I’ve spoken up a few times recently to question why the Church is giving raises to pastors who already have six-figure salary packages (in Kentucky, this puts them in at least the 83rd percentile for households, and that doesn’t take into account any income from spouses). One of the common points I keep hearing back goes something like this: “We need our ministry positions to be attractive, or we’ll lose our best and brightest to other vocations or other locations.” Or similarly, “Where’s the incentive to work harder and do better if you can’t get a raise?”
Do we really need ministry positions to be attractive? What would happen if they weren’t?
Two articles I read yesterday might contradict our need for more attractive positions.
The first was an excerpt from Todd Nelson’s Sunday sermon. Look at how he describes the early Methodist circuit riders:
You and I are here today because of the sacrifices of people who for roughly 300 years refused to ask “what is in it for me?” and instead asked a different, perspective changing, question. One of the best examples of this is the early Methodist circuit riders. You see, we stand upon the shoulders and peer into our future because of the tireless work of circuit riding preachers whose life expectancy was less than 40 because of the constant exposure to the elements and a difficult lifestyle. These servants of God carried God’s message on horseback across this nation. Outpost by outpost. Town by town. City by city. Refusing to count the personal costs and instead giving all for the benefit of others. At one point, the Methodist movement was the largest denomination in the United States…by a large amount.
Todd reminds me again what an unattractive career this was, by any worldly standards. Circuit riders braved often treacherous conditions, were dependent upon others’ (often underwhelming) hospitality as they traveled, and made barely enough to support themselves. And if you had climbed the ladder to become a district superintendent… it often meant you took the toughest circuits (i.e. rough terrain, notoriously bad hospitality along the way) so the less experienced preachers wouldn’t have to.
And yet these circuit riders changed the American landscape. Drastically. Why? Because their hearts burned to share the gospel. Because they wanted nothing more than to see the spread of the kingdom of God.
Do you think there was any question about the motives of many of those circuit riders? Did anyone say, “I’m not sure his heart’s really in it”? I can’t imagine they could. If your heart’s not in this, you don’t sign up.
Then I read an excerpt from a recent address by my bishop, Lindsey Davis. Look at how he describes some of the woes of these same people called “Methodists” today:
Only about 20 percent of United Methodist congregations are healthy, he said. And we “can’t change the other 80 percent by requiring them to send in numbers. They will simply play the game.”
Did you hear that? Require 80% of our people to show their numbers, and they’ll simply “play the game.”
Why is it that none of those circuit riders were “playing games,” but there’s a fear that as many as 80% of our congregations’ leaders today are?
I would argue that the answer is simple. There was no reason (and no time) for those circuit riders to play games. Playing games is about climbing the proverbial ladder, about preserving an income, or maintaining a position. There wasn’t much ladder to climb, nor income to preserve for those early circuit riders. It wasn’t much of a career. But it was an incredible calling. If you weren’t serious about the calling, you had no reason to stick around.
I wonder how different the history of Methodism would look if a career as a circuit rider had been attractive — potentially lucrative. I suspect Methodism would be a shadow of what it is today. Even though it surely would have attracted a more educated and naturally talented lot than those early circuit riders represented.
So I wonder… Would the work of the kingdom be done better today if the job were less attractive? Would it eliminate some of the questions about whether someone’s heart is still (ever was?) in it? Would it keep people from playing games, since there wasn’t much of a ladder to climb or big position to maintain in the first place? Would it keep people from doing things that look successful in the short-term but won’t last, and instead keep them focused on the real mission and the things they believe will be best for it?
And before the comments: Many, many, many people in vocational ministry are not in positions they or others would deem attractive or lucrative. I know that. And I know that many aren’t in it to play games! And I’m glad that you can afford to have a family and still be in vocational ministry today.
I’m just suggesting that, well, on par, this is a much more attractive vocation than was that of circuit rider. And yet those unincentivized itinerants put most of us to shame. Could it be there’s actually a correlation there?
There will be lots of opinions on this one. Hit one of the share buttons below to ask the people you know what they think. “Would it be better if ministry were an unattractive career?”
- The Church as Alternate Economy
- Pastors’ Salaries and Church Buildings
- Without Reserve? (Wesley Sanders)