclusions I have come to on this topic is that it is not an either/or choice. What we are feeling is the need for a more flexible and diverse approach to church leadership and governance. To that end, it isn’t about one model replacing another, but calling for contextual, intentional and responsible freedom to function in ways that serve the mission and community best.

    Therefore, I think there will always be paid clergy (and I think there should be), but I also think we will see more examples of alternatives. The trick will be to allow for a gracious and understanding attitude within the larger Body that will not extend value judgments or hierarchy on any particular approach.

    Thanks for this great and very honest post.


  6. Great post and discussion. I am a paid pastor and I have no qualms with receiving funds for the work that I do. It seems that a “worker is worthy of their hire,” ie, getting paid. I have seen pastoral salaries way out of scale with what is needed (getting paid way more than anyone else on staff, and also not getting paid enough to live above the welfare wage).
    Is there a need, yes in most churches that have any sort of structure or size. I agree with Jamie in that there will be different models coming forth as the boomers retire from ministry and the genxers and millenials grow into what church will be in the next 20-30 years. Context is, and will be, key.
    Great thought provoker, this post!

  7. Erica, I believe you and your family have intentionally chosen to enter a lower socio-economic setting than you grew up in and that this setting plays a large part in your faith community’s decision to pay or not pay leaders vs using the resources for other things. We are asking this question as middle class people with middle class educations who are entering into communities without the advantages we had.

    If the bulk of your community were making $150,000 – $300,000, which I expect is not an uncommon picture for churches in the LA area, I believe the idea of paying leaders would seem a lot more reasonable, as it would be a much smaller piece of the resources available to the whole community.

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