Is it Possible to Overpay a Pastor?

Dr. Joe McKeeverEvery once in a while, someone comes up with a new wrinkle on church headaches.

A young pastor friend wrote to say the church he now serves went through a split a year or so before he arrived, and the smaller congregation struggles to keep up with the financial needs. Presently, they are running a deficit of perhaps $10,000 a year, forcing them to draw on reserves.

The church has a number of fixed expenses, he says, such as utilities and insurance that cannot be cut. Even if they eliminated all literature and supplies, the deficit would still not be covered. His suggestion is that they cut his salary by $10,000 a year. The leadership refuses.

How awful of them, wanting to keep the pastor’s salary at a high level.

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The pastor went on to say that his pay is presently above the recommended level for a church their size, based on a report from LifeWay Christian Services. So, cutting the pay seems the logical alternative, he felt.

What to do? The pastor wants his pay cut and the laity refuses.

What a problem!

My wife says he can always give the money back to the church in the offering plate and get tax credit for doing it.

My advice—and yes, he did request it—was to leave well enough alone, to appreciate church leaders for their insistence on doing well by the preacher, and to see what happens. If, as he expects, everything comes to a head in 18 months when the reserves are depleted, one of two things will happen. Either they will follow the pastor’s advice and finally cut the salary, or they will rally the troops and encourage the members to give more in order to take care of the minister.

Either way, the pastor is all right.

At this point, some reader will appear to say that preachers should never be paid, that it encourages the double strata of workers in the kingdom and is unbiblical. I beg to disagree. Listen to Paul’s counsel to young Pastor Timothy: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.”

Question: Is that talking about money?

Sure is  Look at the next verse: “For the scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing’ and ‘the laborer is worthy of his hire’" (1 Tim.  5:17-18).

There is no actual command for a pastor to be paid or for him to receive a salary. If he chooses to take no salary, fine. If he is bivocational and like Paul, who supported himself by tent-making (even while insisting that he “had a right” to receive income from the churches), again, that’s fine. But if the church can pay him a living wage to free him up for full-time ministry, that’s ideal.

Just this week a pastor told me his story. For years he resisted the idea of his receiving pay from the church and took as little as he could while holding down two or three jobs. When finally he moved to a congregation that provided a living wage, he was amazed at the difference in himself. At last he had the time and energy to serve the Lord’s people the way he had wished he could! He felt he had been set free.

The Unfortunate Reality of Today

Far from the situation my young pastor friend finds himself in, a large percentage of modern pastors are caught in the opposite predicament: a) They want or need more money, and b) the lay leadership is looking for ways to cut the pay they receive.

Is there a more perfect recipe for unhappiness in a church than this? The pastor is unable to live on the income the church pays him and is always wanting more money, while the leadership is looking for ways (and coming up with schemes) to trim the pay he does receive.

Every pastor could do himself a great favor and bring honor to the Lord’s work as well as peace to his household by learning to live within his income, no matter how meager it may be  Or if that is an impossibility, let him take an outside job to supplement it and then work hard to live on the total.

At the same time, every church would honor its Lord and bless its pastor by having its leadership be on a constant search for ways to pay the ministers a healthy living wage.

One wonders if these might not be two traits of a healthy church:

1. The pastors are all living within their income. This means they are not seriously in debt, they manage well and, yes, they are generous givers to the Lord’s work. (What does “not seriously in debt” mean? Borrowing money for items that appreciate—like a home—is not like borrowing money for a car, which decreases in value the moment we drive it off the lot. The worst kind of debt is credit cards and payday loans and should be ended as soon as possible.)

2. The congregation’s leaders want to pay their pastors well and are constantly monitoring the situation (his needs, the church’s income, etc.) in order to be faithful.

Is it possible to overpay a minister?

Sure. If a minister’s salary is far out of line with other churches in the same situation (similar size and resources), that would qualify. But frankly, I’ve not seen that happen.  Far more likely is the opposite scenario, where the preacher is struggling to make ends meet on a less-than-adequate salary.

On the other hand, a friend in a megachurch asked me, “Joe, what do you think our pastor gets paid?” I wouldn’t have any idea, I answered. He said, “I don’t know exactly, but five years ago, when we joined the church, I was told he receives $300,000 a year."

That conversation took place exactly 14 years ago. That pastor is still there, his church still appears to be prospering, and one can only imagine what pay he receives.

I imagine someone would reply that the community where that church is located is affluent, with houses starting at $1 million.  The leadership, being made up of people from those very homes, doubtless wants their pastor to live as they do.

And therein lies a great danger. By overpaying the preacher in order for him to buy the overpriced home and live in affluent suburbia, they do him no favor and set a terrible example for the rest of the Christian world.

But that’s an article for another time. That pastor will not be reading my little piece here, so jumping on his case would be pointless.

Pastor, whoever you are, live within your means, and lead your family to do so.

Church member, see that your pastor is (and all your ministers are) paid as well as the church can afford.

When we honor our leaders, we honor the Lord of the church.

Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.

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