Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Surgically Removing the Full-Time Compensation Ideal

On a September Friday in 1998, I received my first paycheck in ministry with four digits on it.

O day full of grace.

Melanie and I went to dinner and a movie that day. We purchased clothing. We floated in to happy hour with our friends and colleagues. Urban professionals congregate this way on a regular basis. To us, it was a novelty. It still is. I think we do something similar once or twice a year in this season of life. Maybe.

For my first decade of ordained ministry, my colleagues and I evaluated ministries based on their ability to pay a pastor a full-time wage. The vital signs of healthy ministry were often based on this calibration. An entire system of church and ministry was built on what I see as a cancerous system. We weren't the only ones guided in this way. The full-time wage has to be a contributing variable to the widespread pain in the anachronistic title of "Mainline."

We looked at our older, retired colleagues, with little (if any) savings, pension, or health insurance. These professors of wisdom told stories of how they were sometimes paid with livestock. While they had a wealth of ministry insight, we scoffed at the prospect of porcine compensation. Now we scoff at ourselves in our current predicaments, with alternating senses of entitlement and fear.

Full-time wages for pastors will remain available, but they are the exception. We have reached a new normal. It's a challenging ministry environment. I haven't even mentioned those who carry student loan debt. Their pain is multiplied. I have been there.

Maybe we will find more equilibrium in ministry if we surgically remove the notion of full-time compensation supported by individual congregations. I'm not sure it was ever good for mission and the prophetic word in the first place. Part of this full-time-ectomy will call for a student loan jubilee, but that is another post for another day.

I have often discussed with congregations that in order to move in a positive direction for ministry, they need to be willing to let go of something. Any person or group struggles to let go. I let go of an ideal of full-time compensation. I'm no martyr in this equation. I've only been able to let go because of the work of my wife. She earns the full-time compensation that makes it possible. Many times, it is the generosity of others that makes it possible to let go.

Jesus knew something of generosity so that others could let go.


  1. AMmfEN! Joe, this damn near made me cry. I so desperately want the church to realize the predicament so many are in and help us. To be the church they speak of to us and treat us with the same care and compassion they tenderly exert upon the homeless, the sea of souls in the foreign mission fields...are we not worth the effort, love, and provision?

  2. Ryan--

    I'm not sure the church will ever "help" in the way you imply. It depends on what you mean by church. If you mean the grass roots--then yes, the church will help. Though not at the level to deal with the "powers and principalities of student loan debt." If it is on the denominational or judicatory, then probably not. I discussed this with Brian at UNCO--our colleagues struggle to grasp that on the denominational level, there's no there there. A Gertrude Stein moment to be sure. But we can resource each other. While the looking to the judicatory or denomination at UNCO continues to frustrate me, the desire to resource one another is what will bring me back if it continues. I will continue to look for ways we can resource one another. Thanks for commenting.