Evangelical Questions: “Paid Ministry?”
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about paid ministry. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Today’s verse comes from Mark 6:7-9:
And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.
And there is so much in that verse alone to talk about, but I want to focus on a question that comes up a lot between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals: Is it right to pay clergy or isn’t it?
And I will give you a full disclaimer here. I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve earned full-time income working in churches and had no problem with it – and now I’m a Latter-day Saint and I can see why paying clergy is problematic. And, I will also point out that it’s true that our church does in fact have paid clergy – our senior leaders work full-time and are paid for their work. So the answer here has to be nuanced. We can’t just say, “paying clergy is bad,” because we do in fact pay a small number of clergy. The right question is something closer to: Under what conditions should clergy be paid?
As always, let’s start with how Evangelicals think about this issue. And we’ll start with the practical reasons. How does an Evangelical even become a paid clergyperson? There are exceptions to this, but for the most part a person who wants to become ordained as an Evangelical minister must first do a 4-year undergraduate degree followed by a 4-year Master in Divinity (MDiv). There are some types of positions where a person can get away with a 2-year Masters in theology but the standard route is a MDiv. I know this route well – you will notice in my credentials that I earned one. It was a fantastic program, I loved every moment of it. But most MDiv’s come with a pretty hefty price tag, mine did too, so the people who take one are either very serious students of theology who are learning just for the love of learning, or they are hoping to work in a church setting for their employment – in part because they will need to pay off their student loan. So, right out of the gate, on a very practical level, you can see why Evangelicals are set up for a paid ministry situation. And while there are some outliers in either direction, the average salary for an American pastor is about $80,000 a year. Now, the tax situation makes this a little bit more livable for them because a pretty large chunk of that can be claimed as a housing allowance, which is not taxable income. So, there’s our second practical reason why they usually pay clergy – even the American tax system is set up with the expectation that ministers are paid. The third practical reason is that most of the time being a paid minister is a full-time job, meaning they don’t have the opportunity to earn income elsewhere, so they need to be paid.
Moving from the practical to the values of Evangelicals that cause paid clergy to make sense to them. First, Evangelicals, as their name suggests, puts a high value on sharing the message of Christ as they understand it. And while the 75-year history of Evangelicals has always included paid clergy, the idea really found substance in the example of a church in the Chicago area called Willow Creek. Willow Creek was the first of its kind because they made Sunday mornings, not a time for believers to gather and worship, but a time to showcase what a church had to offer for “seekers.” Willow Creek goes on to become the largest church in America for quite a long time and their influence was felt in every Evangelical church across the country. While a typical little church on the corner of some small town would normally have 1 paid minister working alongside several volunteers to present a Sunday morning worship service, Willow Creek employed hundreds of people full-time to produce television-quality services on Sunday mornings. No longer was it good enough for a volunteer to play the piano or guitar, they began employing professional musicians. And the rationale for all of this was that someone who was interested in their church but not yet a believing Christian needed a very specific kind of experience in order to feel comfortable. They coin the term, “seeker sensitive,” meaning that everything is looked at through the lens of the “unchurched” (another term they coined) person. Willow Creek believed that those seekers should be given the most professional presentation possible in order to get them more interested in Jesus. And soon, every other church in the country was trying to imitate them. So the average church on the corner went from one pastor and some volunteers to multiple pastors or other workers who would produce services for them. This fed an explosion in attendance at Evangelical churches during the 1980’s and 1990’s. The downside is that not every church could manage this kind of financial burden and many of them would combine their congregations to make employing these people more affordable.
The unintended result of this was that churches kept getting bigger simply because they were bigger. And any smaller church that was trying to buck the trend and keep Sunday mornings for worship by believers was just financially edged out. The whole experiment doesn’t go all that well for Willow Creek either, to be honest. There were some sexual scandals happening with their top leadership that were not dealt with very well, and they lost well over half their congregation over it. But, the reason I tell you all of this is to illustrate that the Evangelical value of producing services for “seekers” is part of what drove their need to pay people to do the work.
And to be fair to them, the value behind this – wanting to help seekers understand more about Christ – was not bad. It’s even admirable. But there were not enough checks and balances in the system to keep it on the rails as the decades go by.
Another value held by Evangelicals that influences them here is that the members of a congregation are seen as people who need to be fed and taken care of, and I mean that in the very best way possible. It’s not that they don’t think those people can do some of the work of the church, it’s that they want them to feel that the church cares about them, and therefore God cares about them. The church doesn’t want to put too much of a burden on even a willing volunteer because when that volunteer goes out of town for a week, the job won’t get done, and someone else in the church may end up feeling not cared for. Because of this the “most important” jobs are paid – paid work comes with different expectations than volunteer work. A volunteer and a paid worker both sometimes go out of town, but there is a different set of expectations for the paid worker than the volunteer in terms of how things will be taken care of in their absence. So when an Evangelical church hires someone to be the Pastor of Middle Schoolers (yes, that’s a thing) part of why they’re doing that is so the people in attendance have a reliable go-to source for that area of ministry. To put it bluntly, volunteers can flake out, it’s harder for employees to do so. Or at least there are more consequences when they do. These churches place a very high value on what could be called, “customer service” and they don’t want volunteers making that difficult.
Now, Latter-day Saints, the thing you will notice in that discussion is that they use the word, “volunteer” to describe these non-paid positions – and that volunteers are held at slightly lower standards, are seen as less reliable, and are not trusted with the really important jobs in the church. I think you get a sense now of why they’re doing that. But let’s contrast it with what we’re doing.
In our church you are not a volunteer – you are called, sustained, and set apart. Non-paid workers are not given then unimportant jobs, they’re given all the jobs. And we see these positions not as just being good for the church presenting a professional or slick image, but they are good for the person who holds them. Whether you work in the Nursery or are the Bishop that calling is a responsibility where you will help shoulder the weight of what the congregation needs. And we all do it together. And that is part of what shapes our spirituality. Church is not something we pay other people to produce for us, it is something we co-create.
The trade-off here is that Sister Jones might not be very good at giving Sacrament Meeting talks but we all have to listen to her once a year. And Brother Miller hasn’t been able to figure out how to get on Family Search, but he still does his best to learn when he gets the calling to be a Family History consultant. But it’s really, really good for Sister Jones to give a talk, even if she’s not very good at it, because it helps shape her ability to study and articulate her own faith. In an Evangelical church if you are not good at something, you will not be doing it for long, even if you volunteer. The value is on impressing seekers or outsiders. While our value is on shaping the spiritual life of Saints.
But we’re still left with a question I pointed out at the beginning of this video: If our system of calling people to positions of service and not paying them is so good and healthy, why do we pay our top leaders? And it’s a fair question. I don’t have a definitive answer, but let me tell you what I think.
Do you remember earlier in this video where I mentioned that “seeker sensitive” church Willow Creek sort of falls apart in the end? The obvious reason for that is that the man who created that church and led it for decades showed himself to have very poor moral character as evidenced by the sexual abuse he committed. But the less obvious reason is that he had no one above him. He had no accountability. He didn’t answer to anyone. There was no one to have the equivalent conversation that we have about renewing a temple recommend, for example. He had no accountability. And because Evangelicals don’t conceptualize “ministers” as “priesthood holders” he didn’t even have to see himself as accountable to God all that much. In our language he was a bishop without a Stake President to be accountable to. So in our church, you can see how everyone has someone above them they answer to, even the Prophet who answers to God. And when you’re a worldwide church it eventually requires a small number of people who are given a different calling than the rest of us – they are called to work full-time to keep this thing on the rails SO THAT the rest of us can enjoy the blessings that come with ordinary ward-life…callings and releasings and working together and all the goodness and soul-formation that comes with that comes with that. We actually need a structure that goes all the way up so that the vast majority of us can be sheltered in the orderliness of everyone being accountable to someone.
I hope you have enjoyed these thoughts on paid clergy. If you’ve got questions put them down in the comments and I try to get to them as I can, or you can hit me up at [email protected] and I will see you in the next video.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.