How much are we paying our pastors?

(Photo: Unsplash/Nick Fewings)

I'll never forget the time my Asian friend asked; 'What's your salary?' For a Brit, that's a no go area of conversation. But this 'squeamishness' creates a consequential silence that in turn has led to abuses and injustices related to under and over payment of church ministers. History has some painful lessons.

For his Methodist preachers, John Wesley required 'twelve pounds a year for the preacher...' when decades earlier his own father, Samuel Wesley, already earned £70 a year as a chaplain on board a warship.

When a small church asked Charles Spurgeon to recommend a pastor for them with the offer of a meagre salary, he replied:

The only individual I know, who could exist on such a stipend, is the angel Gabriel. He would need neither cash nor clothes; and he could come down from heaven every Sunday morning, and go back at night, so I advise you to invite him.

Spurgeon himself was paid just £45 a year in his first pastorate at Waterbeach in 1851, when a bishop of the time thought clergy needed £500 a year.

The famous Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones accepted his first pastorate in 1927 for '£225 a year together with manse and rates', a substantial drop from the £3,500 which he would have earned as a young medical consultant.

It's clear that a minister's job has many intrinsic motivators, not least receiving an eternal reward, so money really shouldn't be a key motivator, but alongside historic underpayment, an opposite but equally worrying trend has emerged - that of using payment to attract outstanding leaders.

While every local church will want the best leader they can get, the dangers of using attractive remuneration packages to recruit such a person are numerous: a focus on buying-in ministry as opposed to raising-up ministry, hiring leaders who will not remain in the role when it gets tough, assessing a leader's gifting above their character, and downplaying spiritual discernment, the relational element and congregation involvement in discerning God's will for employing a leader.

In the UK, this disparity between payment is evident. On one side of the spectrum Salvation Army officers, on just £12,000 per year, have sometimes needed to access the food banks they lead or even to leave their roles because they were unable to provide for their relatives. While on the other side, one church in London with an income of over eighteen million pounds, and a total staff cost of just over four million, paid five of its staff members between £60,000 and £170,000 each.

The temptation is to create rigid payment structures, as UK established denominations do: Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists and United Reformed Church ministers receive £22,000 to £26,000; at least ten per cent below the English average wage.

However, the key scripture on this issue (1Timothy 5:17-18), seems to underline generosity ('double honour') applied contextually ('especially those whose work is preaching and teaching'). This idea of contextual generosity enables ministers to receive a salary that honours their gifting and experience that assimilates with the church family they are serving.

Chris Frost is the team leader at Gateway Church, Leeds and part of the ChristCentral churches apostolic team. This piece is taken from a wider article written for the European Journal of Theology.