Stipend: A Theological Challenge to the Marketplace

“How much should we pay the pastor?” The annual dance around this question at the local church is often difficult and confrontational. Everybody involved hopes to spend as little time on the matter as possible. A financial figure is arrived at by some unrepeatable method, which allows for no discussion of the principles used to arrive at the number. Until both congregations and denominations discuss clergy remuneration long enough to get beyond merely setting a figure, the church will be hampered in its mission. Becky McMillan and Matthew Price note this very directly in the conclusion of their recent Pulpit & Pew Research Report on the subject.

…the structure of clergy salaries reveals how much the mission of faith communities has been distorted by the free market forces of individualism and competition. …If the mission of the church is to bear witness to God’s sovereignty, the mystery of the cross, and the hope of the resurrection, intentional reflection on and consideration of increased measures to rein in the free forces of the market must be the first of many steps to help congregations reclaim their mission of covenantal community, justice, and grace.1

Such a “reining in” requires a set of principles, a theological ethic, robust enough to stand up to the corrosive impact of individualism and competition. In its vocabulary of “stipend” the Reformed tradition offers the broader church such an ethic. Stipend gives the church space to articulate principles that critique the market-driven approaches used to determine what clergy should be paid. As congregations intentionally discuss what it means to give a stipend, and as clergy reflect upon how they are formed by receiving a stipend, the church challenges the values of the marketplace. Three characteristics mark stipend: grace, enough, and community. These closely parallel the trilogy McMillan and Price propose: “covenantal community, justice, and grace.” Let us explore the way that stipend not only challenges the influence of the free market but recovers the values of the kingdom of God.

Grace

Salary, from the Latin salarium, refers to the pay soldiers received so they could buy salt. Soldiers were worth their salt, their salary. Salary is earned; it is the just reward for labor. Salary, therefore, is about works. A buyer (the employer) compensates the seller (the employee) for work done, for product created.

Stipend arises from the compound of two Latin words: stips or stipis, meaning gift or alms, and pendere, meaning to pay. Stipend is a gift given. It is unearned. It is not reward for labor, for to be a gift it cannot be about reward. Stipend is about grace. Graciously given, it is to be graciously received, with the joy and excitement that entails.

Salary, being paid what one deserves, financially rewards one’s education, experience, ability, responsibility. An individual’s purchasing power, as revealed by his salary, indicates his worth; the bigger the salary, the more valuable the person.

Stipend is given whether or not it has been earned or is deserved. It is given because the persons receiving the stipend need to eat and drink and clothe themselves as they fulfill a calling with no economic value.   Salary is about works; stipend is about grace. Salary is being paid what one deserves; stipend is given whether or not it has been earned or is deserved.  Studying God’s word, nurturing the spiritual life of the community of faith, sitting with dying people, saying “thus saith the Lord” to power–none of these actions produces a product or makes money. Stipend allows the individual chosen by the community of faith to be the recipient of their gifts, to devote herself completely to the without-price (priceless) activities of being the community’s pastor. Being a pastor has no economic value. It, like the Sabbath, is useless in the eyes of a market-driven world. Only by accepting the gifts given by the community of faith is the pastor freed to serve.

Attempts to compare the work of pastors to the work of other occupational groups generally fail because they are unable to account for the grace that stands at the center of being a pastor. People are surprised when told there is no charge for the “professional” services clergy offer: counseling, performing baptisms, and responding to community crises. Many outside the faith community, unable to handle this grace, press cash into the hand of the pastor or pull out the checkbook and ask “to whom should I make the check?” These are attempts to put an economic value on the unsettling nature of grace. They seek to bring its wild unpredictability under the control of the money metric that attaches a financial measure to all things.

In accepting a stipend clergy declare to the world there is a different way of relating to money, a pattern built not on earning and deserving but instead on grace and gift. In receiving stipend as gift the pastor is formed as a person. No longer is the value of his ministry attached to the size of the check he receives. Rather, pastors are called by God to be recipients of the gift of stipend, formed by the thankfulness that comes with receiving a gift. Pastors are called to ask themselves, “How am I being formed by this gift of stipend? How are my life and ministry marked by grateful receiving?”

Likewise congregations are formed by the giving of the gift. Gift-giving moves individuals away from the “quid pro quo” governing the market to become more gracious, generous people. In giving gifts there is a blessing, a blessing offered to every congregation willing to move from “paying the pastor’s salary” to capturing the beauty of “giving the pastor’s stipend.” Congregational leaders and congregational members need to ask themselves, “How are we being formed by giving a gift (stipend) to our pastor? How are our life and ministry marked by generous giving?”

Grace stands at the heart of the gospel, the church’s message. If grace is to be more than just words, it must impact all of the church’s life, including the way it provides for pastors. If the radically unsettling giftedness of grace is to be spoken authentically from the pulpit, preachers need to understand themselves as the recipients of the good gift of God, not just in their spiritual but also in their economic lives.

Enough

In 2000, the Presbyterian Church in Canada produced a study document asking sessions and presbyteries to rank seven criteria for establishing stipends. The criteria were: Education Level, Years of Ministry Experience, Responsibility, Supply and Demand of Clergy, Job Performance, Minister’s Financial Need, and Ability of the Congregation to Afford a Minister. Both sessions (dominated by lay leaders) and presbyteries (where clergy have the largest say) identified “Minister’s Financial Need” as the last criterion to be used in determining what clergy should be paid. This result indicates that church leaders do not equate “need” and “enough,” as in: “You give them enough and satisfy the needs of all.” (Ps. 145:16) “Need” has become a word of demand: “My needs are not being met,” or “I need more.” It is a grasping word, a word of entitlement. A similar difficulty can arise with “justice” in McMillan and Price’s trilogy. “Enough” is less demanding. Even when used to assert a desire for more, as in “This is not enough,” demand and entitlement are muted. In its place arises an opportunity for a mutual response to the shortfall. Stipend is about enough.

In receiving a stipend, the pastor’s life becomes a parable of living by faith. To live on a stipend requires believing God can and will move the hearts of God’s people to provide enough so the pastor is free to fulfill his without-price calling. To live on a stipend is an act of faith, living dependent on God and on the people of God. The pastor quite literally lives on the gifts of others. The funds in the offering plate, the gifts of God’s people, are the source of the pastor’s income.

The pastor learns to trust the God who provided manna day by day in the wilderness for the people of Israel, to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the pastor’s household. The pastor joins Paul in hearing and trusting God’s words, “My grace is sufficient for you.” The manna was enough, God’s grace is enough. The pastor lives out a radical lifestyle content with the enough God will provide through the grace and generosity of the people of God. The enough is given by God regardless of how hard the person works, regardless of how good they are at their job. The enough God provides is given simply because it is enough.

The stipend-receiving pastor echoes the words of Agur in Proverbs: “give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God” (30:8, 9).   Being a pastor has no economic value. It, like the Sabbath, is useless in the eyes of a market-driven world. Only by accepting the gifts given by the community of faith is the pastor freed to serve.  Pastors in North America know well the danger of having too much, of being full. They need only look around their congregations to know the spiritual danger of simply mouthing the words “give us this day our daily bread” rather than having the petition be the prayer of the heart. For the pews are full of people who know well where both today’s and tomorrow’s meals are coming from, and it has little to do with God’s provision. Pastors also know the danger of too little, understanding the wearing effects of not having enough to feed and clothe one’s self or one’s family. They meet people in this life situation through their access to benevolent funds and knowledge of the social safety net. Pastors pray for themselves and for the people under their pastoral care that they would have neither poverty nor riches, praying they would have enough.

Often clergy hear the words, “You are a minister; you don’t understand the realities of dealing with money.” This is true, for the minister lives by a different set of economic values than the acquisitive consumerist culture. The minister calls herself and her hearers to live not by the bumper sticker that proclaims, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” Rather the pattern to be lived out is, “God will provide what is needed when it is needed. God will ensure there is enough.” Living by these counter-cultural mandates causes the pastor to take a road less traveled, which appears to have few obvious benefits. Yet the opportunity to live free of the pressures of acquiring more, to de-materialize one’s life, has enormous benefits. To live trusting that enough will be there when the enough is needed frees the pastor from corrosive worry about treasure here on earth.

Those who give so that the pastor may fulfill their without-value calling must also struggle with the concept of enough. Congregational money managers need to ask, “What gift is enough so the minister can commit himself, free from the corrosive worry of making ends meet, to his vocation in our midst?” This question must also inform how individual church members decide what they will give. “What gift is enough so this pastor can do his work? Is what I have put on the offering plate a sufficient thanks for the enough God has bestowed?” Giving this way requires trusting that God will provide the enough needed so that the gift can be given. To give some of the enough God gives assumes that God has provided enough for the gift to be given. For as the story of the feeding of five thousand powerfully shows, God provides more than enough, so there is always some to share.

Community

In his excellent book Generous Saints (Alban Institute, 1999), James Hudnut-Beumler argues the central question congregations must ask when establishing a pastor’s stipend is, “How much do we give so that this pastor is one of us economically, neither above nor below us?” Likewise the pastor should ask, “How much do I need to receive so that I can be one of the congregation, neither being above nor below them?” These questions are rooted in a commitment to the church as a community of faith. The pastor may be the one chosen as the spiritual leader of the community, but she is not separate from the community of faith; she is one of them. These questions fly in the face of the processes followed by both congregations and clergy when discussing stipend. The conversation easily becomes adversarial, more like a contract negotiation than the work of a community seeking to provide enough, or a pastor graciously receiving the gift offered.

Hudnut-Beumler, however, does not go far enough in his discussion of community. Pastors in connectional churches function within the community of the presbytery, classis, diocese, or conference. In this middle-range judicatory clergy rub shoulders with each other on a regular basis. Here community is built with other ministers. But how can community be built when clergy colleagues are aware they receive such inequitable levels of stipend?  Pastors in North America know well the danger of having too much, of being full. The pews are full of people who know well where both today’s and tomorrow’s meals are coming from, and it has little to do with God’s provision.  The voices of those with larger stipends (and everyone knows who they are) are listened to more closely; their opinions are more earnestly sought. Those with smaller stipends are assumed to be either on their way up to some place that will compensate them better or unable to find a call that pays better because they are poor pastors. All of this creates envy and pride, which destroy community. Just as clergy are called to ask, “How much does the congregation need to give me so that I can be part of them, neither above nor below them,” so clergy are called to ask, “How much do my colleagues need to receive so we can be a community together, modeling trust in God’s grace to provide enough?”

Until pastors, as leaders within the church, not only understand the ways in which large stipend inequity destroys community but are also prepared to do something about changing that, there will be no hope for the wider church community to experience a reduction in the tensions created by wide income differences. This is no esoteric theological discussion; it is a matter of Christian ethics. There are no easy answers, but the questions must be raised.

Conclusion

The ethic of stipend is being questioned by both clergy and lay leaders who wish to eliminate the word from the vocabulary of the church, or at a minimum equate it entirely with salary. Such a move would be tragic. As the meaning of stipend is eroded, the payment clergy receive becomes less gracious, less gift-filled, pointing to a business model of church. This will cause clergy to see their income as something they have earned and deserve, rather than as a further sign of God’s great grace. As the idea of stipend is challenged, the values of “more is better” crowd out the call to rejoice in enough. Enough given and enough received draw both the giver and the receiver into a life of gratitude and thankfulness. As the idea and meaning of stipend are eroded, the opportunity to live as a community committed to economic equity is replaced by making income levels the way clergy value themselves and others. Community is built when people receive equitable incomes, so that one is not above another.

Stipend provides the church with a theological ethic robust enough to withstand the distorting influences of the marketplace. In stipend the church has a tool that allows it to show the world a different way of providing people with an income–the way of grace, enough, and community.