Can the Church Afford Full-Time Ministers?

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of The Christian Post or its editors.

When it comes to finances the church has ample impetus to spend what it is given wisely. This means a steady diet of evangelistic and gospel specific spending is prime territory. Yet, when you look at most church budgets salaries for staff compose either a large minority or majority of financial resources. Now, the necessity of paying ministers a salary that provides for their needs and their families’ is a given. However, there are future pitfalls of this financial relationship, and new wrinkles that must be addressed.

The efficiency of allowing ministers to focus solely on ministry tasks is a valuable asset for churches. Yet, a minister’s sole reliance on the church’s financial resources creates issues. For instance, the minister lives under the reality of needing to retain and/or grow membership to retain and/or grow the amount of fiscal resources needed by the church. The majority in many situations goes toward salary and benefits. While numeric growth is desired, its necessity to meet salary obligations is a less than optimal motivation.

Moreover, there is the question of does this reality influence Gospel propagation? Additionally, is this the most productive, practical and biblical model for the Church, especially in its contemporary manifestation?

Paul speaks to these questions in 1 Corinthians. His take on the subject is that a worker is worth their wage, but Paul, at least, was not obligated or motivated to follow this advice, especially with the Corinthians. While on occasion Paul did accept monetary gifts it was not his normal practice. Instead, he employed a supplementary method of providing for his needs; namely tent-making. More importantly, he believed his entrance into such a financial relationship would hinder the Gospel.

Paul’s self-severance from the purse strings of the church stands in stark contrast to the majority of ministers today. Many rely solely on what the church allocates, which it receives from the membership. While some, such as bi-vocational pastors and evangelist, are more closely aligned with Paul’s model. Moreover, the latter are usually consigned to small and/or rural congregations, splitting time between a secular profession and ministry. While the former usually find sanctuary among larger, more affluent congregations.

However, beyond the demographics of this issue are the spiritual and practical ramifications. Are ministers who are exclusively financially reliant upon a congregation hindering the potential for gospel propagation? Paul saw the need to refuse funds from certain churches because it was disastrous for the gospel. Has something changed from Paul’s time to our own, something that allows ministers to casually ignore this pressing issue? Have congregations like the Corinthians ceased to exist? Though these questions are important and perplexing, the answer is not and might be more practical than one thinks.

The fact is many ministers have been specifically trained to do one thing, pastor or minister within a church. Thus, many have little to no other professional skill(s) they can utilize to garner an income. This is not to say ministers are devoid of other skills, for other positions are tangible with their training. It is simply recognition that seminary graduates lack expertise and training in other disciplines. Disciplines they could leverage to garner employment to support them and their family if full-time ministry does not follow seminary. More importantly, it seems the employment assumption made by many seminaries is that of full-time, salaried positions. Thus, the impulse to train ministers in dual fields is a niche market to say the least.

Moreover, while myopic training is one issue, the incentive to view Paul’s model as any better is muddled by the fact he was an evangelist not a pastor. While this is an important distinction, it seems scripture is more open to the idea of the traveling evangelist receiving financial assistance than it is for settled ministers (Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Cor. 9:1-14; Acts 20:33-35). However, lets refocus. The issue is not should the church withhold all funds, or should it provide lavish lifestyles. Rather, the question is does Paul’s model of self-employment with marginal monetary reliance upon the church better meet the needs of the church today, and more importantly, in the future?

Though this is a debatable concern, when it is associated with several other pressing issues the need to address it becomes more demanding. For instance…

Church Finances

If one examines the financial reports of many churches, they would notice debt, and lots of it. It seems the church is not immune to the idea of assuming debt, with the problem exacerbating in the past few decades. Moreover, while the mega-church might be able to over come these financial obligations given the depth of their attendance and hence giving, the bread-and-butter churches, which comprise the majority of any denomination, will and do struggle to make these payments and maintain full-time staff. Given that a sizable portion of giving goes to service debt and not to ministries, church leaders must be concerned. For, this trend signals a shift in priority and has obvious ramifications on financial stability and Gospel propagation.

Financial Depletion

Furthermore, in many cases the salaries and benefits paid to staff ministers comprise a sizable chunk of a church’s budget. In some cases, there is no greater expense than staff salaries and benefits. Imagine if the minister’s salary were marginal, because they had other means of financial support and stability. This one adjustment would bring thousands of dollars of fiscal liquidity to ministries, evangelism and Gospel propagation.

Lagging Attendance

Church attendance is either stagnant or falling across denominational boundaries and the younger the generation the greater the absence. This means churches in the future are likely to be smaller and less apt to afford full-time salaries for multiple or even one minister. Combine this with the ignorance and lack of desire these generations have for supporting the church financially and you have a bleak picture of future church finances. Furthermore, couple these issues with a church in debt and you have a crisis waiting to happen.

The Gospel

Paul’s reason for not taking funds from the Corinthians was the Gospel. He was able to accept his financial reality without accepting financial culpability with a church that resembles many today. Paul would rather do without than handicap the soul-piercing possibility of a thoroughly gospel centered ministry.

In contemporary Christianity this reason comes across as old-fashion if not misguided. Has it become more fashionable or important to draw a salary that pays for the privileges of contemporary society, than to have the freedom to stand for the Gospel in all its permutations?

The motivation here is not belligerence, but to expose a flaw in how ministers think about their finances vis-à-vis the gospel. No doubt, many if given the option to stand for the Gospel, or be paid better and/or retain their job would insist on the former. However, many think they can have both. The truth is maybe they cannot.

Finances are and will continue to be a pressing issue for churches, thus, what can churches do to be proactive regarding this issue?

At least one area where the church can affect change is by encouraging seminaries and bible colleges to train students in dual disciplines, or at least partner with institutions that can aid this process. The need for future ministers to have the flexibility to garner employment inside and outside of the church will be crucial. Since seminaries exist to assist the church in its efforts, mission and goals, not as an autonomous organizations acting on their own motives, this is a natural evolution of its role. Additionally, this move will help dispel the idea of the professional minister, one that is becoming too engrained in today’s church ethos.

Furthermore, this tactic will ease the fiscal burden on churches by lowering salaries and benefits. Consequently, allowing those funds to be redirected toward direct evangelistic and ministry applications, or even debt elimination. This will be a necessary move for the church of the future.

Future financial situations must to be planned for in advance, not in the moment. Taking into account the variables mentioned earlier, and others sure to arise, returning to a Pauline understanding of church/minister financial relationship is not only healthy, but also necessary. The church as a whole cannot afford to miss the signs that are being force-fed to many of its constituent parts.