Pastors' compensation -- it’s a sensitive issue. Pastors not become pastors because it’s a lucrative career—they answered God’s call to save souls. But pastors can’t live if they are not properly compensated either. I am writing this article in part as a response to the recent study released by Grey Matter Research & Consulting, looking at the financial struggles of Evangelical pastors in the US as well as a study done by AARP and AAAJ surveying 50 and older Asian Americans. Both studies were released on April 2016.
The former study concludes that the vast majority of evangelical pastors in the US face financial challenges and the latter study concludes that Korean American elderly in LA County scored highest in categories of “Poverty Level & Low Income” and “Uninsured.” It is a sad reality to pastors and Korean Americans to be faced with such statistics.
I would like to discuss both sides of the issue of why pastors should be concerned about their earnings, and why pastors shouldn’t be (too) concerned about how much money they make.
One reason that pastors should be concerned about their compensation: Hopefully, a Bible believing pastor would uphold the Bible as God’s Word and believe that all parts of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Ti 3:16), that they are inspired and authoritative in the pastor’s life. For instance, all Evangelical Christian pastors would believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, although the narrative is only mentioned in two places in the Bible, namely in Matthew and Luke. That is because the Bible teaches that such a miraculous birth happened, and we accept it although it is difficult to comprehend it. It is not about naively believing something as true because it is in the Bible, but rather knowing that something is in the Bible because it is true. So why is it that many pastors don’t necessarily treat this following teaching from the Bible on par with other parts of Scripture?—1 Timothy 5:8 (ESV) says, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” It pains me to write this, but I personally know many, many pastors who have put their ministry above their family, and have not lived out this particular teaching from the Bible. So does that make many pastors “worse than an unbeliever?” It sure makes me pause and think for a while.
Also, the Fifth Commandment states, “Honor your father and your mother.” This teaching is not only mentioned in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but also echoed by Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:2 with an emphasis: “This is the first commandment with a promise.” To properly exegete the Fifth Commandment means to honor one’s parents by providing for them in tangible, financial ways (It does not merely mean “obey” them as we typically learn in Sunday school). It was God’s provision for the Israelites in a society where social security, pensions, and benefits did not exist. I believe that the spirit of the Fifth Commandment (as well as all other nine Commandments) is still valid to this day for all believers. We really should honor one’s parents when they are old, sick, and do not have the means to support themselves. So this is where the rubber of the Ephesians 6:2 passage hits the road—hard. With the majority of pastors struggling financially, and our own parents (as Korean Americans) in deep levels of poverty and lacking health insurance, what is it that Korean American or EM pastors can do to live out the teachings of the Bible (as mentioned above) and strive to be biblical in our lives, ministry, and to our family? How can pastors be sufficient providers of one’s family and also be able to honor one’s parents as the Bible teaches? I believe these are good biblical reasons why pastors should courageously voice their concern about one’s pay and compensation to the church board members, elders, church members, and fellow pastors. Voicing our concern about being able to live out the teachings of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Ephesians, and 1 Timothy by being financially sufficient is not about being greedy, but about desiring to please God by truly following what His Word teaches us in our daily lives. Hopefully, the church congregation will be able to see how important it is for their own pastor to be better, not “worse than an unbeliever.”
One reason that pastors shouldn’t be (too) concerned about their pay: I used to think pastors’ compensation consisted of such things such as health and dental insurance, housing allowance, paid time off, retirement portfolio, and a decent salary. I recently added a new compensation item to the list: Honor. Pastors are partly compensated not only through monetary means, but they are also compensated through intangible means, such as honor, respect, and even glory. Let me share a story from my Army trip to Washington state a couple of months ago. While visiting some of my soldiers in one of the downtrace units in WA, I met a fellow officer, a Captain. Even though I’m a chaplain, I also wear the rank of a Captain, and we spent some time talking about various topics. I found out that this Captain is actually a California state judge who delivers more than 300 decisions a year—and here he was serving his country as a soldier! During the conversation, he became rather emotionally involved and blurted out “I don’t give a hell!” as a response to another soldier engaged in the conversation. Then, something very interesting happened. He turned to me, became alarmed and said, “I’m sorry chaplain, please excuse my language.” I have to say, I was quite blown away by the judge correcting himself because he was in front of, not just an officer, but a chaplain, a “man of the cloth.” I can’t think of any other instance where an elderly judge would correct himself for his language, standing in front of a youngster as myself, other than the fact that I wear the cross on my chest. And that is the type of respect and honor the position of chaplain, pastor, and clergy draws out from people.
Pastors are partly, or even in good sum, compensated through the respect, honor, and the glory the position inherently has within. Here’s another example: I have read, heard, and saw many instances where a physician, a corporate executive, a lawyer, a university professor, or a politician, (which are all positions of respect and honor in some sense) later in one’s life, changed direction and sought out to become a member of the clergy; I really have not heard of cases where a pastor later changed his/her life direction and sought out other careers. Even if they did, most would still retain the pastor-ship or be in a related field, such as teaching theology at seminary. It seems, at the end of all disciplines, one is confronted with questions about the meaning of life, what is good and evil, etc., and such answers can only be answered by what is known as “the ultimate reality”—God. Indeed, theology does seem to be the queen of the sciences, as successful people of various fields do seem to be drawn to this particular discipline. And pastors are at the front end of the honorable position of teaching about God and his message, which makes sense that others will ultimately try to seek this pathway as well.
Honor plays a great role in the life of a pastor, but honor does not necessarily put food on the table or pay the rent. I do believe that there is a fine balance between having a good combination of monetary and non-monetary compensations for pastors to be able to truly live out biblical teachings. Apostle Paul speaks of “double honor” for those who preach and teach God’s Word (1 Tim. 5:17). We as Christians must seek to do our best to ensure that pastors are fairly compensated for such “double honor” as Paul mentions. It is a crucial issue for all members of the church to look into, together.
Reverend Joseph Choi is a senior chaplain of the Spiritual Care Department at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance, CA. He also serves as a chaplain for the U.S. Army Reserves.