Should a Pastor be Willing to Work for Free?

Times are tough for ministers these days.  Christianity in the west has been on a decline and with it fewer positions in the clergy.  This also means more churches are unable to support their pastor’s salary on a full-time basis.  Having now graduated and seeking for ’employment’ I’ve seen its effects.  About 80% of my friends who graduated from Bible school have given up on finding a ministerial position because the church was at best willing to give them minimum wage.  “Being a Pastor does not equate to slave labour!” they would reply.  When I chat with the remainder, I find they are largely burnt out from over-work for the compensation they receive.

The trend is alarming and real.  In the face of such a crisis, much Christian thought has been committed to glorifying the ‘tent-making’ Pastor.  Basically, it promotes the idea that Pastor’s should work a secular job part-time to earn a bulk of their income while serving the church with the other half.  In essence, they are working for “free” for the church.  This kind of Pastor has influence and experience in the secular world which traditional full-time pastor’s do not.  They also free up the burden of the church having to fund their salary, allowing more resources to be directed toward kingdom ministry.  After all, the Apostle Paul did tent-making in acts 18:3 so surely this path must be biblical?  I would argue both yes and no.  And just to note, I did tent-making for 2 years as a Pastor.  There were parts I liked and did not like about it.  It was not all glamorous as I had heard it would be.  But it had it’s season and may return again.

So should a Pastor be willing to work for free?  Absolutely.  Do I think this should be common practice?  No.  Bob Deffinbaugh recently posted an excellent article here on that former question that I really want to talk about from my own perspective.  Its a bit lengthy, but I highly recommend reading it especially if you’re in the ministry.

For the longest time, I held the conviction that Pastor’s should get paid a full-time salary if they adequately ministered in a full-time capacity.  Paul supports this argument using an Old Testament principle when he quotes it in 1 Timothy 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 9:9.

… “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.”

Back then when an ox was used for farming, it would inevitably eat some of the grain of the field as it worked (treaded) the machinery it was carrying.  After all, it’s hard to stop a beast from eating food if its right in front of its face all day.  Well in order to protect the full yield of their crop, farmers would put a muzzle over the ox’s mouth to prevent this from happening.  But this would be cruel to the ox because they would be deprived from any reward for their hard-work, and shows the selfishness of the farmer.

Now imagine applying that to your Pastor.  He (or she) works hard to provide spiritual food for their congregation.  They preach faithfully every weekend and provide discipleship for your family and friends.  They even call you up to see how you are doing and serve the community diligently.  When you were married, your pastor even did your wedding free of charge.  Yet even after all that, you decide week after week to donate as little as possible on Sunday.  What you do give, you clearly label as “for missions only”.  If the Pastor is serving God, let God provide for him; so you reason.  Sadly, this unbiblical mentality has prevailed in the church today.

Thus, I would argue that it is normal for Pastor’s to be fully supported by the people/network they serve.  The same goes for missionaries too.  Since we gladly pay to eat at a restaurant (rarely even in third-world countries do they haggle), why do we not pay those who feed souls into eternity?  Also, I would argue that glorifying tent-making as the new normal encourages a lazy attitude when it comes toward giving.  And I think this is the biggest dilemna new minister’s face; that there’s an ideal that the many churches have been unable to face since the post-christendom era of the previous century.  Either the church suffers from lack of resources or immaturity.  But to stop here is to miss the whole point.  If you demand as a Pastor you have to get fully paid in return for your services you will be sorely disappointed.  And that’s where Deffinbaugh’s article and a closer inspection of 1 Corinthians 9 really helps.

1 Corinthians 9:9 must also be taken in context of 1 Corinthians 9:15-16.  While Paul has all the rights as an Apostle to demand compensation for his work, he says positively, “I have not used any of these rights.  And I am not writing this in hopes that you will do such things for me”.  Did you catch that?  Paul’s attitude is to do whatever it takes to maximize kingdom work.  If that means not getting paid if he thought that would glorify God the most in that situation, so be it.  Minister’s need this attitude foremost, before any pay should come.  And the Corinthian church at the time was not in the position to give to Paul.  Oddly enough the Macedonian church (a poorer church) was more so willing to give by 2 Corinthians 8.

As for 1 Timothy 5, I will just simply quote from Deffinbaugh:

the sequence is ministry first, then money follows. All too often it seems folks wish to see the money first and then they will minister. Paul tells Timothy that those who labor hard and effectively in ministry should be generously rewarded (but this is not like a secular work contract).

That’s the problem.  Expecting effective ministry to be generously rewarded is treating church like a business.  But to expect church to operate like a business is completely missing the point.  The sole purpose of a business is to make money.  If a business is not profitable, it ceases to exist.  But ministry is not about personal gain, but about selflessness, heavenly treasures, suffering, and above all, sacrifice.

So really, since Paul did both fund-raising at times and encouraged church-sustained ministers, there’s really a balance to the matter.  In some seasons, minister’s do have to learn how to build a financial support network outside the church.  In fact, there can be a danger for those who only receive a full-time paycheque all their lives.  But if anyone has a long track record of faithfulness, the money will eventually flow.  And for us ministers who have less of that, we always need our motives examined by the Lord and the scriptures.  Should we be willing to minister for free?  In order to maximize the gospel, absolutely.  But I would never encourage that as normative.

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