The Abuse of Ministers by Elders

Well, it’s nearly September. The year is 2/3rds over, and the thoughts of church leaders quite naturally turn to football budgets.

And so here’s a great post from Patrick Mead on how so many congregations mistreat their ministers.

And while we’re on the subject, the following is revised from an old one of mine on the same subject, called Financial Sin in the Churches of Christ:

Parsimony

Many an eldership refuses to pay a living wage. Many provide no health plan or retirement plan. A small church with only one or two employees usually can’t provide group health, but any church can provide a retirement plan with no administrative costs at all (IRA-SIMPLE and some 403(b) plans, for example).

Elders instead expect preachers to fund their retirements through an IRA, but IRAs have ridiculously low contribution limits. Moreover, in any other enterprise, it’s customary for the employer to contribute to the retirement of its employees. It’s hard to fathom a reason that the church should do less for its employees than the world does for its own!

Parsonages

Many churches provide a house for the preacher (parsonage). But a parsonage denies the preacher the ability to build up equity and gives him no place to live in his retirement. It denies him the benefit of an interest and property tax deduction. The preacher is never better off with a parsonage except in areas where housing is very expensive (parts of California, for example).

I know a church that evicted the preacher’s widow when the preacher died. They said they needed the parsonage for the next preacher! The deceased preacher had opted out of Social Security and had planned to work to supplement their retirement. His wife had dutifully served the congregation for decades as a volunteer, never working outside the home. She was left penniless.

If the preacher refuses to live in the church’s parsonage, insisting on a housing allowance, the church won’t hire him because they have to justify their investment! And besides, they like having the preacher close to the building, so he can be there to open and close up.

Often the church is in a neighborhood in decline, meaning the parsonage is in a bad part of town, meaning the preacher’s children will be in sub-standard schools and living in a place the members left long ago.

Some elderships place “good stewardship” above love, and figure they serve the Lord by impoverishing their staff.

What the Bible says

(Deut. 24:14-15) Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. 15 Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

(Matt. 10:9-10) Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10 take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.

(1 Cor. 9:9-11) For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? 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. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?

(1 Tim. 5:18) For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”

Moses, Jesus, and Paul all teach the same thing. Jesus and Paul say it particularly of those who serve the gospel. They are to be paid and paid fairly. They are not to be taken advantage of.

God has not called us to squeeze the ministry as tightly as possible. Neither are we to be wasteful. That leaves a lot of discretion, but my observation is that we far more likely to sin by paying too little than too much.

I’ve heard it said, and I think there’s wisdom in it, that a minister should be paid on terms comparable to the members of the church he ministers to. A church should allow ministers to live a lifestyle comparable to that of the friends they’ll likely make in church – taking into account years of experience, education, and such.

If the church expects his wife to work for the church, they should pay her. Otherwise, she should be allowed to work outside the home.

And this includes fringe benefits. If men in your community with a college degree and 10 years of experience typically get subsidized health insurance and a 401(k), then a minister who has similar credentials should receive the economic equivalent.

The most frequent counter-argument I’ve heard is, “But haven’t they chosen a more spiritual life?” The statement essentially says, “We get to make more money because we choose to be less spiritual.” Doesn’t that mean that it’s sin to make more money? What else could it mean?

But it’s not sin to make more money. The preacher will never make as much as the most wealthy in the congregation! It’s just a sin to underpay anyone for his labor – in church or out of church – for domestic or foreign ministry.

And the sin in church is usually worse because we often compound the sin by adding to the underpayment of salary failure to pay any fringe benefits and keeping the Social Security match we’d normally contribute to the preacher’s retirement. And we congratulate ourselves on our cunning negotiating skills!

This is how the world acts. Actually, I’m a lawyer, and I know: most of the world – even the unbelieving world – acts much better than this.

It’s not everyone

I’ve spoken on this topic to elders across the country. Most are totally in agreement with me. But a few leave very quietly. I’m not polite about it. It’s a sin that brings shame to the Churches of Christ and to Jesus.

(I should add, we aren’t the only denomination that commits this sin. It’s just that we’re the ones who claim to know the Bible so well …)

Why we are so prone to sin in this way

This is all a natural corollary of divisiveness and a false doctrine of grace. When your congregations average less than 100 members, they often can’t afford to do things right.

But why such small churches? Because each town needs at least 5 churches so the warring factions don’t have to meet with each other on Sunday.

And because we aren’t even keeping our children.

Then again, it’s usually the preachers who teach a poisonous theology that leads to teeny tiny churches that can’t afford a major medical plan. You see, impoverished theology leads to impoverished congregations leads to impoverished preachers and widows.

Back to the original subject

Actually, the false gospel being taught by many within the Churches of Christ is precisely the reason we’ve developed a culture of abusing our ministers. After all, if God is sparing in his generosity, giving us just barely enough grace to get by (if that much), then this is how we should treat each other, isn’t it?

Indeed, it’s interesting how many of our “doctrinal” disputes are really about how to avoid spending money. Not all. But perhaps most – disputes over orphan’s homes, gyms, kitchens, fellowship halls, benevolence for non-Christians, cooperation in the support of missionaries, church support for Christian colleges — all are ultimately about reducing the cost of doing church.

I could go on – with lots of examples – but hopefully the point is made. Bad theology creates a climate – and a heart – that encourages bad behavior. This explains the behavior of at least some of our churches.

What’s the cure?

Teach grace. Plainly, repeatedly, completely.

Merge churches in the same town.

Evangelize.

Apply the Golden Rule to your salary negotiations, not the “he who has the gold rules” rule.

Retrain elders who oppose grace and doing unto others. If they won’t accept retraining, remove them. They worship a God they do not know.

It all starts with grace. Without it, mergers, evangelism, and everything is hopeless. Ah, but once your church tastes a little grace, well, amazing things happen.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to The Abuse of Ministers by Elders

  1. Dearly Beloved.
    I am very much happy and informed about your article. what you wrote is the simple truth and must be followed to the later for proper understanding and good works to be done more concisely and truthful if we say we are the best.

    UChenna F. Bekee
    Nigeria

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