Church Finance Part 6: on Paying the Preacher

Most of what people hear in the church about paying the preacher is that he or she must not be greedy. Speakers often point to that being one of the qualifications for a minister of the Gospel. They cite 1 Timothy 3:2, which declares that the minister must not be "a lover of money." Often they will also turn to a parallel passage in Titus 1:7, which states that the pastor may not engage in "pursuing dishonest gain."

Other scriptural passages, however, flip the coin over and speak of what a congregation should pay the preacher. A classic portion of the Bible on that subject is 1 Corinthians 9:1-18. The thesis Paul offers in it is that, since a pastor attends to all of the spiritual needs of a church, its people, in turn, should supply all of the needs of the pastor and family. He argues that reason teaches that lesson, that the Law of Moses included that provision, and that Jesus taught the very same thing Himself. While promoting that cause eloquently, the apostle, on the other hand, explains why he has made himself an exception to his own rule.

Paul begins his discussion on paying the preacher by first declaring his own apostolic or ministerial credentials and their accompanying privileges. He states that there should be no question that he is an apostle. He writes, "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 9:1-2). He does this as a premise for explaining what the rights of an apostle are and to show that he does not use all of them–for definite reasons. He thus uses himself as an example to challenge the Corinthians to refrain from always demanding their rights.

Some had begun to question his apostleship. The problem had grown in magnitude by the time the book of 2 Corinthians was written. Paul wanted those people to consider the simple proof of his apostleship--his ministry at Corinth and the fact that he had seen Christ. Although he had not been with the other apostles and the Lord from the beginning of Jesus' ministry, he did meet part of the qualifications for an apostle that Peter listed in Acts 1:21-22. ­He saw Christ on the Damascus road.

Next Paul lists the rights of an apostle (1 Corinthians 9:3-6). They include the right:

1. To expect support for oneself from the church in the ministry (v. 4);

2. To expect support for one's family from the church in the ministry (v. 5); if James, the brother of Jesus, and Peter had a right to take their wives along with them as supported members of a ministry team when they traveled in missionary work, so did Paul;

3. To refrain from working and to be fully supported by the people to whom they ministered, as other preachers of the day did (v. 6).

From there Paul elaborates on the subject of the support of the ministry (1 Corinthians 9:7-18). First, he declares that reason teaches that the preacher should be supported by the congregation to whom he or she ministers (v. 7). He declares that the soldier does not go to war at his own expense. The government supports him and his family. He cannot support himself in some business and be free to follow orders and fight at the same time. As Paul told Timothy, "No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs--he wants to please his commanding officer" (2 Timothy 2:4).  Even if the soldier had money to support and equip himself, it would not be right for the people of his country to ask him to do that while they were doing little or nothing in return as fellow-citizens.

Further, the apostle explains that the farmer is supported by the fields in which he works (1 Corinthians 9:7). It is unthinkable that one would plant and care for a vineyard and not partake of its fruit. In fact, he is the first to taste of the fruit that it produces. Paul says the same thing in his second letter to Timothy. There he writes, "The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops" (2 Timothy 2:6).

Additionally, as the apostle observes, the shepherd is fed by his flock (1 Corinthians 9:7). He tends the sheep, takes them to pasture for food and to the streams for water, protects them from bad weather, guards them from the wolves, and tends them when they are sick. They, in turn, provide him with wool, meat, and milk. Paul's main point in all this is that everyone lives off the proceeds of his or her business. It is reasonable, therefore, that the minister should do likewise.

The Law of Moses teaches that the ministry should be supported by the church (1 Corinthians 9:8). Paul says that Deuteronomy 25:4 figuratively teaches this lesson (1 Corinthians 9:9). The ox was not to be muzzled but allowed to eat of the grain as he labored on the threshing floor. Good farmers can appreciate this analogy. No reasonable man would work an animal without providing it with food and water. If he did, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would have a case against him.

The apostle asks, "Is it about oxen that God is concerned?" (1 Corinthians 9:9).

He is not implying, however, an answer to the contrary. The psalmist took note of the Lord's concern for the creatures He has made. He wrote, "He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call" (Psalm 147:9). Paul's implication, though, is that the Lord cares about more than just animals. The apostle makes this clear when he declares, "Surely he says this for us, doesn't he?" He suggests that the Lord is even more concerned for man than for animals. Finally, the apostle says forcefully, "Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest" (1 Corinthians 9:10).

Paul turns to the Law further in support of his thesis. He writes, "Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar?" (1 Corinthians 9:13). Thus, the example of provision for the support of the priesthood in the Old Testament also drives home the lesson that a church should fully support its minister. In addition to receiving tithes, the priests were supplied meat from the sacrifices, bread from the table of show bread, houses, suburban lands, and money from the temple tax.

Our Lord Himself taught that the ministry should be supported by the churches it serves. Paul explains, "In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:14). Thus, he saves his best argument until the last. We know that the Master taught that "the worker is worth his keep" (Matt. 10:10). In Paul's first letter to Timothy, he takes that quotation from Jesus' lips to argue that ministers should be paid by the people they serve. There he even declares that they should be paid well. This is what he means when he says, "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,' and ‘The worker deserves his wages'" (1 Timothy 5:17-18).

The "honor" to which the apostle refers here does not speak of merely having a Pastor's Appreciation Day once a year.

His declaration that ministers are "worthy of double honor" is but a tactful way of saying that a congregation should pay the preacher well.

Even in view of all of these beautifully crafted arguments that the church should financially support its ministers, Paul declares that he had not contended for these rights of an apostle. Although this principle, that ministerial support is the preacher's rightful due, is both reasonable and scriptural, he has not availed himself of what was rightfully his. He prefaces that explanation, though, with a bit more reasoning. He writes, "If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?" (1 Corinthians 9:11). He declares further, "If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more?" (v. 12).

Yet it is on the heels of stating these facts in the form of questions that obviously imply affirmative answers that he declares, "But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ" (1 Corinthians 9:12). He is not saying that he never accepted ministerial support that was offered. From his letter to the Philippians, we know that he did (Phil. 4:10-20). He simply did not contend or press for it, especially from a church while he was pioneering it.

As Paul goes on to explain here, among his reasons for not contending for financial support was the fact that he did not want to hinder the acceptance of the Gospel in a new field (1 Corinthians 9:12). He wanted to go the "second mile" in preaching the Gospel (vv. 16-18). Just to preach was his responsibility. In fact, to refuse to do so would bring woe, or punishment, to the preacher. As a servant, he could not take pride in simple obedience. But to preach without charge brought special delight to Paul. Thus, he felt he made an extra contribution to the spread of the Gospel through his policy on personal financial support for his ministry. Even at this point in the passage he makes clear that he is not hinting for an offering (v. 15). He was among the most careful preachers in history in not misusing his apostolic, ministerial authority! In his own words, he declares that he acted with restraint in this matter, "that I may not abuse my authority in the gospel" (v. 18).

After hearing his presentation, one has no choice but to conclude that Paul has more than adequately proven his thesis that, since a pastor attends to all of the spiritual needs of a church, its people, in turn, should supply all of the material needs of that minister and family. He argues conclusively that reason teaches that lesson, that the Law of Moses included that provision, and that Jesus taught the very same thing Himself. While promoting that cause eloquently, Paul, on the other hand, explains why he has made himself an exception to his own rule. Since it is the Spirit Who inspires him in all of this, every congregation that follows his teachings in taking good care of its ministers pleases the Lord and brings satisfaction to itself.

With these things in mind, Manfred Holck devotes a whole chapter in one of his books on church finance to ways of developing an equitable plan for compensating a pastor.[1] He suggests that a congregation should pay the preacher well for his or her long hours of hard work.

In support of his thesis, he offers an impressive list of logical reasons why the congregation should do so. These include the following:

1. "Low pay can interfere with the efficiency and productivity of the pastor."

2. "You can enhance the image of your pastor in the community with pay that is fair."

3. "It is important for clergy to have a positive attitude toward the church they serve."

4. "Moonlighting is a temptation for any minister when income won't match outgo."

5. "The spouses of many clergy work outside the home, often of necessity."

6. "Low-paid pastors often end up with low pensions." (For one thing, their Social Security benefits are lower.)

7. "Some clergy simply drop out of the ministry because they can no longer afford it."

8. "Perceived low pay will not bring more young people to ministry."[2]

Further, Holck notes that it is wise to reimburse the pastor for expenses while engaged in serving, including automobile and convention expenses. In addition, like any good employer of today, the church ought to offer its minister supplemental benefits, such as a housing allowance, help with insurance (life and health), and assistance in contributions to a retirement fund.

Wayne Pohl joins Holck with a similar emphasis in a full chapter, "Setting Staff Salaries," on this subject.[3] He broadens the view, however, to take in the entire church staff. Both scholars advocate paying the pastor well, but Pohl encourages doing the same for all employees of the church.

A commonly accepted rule of thumb is that salaries should total about one-fourth to one-third of the total budget. Some think in terms of one-third for salaries, one-third for buildings, and one-third for missions. Ray Bowman says, "I suggest churches set a goal of spending one-fourth of their budgets in each of four areas: facilities, staff, operations, and sharing."[4]

In summary, the Apostle Paul presents a strong case for congregations paying their pastors well. In support, he mentions the spiritual responsibilities that a pastor fulfills for a congregation and principles from the Law of Moses that apply to the financial support of ministers. Finally, a number of practical factors make generous salaries and benefits for pastors and staff members a wise and ethical practice for the local congregation.

Selected Bibliography 

Bowman, Ray. When Not to Borrow. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.

Holck, Manfred Jr. Church Finance in a Complex Economy. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983.

Pohl, Wayne. Mastering Church Finances. Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1992.

[1]Manfred Holck, Jr., Church Finance in a Complex Economy (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), 100-126.

[2]Ibid., 102-105.

[3]Wayne Pohl, Mastering Church Finances (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1992),  153-163.

[4]Ray Bowman, When Not to Borrow (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 83.