Clergy Must be Paid

Clergy must be paid

My friends know that my trigger word is 'bi-vocational'.

Not in the sense of being truly called to more than one vocation at a time, but when people use this word to mean 'you will not be paid for your ministry.'

When I hear this, I get mad.

I get mad because I am a clergy person, and I find it exploitive to not compensate those whose work I share, and who I know put so much of themselves into serving others. I get mad because it feels like a defeatist attitude in a church that desperately needs to embrace some hopeful energy at this moment in time. And I get mad because I think this practice is killing congregational ministry - and ordained clergy service - as we know it.

When some clergy serve without being compensated, then congregations will naturally not want to pay for ministry. And when this practice becomes widespread - which is happening - those clergy who need to be compensated will not find jobs, and will not be able to serve. Sooner than we think, we will not have ordained clergy service, because clergy won't be able to support themselves. And we will not have traditional congregational ministry, because congregations will be without clergy leadership altogether.

As fired up as I get about this, I find that clergy themselves are often quite resistant to the idea of being paid, especially when they serve part-time in small congregations (and even though 'part-time' and 'small congregation' are becoming the norm). These are the most frequent things that clergy say to me when they explain why they serve without payment:

1. 'I don't need the money'

Many non-compensated clergy are retired, or they work full-time in the secular world, or are supported financially in some other way. While not charging congregations for service may seem compassionate, it has two unintended consequences that are hurting the church: - it takes away jobs from clergy who do need the money - and it basically trains us not to value the work of clergy.

Down the road, it will be much harder for a congregation to feel they need to pay for the service of clergy, and much harder for clergy to feel they deserve to be compensated. You may not need the money to pay your bills, but you need it to support the church.  

2. 'The congregation can't afford to pay'

It is true that only about half of mainline Christian congregations can pay a full-time clergy salary with benefits. And it is true that many congregations cannot afford half or even quarter-time salaries.

But just because a congregation can't afford a salary doesn't mean they can't afford something. Even a community of 5 - 10 people can afford to pay $200 for a Sunday worship service. And if they can't, they can combine with a few more people to make it happen. This adds to the idea that what clergy are doing is work, and sharing the Good News of God's love in the world is important - as important as any other work we do, if not more. Congregations can - and want to - support clergy in ways they can manage financially.

3. 'I didn't go to seminary'

Some time ago, the Episcopal Church had what was then called 'Canon 9' priests, who were formed locally for ministry instead of going away to residential seminary. They were ordained priests in the same way as their seminary-trained colleagues, but they were restricted in where they could serve, and they often did not get paid.

The Episcopal Church put an end to Canon 9, though, because we understand ordination as a sacrament, and there are not 'levels' of eligibility in the priesthood. If one is ordained a priest, it is equally valid no matter what kind of formation one has.

But still, this tradition continues, especially in smaller, less-resourced, and more rural locations: locally-formed clergy being forbidden from receiving compensation. And the result is still the same: non-seminary educated clergy feel a certain 'second class' status, which is not consistent with how we understand ordination.

Not to mention the fact that residential seminary attendance is also becoming more of the exception than the rule. Thus we risk actually forbidding a significant number of clergy from being paid for their work.

Regardless of the formation you received, once you are ordained, you are fully eligible for the title - and the compensation.  

4. 'Ministry isn't about money'

Many people say to me that they are not in this for the money. True enough - most of us who are called to serve others and bring Good News to the world are usually not focused primarily on getting paid. We answer to a higher authority, as the saying goes.

And yet - we serve a spiritual calling in a physical world. Clergy have bills and responsibilities just like everyone else. Since the beginning of the ancient priesthood, when priests took home the burnt offerings to feed their families, clergy have been compensated in some way.

Those ways have changed over time, but this has always been true: clergy have been paid since the beginning of the church.

Ministry is not primarily about money, but clergy need to be supported in some way for the work that we do. 

5. Value the work of clergy

Jesus says, 'the laborer deserves to be paid.' And for all the talk about Paul as a 'tentmaker', he made it quite clear in 1 Corinthians that 'those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the Gospel.'

As the church changes, the nature of where and how clergy serve changes. What has not changed is that clergy are set aside by the community, formed in the faith, and sealed by the Holy Spirit to bear the sacraments, Scripture, and tradition of Christianity into the world. And that in order to devote ourselves to this, and as a symbol of the value of this most important work, we have received some form of compensation.

This has not changed in thousands of years.

Because of this, I believe we can find new ways forward in ministry that are sustainable for congregations, clergy, and those seeking deeper relationship with God.

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