Would it be better if ministry were a bad career?

career ladderWould the Church be better off if vocational ministry were a less attractive career?

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?”

24 thoughts on “Would it be better if ministry were a bad career?

  1. I think you’re right to raise the question about bloated clergy salaries and the assumption that it is necessary in order to attract good people. It also makes me think, however, of (1) the many, many clergy who labor away for very low salaries. I’m not sure, for example, what proportion of clergy in your area in Kentucky fall much closer to the median range for the context. I spent most of my ministry in Kansas and a very small proportion of United Methodist clergy are receiving abundant pay. Most are just getting by. (2) Not quite four years ago, I moved to a new ministry setting in higher education. I have not been pastor of a local congregation (save 2 stints, one as a helper to the senior pastor and once as an interim pastor of a 2 point charge) since 1995. I now work (not live) in a very affluent area. What would it be like to pastor a large, wealthy urban congregation without having a salary that allows one to feel like one “fits,” so to speak, in that context? My point is not to justify bloated salaries or to distract from the problem of pecuniary motives, but to complicate things a bit for the sake of sharper understanding.

    • What would it be like to pastor a large, wealthy urban congregation without having a salary that allows one to feel like one “fits,” so to speak, in that context?”

      This is one of the main justifications I hear for very large salaries (100k+). I understand that it is ideal for pastors have enough money to live in the area with their congregants. However, to the question “What would it be like to pastor a large, wealthy urban congregation without having a salary similar to the median income?” I’d answer: it would look like Jesus who emptied himself and challenged the love of money in people’s hearts by his humble life. It would be a huge witness to how money drives our lives and how one doesn’t have to be held hostage by the American dream. In effect, it would be a witness like the circuit riders.

      • Again, I agree with the love of money reference. Money has power and we should take care to avoid being ensnared. But please remember, Jesus had benefactors who provided for his needs. He sat at table with the wealthy, too. Foxes have holes, etc., and, yes, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. But people provided for his needs (e.g. Martha and the other women). I’m not suggesting Jesus lived a middle class lifestyle, but I am suggesting, even with Jesus, we need to pay attention to the context. Likewise with circuit riders.

        I think figuring out how actually to live in a manner that honors Jesus’ way in the context in which we actually find ourselves is a big challenge.

      • That’s a great way to say it, Jonathan. As you may know, I’ve harped on the issue of pastor pay a few times now. And I think sometimes people assume it’s just some sort of axe to grind. If I’m coming off that way, I apologize. I really think a lot of the people making 6-figures in ministry are good people doing good and hard work. You’re getting at my real intent: I wish we would be living prophetically in our world rather than just following the general patterns of the culture.

        In a Western culture where many would agree one of our greatest ills is materialism or consumerism, the Church seems to be trying to keep up far more than to offer an alternative. I’d love to see more of a Christological or eschatological witness. And I think that includes (and in my opinion, begins with) a hard look at the big salaries and systems of promotion.

      • Completely agree. Part of our sickness is our obsession with money and comfort. How can we expect to challenge our congregation when we live exactly like they do, when we model affluence? Particularly in wealthy areas we must call our materialistic, consumerist culture and people to repentance.

  2. I have become increasingly aware that God’s call to the pastorate is a call to the cruciform life. One finds quickly in ministry that “my” ideas of ministry are sometimes little more than appeals to ego and, in this, the first vision we should make to pastoral candidates is an appeal to the cross. The death of agendas beyond the salvation of souls through the right preaching of God’s Word is a heavenly death, but it is a death. In this, I have started preparing interested people in my congregation for pastoral ministry by reading with them “The Christian as Minister” AND “The Hammer of God” so they’ll understand what all this pastoring business is about.

    As for salary, I do not believe that we must relive the poverty of our forbears in order to be faithful stewards of our heritage. That said, we should, I believe, be a notch or two below the standard of living of the congregation’s average. Do we come to serve or be served?

  3. I don’t think this is an issue of salary at all. As people who work in the church (for me, as a lay person), our minds must be clear of the “what’s in it for me” mentality that is plaguing our local congregations. If that is a motivating factor for us in any way, then there is a major problem. Our SPRCs and conferences seem to bend easily and accept that as a valid question when it shouldn’t be.

    • Thanks Kathy. I think you’re right that salaries are not the root issue here. They’re a presenting issue, a symptom. The much deeper root seems to be that the Church is more interested in accommodating to our culture (asking why our professionals shouldn’t be paid like other professionals) than living as an alternative/prophetic/eschatological culture. We’re giving greater heed to the “business of ministry” than the calling of the church to be a called out community. The values of our culture have so infested the church that people look at us like we have two heads when we suggest that the church should have different values than the marketplace.

  4. Great challenging word!

    I never went into ministry thinking I would be wealthy or even well off for that matter. My wife and I live modestly, drive used cars, and do most of our furniture shopping off craigslist.

    The disconnect I notice is between what people need to hear and want people want to hear.

    A non-denomination pastor in town drives a brand new BMW, lives in the gated community, and preaches success. They have a fully paid staff. Trained musicians. The latest technology. His church continues to grow to the point I ask myself all the time what am I doing wrong.

    I live next to the church in the parsonage which has now become a “transitioning” or as someone told me an “already transitioned” neighborhood. We battle schools that are failing, fathers that are missing, and neighborhoods that are decaying. We don’t have a paid staff, trained musicians, and the microphones don’t work all the time. My church attendance continues to fall.

    I think faithfulness is a different goal than successfulness.

    I also think Rev. Rankin is correct. You measure the few…10–20% of churches/pastors that have these salaries. I believe the majority of pastors in communities across the U.S. and other countries aren’t trying to make more money. They really just want to preach and teach and shepherd.

  5. It’s almost irrelevant. An empowered Christ-centered laity is the key to church growth. Making ministry even more unattractive than it already is will not help.

  6. Teddy I certainly share your admiration for the Circuit Riders. They endured incredible hardships to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many persons as possible. But so did the pioneer doctors in order to bring some measure of health care to as many as possible. And rather than being paid with money for their skill and expertise, many of them received goods such as livestock and vegetables in exchange for their services. Does that mean that they were better trained and more dedicated to medicine then their higher paid counterparts today? Lawyers, Dentists, lawmen and others often did their work for very little monetary reward. Most firemen were volunteer. Would you question the dedication and commitment of their modern day counterparts because they now receive a salary that is commensurate with their training and experience? Your statement paints clergy with a pretty broad brush and the implication that the size of a clergy person’s salary is somehow reflective of their lack of commitment and dedication to ministry and service is unfair at best. For most clergy I know, ministry is a calling not a career. Many of us were on track towards more lucrative careers when we answered God’s call to ministry and service. It was a life choice, not a career choice. This attractive career, as you call it, is a life of serving persons with many divergent views and level of spiritual maturity, uprooting family every few years to go to a completely new place of service, working 60 hour weeks and being “on call” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, being a competent CEO, a skilled counselor, and at least an average orator. Pastors are expected to be one of the first words as persons enter this world and the last word as people leave this earth. And in between we laugh and cry and pray and be present with people during the most crucial moments of their lives, good and bad. No matter how many hours we “work” there is always one more person that we need to see, one more note we need to send, one more prayer we need to offer. Many of us struggle with feelings of guilt when we even take a day off. Vacations and holidays are often interrupted by ministry needs in the church. And most clergy, I know, do all of this with joy in their heart and deep conviction in their souls, no matter what the level of their salary. Ordained clergy are required to have education and training comparable to physicians, lawyers and other professionals, but yet many believe that paying them a comparable wage is somehow an abomination and is responsible for the decline of the church. Though your blog leaves the impresssion that those who are drawing “large” salaries are the rule rather than the exception, you should know better. In fact the average salary for Kentucky UMC clergy of all levels of experience, is lower than the beginning salaries paid to most doctors one year removed from medical school and most lawyers just out of law school. Having been a Superintendent for several years, in a couple of Districts, it was my privilege to be in ministry with many outstanding men and women who ride the circuit in their communities every day with great commitment and dedication and sacrifice. And rarely was it the level of their salary that motivated them to serve (or not serve) the Lord with great joy and distinction.

    • Are you, sincerely, trying to compare doctors and lawyers to clergy? That, sir, is crazy talk. There is no way those are comparable in any way other than (maybe) long hours “worked.” While many doctors of the past were extremely generous and gave much of their lives for a “mission”; today is much different. As a society, we have found a way to monetize those individuals; not so much with the clergy of today. And, I believe as is Teddy’s point; we shouldn’t be monetizing clergy to the level *many* are today (not all). I am sorry, as someone only recently privy to clergy, DS, and Bishop salaries I am appalled. I find it utterly ridiculous for any pastor to be paid upwards of $150,000 annually. (My guess is that most lay people in the US today would be just as appalled) Maybe that is why Church giving continues to spiral downward. In the same respect, I find it even crazier that a DS is paid 6 figures. We are talking about people “called” taking home money far greater than even a median salary in the US today. Even more striking is that a lot of times I find that old country churches with part-time pastors (who work at a *regular* job during the week) have more faithful attendees than many of the larger churches where the pastors are paid exorbitant salaries. While I am sure there may be many reasons for this; those clergy have a true calling and aren’t concerned with a paycheck. I love what the Methodist church was founded on; but, I am dismayed at the red tape and lavish living of certain individuals. Methodist conferences need a renewal and humbling of their spirits for the grace of Jesus; and remember that we are called towards sanctification. These salaries don’t call out “sanctify” to me. Just think, a salary of $100,000 could take care of (at least) 10 people without insurance annually. Or, take a salary of half of that, and take care of 5 …

      • With all this talk about big money I really must be in the wrong conference. Maybe this discussion is different for each conference.

        In the Louisiana Conference (mine).…

        Our median clergy salary is around 35,000
        Our DSs do not make 6 figures, most have been without a raise for the last few years (tightening conference budgets)
        The top appointment in the conference is somewhere around 150,000 and there is only 1 in the entire conference.
        All the other “top ten” are less than 6 figures
        Louisiana also has fixed pension rates so your pension is not based on what level of church you serve

    • Hi Mark,

      I agree with everything you say here about the hardships of ministry, the dedication that many pastors have, the guilt that many feel for not doing more when they are already doing enough, and that many (most?) are doing it out of a calling. My final 2 paragraphs were an attempt to clarify that I agree with all of that. Pastoral work can be hard work and should certainly be servant’s work. If I’ve suggested otherwise, I apologize and need to take that back. I believe many pastors (from the lowest to the highest paid) are among our culture’s most diligent, conscientious, and sometimes stressed workers.

      My concern, here and elsewhere, is that we’ve created a pretty steep ladder, and I don’t think it’s helping. When I read about people “playing the game,” I assume that’s about either climbing higher up that ladder, or preserving their current spot on it. I don’t think making ministry positions “more attractive” is the answer to any of our problems. Surely making our top ministry positions more attractive isn’t the answer. And I’m wondering if it may, in fact, be creating some of the problems, as illustrated by the contrast with the circuit riders.

      I’m also concerned that we’re comparing the compensation of ministers with doctors and lawyers — whether 1 year or 20 years out of med school. We should not expect pastors to be ranked among our culture’s highest paid professionals. So I do believe that mentality will lead to the decline of the church. It’s hard to faithfully refute our culture’s materialism and consumerism when we don’t see any problem with using the church’s collection to help our pastors rank among the professional elite in income. That kind of use of money goes against the church’s historical teachings on use of the collection, and certainly against John Wesley’s. (See “Pastors’ Salaries and Church Buildings.”)

      And historically, when the church has accommodated so much to the values of the wealthy, the church has ended up declining. For instance, Justo Gonzalez notes: “One of the main causes of the final failure of the reformation of the eleventh century was the wealth of the church, which made it very difficult for it to set aside the intrigues of the powerful, and take the side of the poor and the oppressed.”

      This isn’t anything new. I don’t want today’s history to read, “When the church started saying they didn’t understand why pastors shouldn’t have a comparable wage to the culture’s highest paid professionals, it made it very difficult for it to set aside the intrigues of the powerful, and take the side of the poor and oppressed. This was one of the main causes of the final failure of the American church in the 21st century.”

      I agree that these “large” salaries aren’t wholly the rule. However, I’m concerned it’s not as much the exception as you suggest. Not long ago, I was told that our conference’s district superintendents ($104,000 total package + free housing — valued at another $18,000) were only at the “middle tier” of pay. If that was true, I’m concerned “large” salaries are more normative than I’d want to believe.

  7. Didn’t let me post before, so I will try again.

    I would say that for the majority of us ministry isn’t a career. The people you talk about (ladder climbers, career focused) are few. Many of the ones I know who were career focused have burned out, dropped out, or fizzled out.

    The great majority of us serve a local church(or more than one) in towns less than 20,000, live in a parsonage, make conference minimum, and love what we do. I don’t think about where I might be one day. (That is a recipe for disaster) I think about the people I am shepherding today.

    Please don’t generalize all clergy by the bad apples that seem to be focused only on being the biggest. For most of us only want to be faithful.

    • Hi Stephen,

      I agree that many — even perhaps most — aren’t in it to climb a ladder. I was attempting to address that with my 2 paragraph disclaimer at the end. My post on the other side — doing more to watch out for the pastor in a crumbling parsonage and barely able to feed her family — is long overdue. I think one of the better solutions to this that I’ve seen was Holly Boardman’s (quickly dismissed) petition to GC this year: http://johnmeunier.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/fair-pay-african-pastors-and-general-conference/

      I do wonder, though, why there’s the suggestion that the large majority will just “play the game” when it comes to unhealthy churches trying to make it look like they’re healthy. Is that about something different — not the ladder climbing or position defending that I’m associating it with?

      Really, I know many pastors have what would be considered “unattractive” positions. And I admire them for continuing because of calling and love. I’ve just heard too many times recently how concerned people are about making our top ministry positions “more attractive.” To what end?

      • Do you think this might be an age thing? Many of us younger clergy see ourselves in it together. For instance I know I am not competing against others because they have different gifts than I do. So I can celebrate their appointment and they can celebrate mine. I agree with holly we have to move away from an appointment based pay to a conference or jurisdiction based pay. (I think though this goes hand in hand with the elimination of guaranteed appointments that failed this past year)

        I think a big part of the competition comes from the realization that there are only so many attractive churches as you say. Less than 20% in most annual conferences I would guess. A great portion of Methodism is rural based because of said circuit riders. We are the ones following those great evangelists. The problem is that our population is now urban based.

        Wanna know a secret that your DS won’t tell you? Most of those “attractive” churches are just as unattractive as the one you are at. They have just as many problems (if not more). Pastors I know at “larger” churches have higher divorce rates, marital troubles, health conditions, depression, or worse. The only difference is the size they have to keep up with just to stay attractive.

  8. I am hoping that the petition I submitted to General Conference regarding equitable compensation for pastors will return for consideration to GC2016 in a revised form. While I attended GC, this petition found strong support from several African conference delegations. It was almost presented on the floor of GC2012 but the African delegates decided to withdraw their request and present a revised version in 2016. By 2016, there will be MORE delegates from outside the US than from the US; so with leadership from several conferences who may present it; the basic idea may be introduced again. I’m hoping my initial petition was a seed that will sprout in 2016

  9. God called me to be an Evangelist when my son was 8. Single mom and Nick was almost aborted. God delivered me from crack.cocaine 5 years before this CALLING. 1 month later, calling became harder to Street Preacher. May will be 12 years of faithfully obeying this Call of God. Nick is in college. I travel and preach many places and live in my Honda. Ministry is lonely and has no promises on earth except hardship. Great article. Sick of liers in pulpit cheating on wife and taking money for self. Its wrong.

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