Without a doubt, the number one reason pastors are paid poorly is the small size of their church. I have already discussed this aspect and offered my suggestions for that situation in my last post (The Bi-vocational Pastor). Let us then for the purposes of this post assume we are discussing a church that is healthy both numerically and financially. Why do such churches underpay pastors? It is undeniable that many of them do so if we can answer why we can begin to solve the problem.
The first cause, not just on my list but in order of importance, is a pastor who is unwilling to teach his people what the Bible has to say on the subject. God's people are likened to sheep in the Scripture. The pastor is the shepherd. Generally speaking, sheep want to follow. If they are led carefully they will usually respond. Thus, if the sheep are not corporately in a certain place then a large part of the blame must lie with the shepherd. Certainly there are exceptions to this principle. There are also other factors. But all things being equal the primary reason churches fail to pay their pastors appropriately is because their pastors fail to teach them to do so.
I do not meant to fault good men here unnecessarily. For the average pastor discussing the whole subject makes him uncomfortable. A pastor by definition has chosen to live a life that is not about money. He long ago purposely decided that the point of his life would not be making a large salary. Thus there is in every right-hearted pastor a natural reluctance to emphasize something in his ministry which he has already chosen not to prioritize with his life. He is also uncomfortable discussing his own pay because he thinks it makes him look selfish or at the least self-serving. His heart tells him he should be content with what he has. He does not want to come across as greedy nor does he want to be greedy in his heart. It is hard to lead people spiritually when they think you are in it for the money. No matter how little money he makes he thinks of someone in his church who makes even less. He does not think he is more important or better than these dear people. Besides all of this there is the matter of faith. Is he not supposed to trust God? If he decides to start preaching and teaching about his own personal financial needs surely that must evidence a lack of faith.
I could go on and on with the excuses – for such they are – that pastors tell themselves in order to avoid discussing the whole subject. In our line of work they are legion. But they are wrong. They are wrong for several reasons. First, because Scripture discusses the subject. A preacher has no right to skip a section of Scripture because discussing it makes him uncomfortable. Second, because his family and his church both need him to educate his church on the subject. I will speak more to this in another post. Third, because if he shrinks from his responsibility in this area the problem will simply be perpetuated. The next pastor will suffer because his predecessor was cowardly. Fourth, because the pastor must approach this subject as he would any other subject. He would not dream of taking the approach justified in the previous paragraph if the subject was prayer or witnessing or holiness. If he would not use such excuses to justify his fear of discussing those subjects then he cannot use them to justify his timidity about money.
Man of God, speak up! It is your job. It is your duty. It is your responsibility. If you think of yourself you will fail in any number of your scriptural responsibilities. Think of your family. Think of your church. Think of the next pastor. Think of the Lord. And speak up.
Having dealt with the pastor let us now turn to the church. In my view, the second cause for underpaid pastors is churches that are ignorant of their responsibility. These churches do not know that they are underpaying the pastor. In fact, it never even occurs to them. They do not think about it. The whole idea of whether the pastor has sufficient to meet his needs never crosses their mind.
Two posts earlier in this series I wrote a bit about my own past (My Story). I am sure that the average person in the church I grew up in had no idea of the manner in which we lived. It is the nature of people to assume that unless someone or some area is screaming bloody murder that everything is fine. They are not generally observant in areas beyond those that immediately impact them. It is the nature of people to take things for granted, to assume someone has it handled.
This is greatly aggravated by the pastor's silence on the matter. This aggravation is compounded by the pastor's family's silence. Trust me, those kids know better than to say they have been eating nothing but potatoes all week. They know they are not supposed hint let alone complain that everything is not up to snuff. After all, complaining is a terrible sin. The pastor's wife has a long and weary acquaintance with plastering a smile across her face when dealing with any number of aspects of church life. This is just another one. She swallows her frustration at her husband, chastises herself for her lack of followship and faith, and valiantly tries to ignore the fact that she has no idea where to get shoes for her teenage boy. In her weaker moments she speaks to her husband late at night about the injustice of it all. She tells him the church people would not put up with the same situation if they were in it. But when she shows up at church on Sunday morning and someone makes a remark about how nice it must be to live in a house without paying rent she bites her tongue and soldiers on.
Please do not misunderstand me. I do not believe the pastor's wife and family should vocalize their resentment. In fact, I do not believe they should harbor resentment. But the pastor simply must educate the people on what their responsibility is for they will not educate themselves.
I am an independent Baptist by conviction. I strongly believe that a decentralized local church system is God's divine plan. Having said that, every strength comes with a corresponding liability. One of the liabilities of being an independent Baptist lies in just this very area of pastoral salary. There is no overarching organization to instruct the church in the specifics of its responsibility. In a denominational church requirements are handed down. There must be so much salary. There must be such and such provision made for retirement. Here is a formula. Plug in the various numbers and it spits a salary package out the other side. This must be done before we will furnish you with a pastor. In stronger denominations the local church does not even pay the pastor. He is an employee of the much larger organization. The church bears no responsibility, well, other than turning over its entire offerings of course.
If we cannot – and we must not – adjust our ecclesiology to better our pay package then how do we solve it? Again, the answer is in the pastor. He must teach the people they are responsible and how they can properly carry out their responsibility. I taught school for a year. If my students were ignorant in a subject I could not hope they would figure it out. Neither could I ignore it. Neither could I wish that some other teacher would solve the problem for me. It was my duty to teach them. So it is with the pastor. If my church, the Maplewood Bible Baptist Church in Chicago, is going to do a good job in this area then I have to teach them how to do so. Such is not greedy, self-centered, or discontented. I am not showing a lack of faith. I am helping them to become obedient to the Lord in yet another area.
The third main factor or cause for underpaid pastors is an overly controlling board. I do not believe pastors should be dictators lording it over their people. Neither do I believe they should be puppets dancing on the strings pulled by the deacons. Scriptural truth and practice are balanced, beloved. But just like it is sadly true that there are tyrannical pastors so it is sadly true that there are oppressive deacon or elder boards. Such groups are almost always led by some pillar in the church. This guy was there before the pastor came and will be there after the pastor leaves and he never lets the pastor forget it. He is often wealthy in comparison with the rest of the church. They look up to him and trust him to handle the church's money as a result. Often in the process of making that money he became very assertive and authoritative. The Sermon on the Mount makes no impact on him, and he uses the meekness and gentleness of those around him as building blocks for his own control. Churches like this tend to have money piled up in the bank.
Again, I do not want to be misunderstood here. Wealthy, take charge type of men can serve the Lord very well in a leadership capacity in the church as long as they keep their focus on that word serve. The same spiritual principles apply to them as apply to the pastor. But weeds will sprout in the cleanest of gardens and good men will be swallowed up by their own prideful inclinations far more often than we want to admit.
On the other hand, sometimes this board induced poverty does not arise from a man or men who seek control but from a man or men who genuinely believe that they are being wise stewards of God's money. They see the need of the mission field, of the bus ministry, of the mortgage, etc. as being somehow more deserving than their own pastor or staff. Such men love souls. They love the Lord. They love the cause of Christ. But they do not understand that the financial principles of generosity and double honor are just as biblical as the financial principles of prudence and sacrifice.
The prevailing philosophy is that there is some magical spirituality in poverty. After all, even Jesus didn't have a place to lay his head and you aren't better than him, are you pastor? You don't want to make merchandise of God's people, do you pastor? If the church knew what you were asking, pastor, people would talk. God will take care of you, never you fear, and this pile of money we're sitting on might be needed for some rainy day in the future.
There are several different ways a wise pastor can attack such an unwise practice. First, he can use the power of the bully pulpit. He can preach sermons about the church's responsibility to pay the pastor. He can preach sermons about being generous. He can preach sermons about the greediness of a miserly, stingy attitude. He can preach about faith and double honor. There are texts and examples aplenty in Scripture for all of these. Will some people misunderstand? Of course, but a pastor who loves his people well will generally find they return the sentiment.
Second, he can seek to lessen the main obstructive influence. He can add additional members to the board and so dilute a primary influence. He can lead the church to see the wisdom of term limits for positions. He can ease an older man out into an honorary position.
Third, he can widen the group he works with. If the deacons are not being teachable then he can hold his meetings with a wider body of men. In other words, he can move past or above or around the obstacle.
Finally, in very rare cases he can even seek to move directly through the obstacle. A wise pastor avoids this as long as possible. He does not pick fights unless he has tried everything else first and then waited and prayed for a long while. He leads gradually. He takes the long view. He respects position and honors past service. But in some cases there is no other choice. There is something about a biting dog that is hard to cure. Sometimes said dog just has to be muzzled or even sent to the pound. In such a case, for the sake of the church itself, a fight must be made. If the pastor does not he will inevitably find himself playing second fiddle forever, or packing his bags and leaving the awful problem to the next poor chap who accepts the call. Neither of those are right. This last alternative is like the atomic bomb. You keep it in the closet. You wheel it out every once in a while to let people know it is there but you only set it off for very compelling reasons.
Whichever one of these causes or combination of causes exists you can see the common thread of solution. It is the pastor. I do not mean to imply that God is not the answer. He is to everything. In confidence the pastor ought to apply the remedy. He ought to teach what the Bible says on the subject. He ought to lean upon the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit for confidence. He ought to avail himself of the wisdom found in a book like Proverbs. He ought to bathe it all in love and prayer. He ought to always keep in back of this the foundational necessity of sacrifice. And then he ought to get up and tackle the problem.
As he does this the church will begin to see its responsibility. They will gradually adjust course. They will incorporate the necessary attitudes which will result in a shift of priorities. They will do this, not as the result of compulsion or spiritual intimidation, but out of a genuine desire to please the Lord.
There are, perhaps, other contributory factors and other solutions. As always, I welcome your input either with additional ideas or in response to my own. The vast majority of pastors are not in it for the money. The vast majority of churches do not purposely intend to keep them in poverty. Thus, these underlying causes and any others are eminently fixable. May God give us all, churches and pastors alike, His grace to do so.