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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013, median clergy income was 14 percent lower than the overall median income in the U.S. This is all the more striking when one considers that most professional clergy received years of specialized religious and theological graduate training after receiving their undergraduate degrees. Indeed, median clergy earnings are 24 percent lower than median earnings of people who hold undergraduate degrees, and 36 percent less than individuals who hold masters’ degrees.
While Protestants appropriately wonder about extravagant lifestyles of some megachurch pastors and Catholics wonder about extravagant lifestyles of some bishops (an issue Pope Francis has addressed), the data indicate that most pastors in the U.S. receive a fairly modest level of support from their congregations.
To be sure, it’s nothing but a good thing for pastors, priests and bishops to be “free from the love of money” as Paul points out in his first letter to Timothy. And there is the striking example of Paul himself, who worked hard to provide his own support so as not to burden the churches to which he ministered.
But while the monetary orientation of pastors, or lack thereof, reflects in an important way the spiritual condition of those pastors, I think there is another side of the coin that is often neglected in discussions of financial provision for clergy: What a congregation offers its pastor also reflects the spiritual condition of the congregation.
So while clergy may choose to refuse high levels of support and compensation, I think that spiritually healthy churches nonetheless should make bona fide offers of high-levels of support and compensation, and should do everything short of physical force to make their pastors accept that support and compensation.
After all, Paul writes to Timothy that
The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scriptures says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’
While this “double honor” certainly includes praise and due submission, congregations should also want to move this honor beyond the realm of “cheap talk”; we should, as it were, “put our money where our mouth is.” While I would not reduce “honor” merely to the provision of money, it does include the provision of money. After all, in the non-ecclesiastical world, when we invite speakers for lectures we provide them with “honoraria.” Everyone understands what that means. Money is not merely compensation. It is also a means of signaling appreciation and value.
To show the high esteem in which we hold our pastors, the provision of monetary honor should pinch; it should cost us. Conferring “double honor” on a pastor, as Paul commends, might mean that pastoral support should be pegged to twice the median income (“honor”) of the individuals in the congregation. That way even relatively poor congregations could provide their pastors with just as much “double honor” as more-affluent congregations, and all would recognize it as such, even if the pastor’s nominal pay were low because of a congregation’s poverty.
None of this is to say that what the pastor does with the support that the congregation provides him has nothing to do with the spiritual condition of his heart. But churches should not free ride on the piety of their pastors by presuming on their humility merely to keep more in the pockets of congregational members. Layfolk need to keep in mind that pastoral examples are precisely thatexamples. Layfolk are called just as much as pastors are to be free from the love of money.
Indeed, while Paul did not avail himself of the obligation of congregations to support those who minister to them, he was nonetheless fierce about what churches owed their pastors. He wrote to the church at Corinth that while he did not draw on the obligation that churches owe their ministers, nonetheless, “the Lord commanded that those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the Gospel.”
When studies report that about half of all pastors want to get out of the ministry if they can, I suspect that one reason is that many are not exactly making a living from the Gospel. To be sure, this is not merely a matter of finances. Nonetheless, financial support is one palpable way for the congregation to demonstrate the extent to which it treasures the human gifts that God has provided in pastors and church workers.
This is the type of budgetary argument I’d like to see in churches: Congregations trying to push more money in the hands of their pastors, rejoicing in the open-handedness with which their pastors share with others in their modesty and humility.
James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. His previous articles can be found here.