TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question on how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected].
At what point should a person be paid for ministry?
This is a great question to be asked by both sides—by those who would pay and those who would be paid.
Suppose we saw somebody with the best training—taught directly by the resurrected Jesus—whose work experience included planting churches and training leadership, whose skills include supernatural powers to heal, and whose writing was inspired by God. What if that person also oversaw the health of many churches in the region, provided mentorship and guidance to the church leaders, and bore the cost of difficult decisions through shipwrecks, beatings, and imprisonment?
Of course, we’re talking about the apostle Paul, who according to the economics of today should be the highest-paid minister in history. But the witness of the Bible is that Paul consistently supported himself in his own ministry.
What’s perhaps surprising is that Paul consistently argued ministers deserve pay even as he personally ministered free of charge. Paul—along with the rest of the Bible—simultaneously affirms that ministers deserve pay and yet that ministers ought to serve free of charge.
Consider when Jesus sends out the disciples to proclaim the gospel. He tells them first, “You received without paying; give without pay” (Matt. 10:8). But he also tells them not to bring supplies with them because they should expect support. After all, “the laborer deserves his food” (10:10). Paul twice argues that “you shall not muzzle the ox” and “the worker deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5; 1 Cor. 9) to explain that elders who rule and teach, as well as apostles who are sent on missions, deserve financial support. Soldiers don’t serve at their own expense, and those who plant enjoy the fruit (1 Cor. 9:7–10).
Paul—along with the rest of the Bible—simultaneously affirms that ministers deserve pay and yet that ministers ought to serve free of charge.
At the same time, Paul sees working free of charge as an example that others ought to follow. He tells the Thessalonians that, while he had the right to financial support, he worked physical labor to support himself to give the church “an example to imitate” (2 Thess. 3:9). Paul famously made tents with Priscilla and Aquila to support himself while he ministered in Corinth.
There’s an important asymmetry here. Paul exhorts churches to support their elders, but he exhorts all Christians to emulate him in serving free of charge. These conflicting commands mean that, in any particular instance, determining whether somebody should be paid for ministry requires wisdom and should reflect the context of the situation. No single answer applies across circumstances.
For example, whether a particular role should be paid in a small-town, rural church with a small staff and small budget may be different from the answer for a large church with full-time professional staff and an ample budget.
With that in mind, there are a couple of questions all institutions and individuals can ask as they approach their own situations.
1. Who is burdened?
Paul tells the Thessalonians that his motivation was to not burden them, and he tells the Corinthians he didn’t want to put up any obstacle. Paul worked without pay because receiving assistance would’ve burdened the church or provided an obstacle to growth. At the same time, the metaphor of a soldier serving at his own expense means the minister, too, ought not to be burdened.
If a church will be burdened by financially supporting a minister, and if the minister would not be burdened by supporting himself, then it would be wise to minister free of charge. Even in this case, the minister still deserves honor and to enjoy the fruit of his labor, which might mean nonfinancial forms of recognition, appreciation, or support.
But the reverse could also be true. The minister may be burdened by serving free of charge. If he’s serving full-time as a way to support his family, he should certainly receive a fair wage. Even if he’s not, ministry of all kinds can be incredibly taxing emotionally and on one’s family. If a church can alleviate financial burdens, they ought to endeavor to do so.
Burdens need not only be financial. In some contexts, paying people can endow the ministry with credibility. But it may also cause resentment or a lessening of enthusiasm from volunteers who are also serving without pay. Churches should exercise wisdom in determining whether paying somebody for his work would benefit the work itself.
2. Does pay encourage greed and materialism?
We live in one of the most materialistic societies in history, so we ought to always be on guard against greed. As ministers, we need to ask ourselves if we need the pay to relieve burdens or simply want it. As institutions, we need to ask ourselves if we’re withholding pay when we could afford to give it. What’s in the budget that takes away from supporting your people?
Greed could manifest, for example, in a small church in which congregants begrudge giving the pastor a raise when they don’t get raises themselves, or when they resent that the pastor earns more than they do. But greed and materialism could also be reflected by paying a pastor too much, such as in a flashy church that boasts of having a hip, well-paid pastor with expensive sneakers and cool clothes. Paul encountered this issue in Corinth. The congregation faulted Paul because he did not burden them and wasn’t as flashy as the so-called super-apostles (2 Cor. 12).
In a greedy culture, we should be particularly attentive to the possibility that working free of charge will not only serve the church but also establish witness, just as Paul notes.
We should endeavor to be generous on both sides. Churches, endeavor as much as you can to provide for those who serve among you. Servants, endeavor as much as you can to serve without burdening those you serve.
Ultimately, the rewards for our labor come from the God who gives generously based on his desire to bless us, not based on the work we’ve done (Matt. 20). As we seek to bless those who labor among us and to offer the gospel free of charge without burdening others, we can have faith that, ultimately, God will provide our every need.