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Why Pastors Should Get a Family Wage

February 12th, 2024 | 5 min read

By Rhys Laverty

What’s your pastor’s salary?

This question will prompt any number of reactions. For some, the answer is clouded in secrecy—it would be improper to ask. For others, it’s common knowledge among the congregation, and noted every year during the riveting finance section of the church’s annual congregational meeting. For others still, it’s something we’ve perhaps never even thought about.

Having prompted such thoughts, let’s ask another question: what should your pastor’s salary be?

In this short article, I want to make the case for the answer generally being thus: “a pastor’s salary should be a family wage.” By family wage, I mean a wage that can adequately cover the costs of a family with multiple children to a decent standard of living.

Immediately, this suggestion will provoke quibbles and outright disagreement. My suggestion is a purposefully broad principle—a starting point. Practicalities will always differ, but these should only be considered after first staking out principles.

Although the New Testament provides us, alas, with no pastoral payscale, it addresses the question of pastoral remuneration fairly directly. The key text is 1 Corinthians 9.

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defence to those who sit in judgement on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever ploughs and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? (1 Cor. 9:1-12a)

Paul is setting up a haymaker here. His point, when the passage continues in 9:12b, will be that he willingly gave up his right to earn an appropriate living from his ministry so as not to “hinder the gospel of Christ”—presumably by inviting accusations that he was preaching for profit. His reward is that “in preaching the gospel [he] may offer it free of charge” (9:18).

The purpose of all this is to make an example of himself, in order to compel the Corinthians to give up various of their rights for the sake of both witness to unbelievers and love of their weaker brothers.

And so there is a clear teaching from Paul for pastors here: though you have a right to earn your living from the gospel, you should be willing to sacrifice that if necessary for the sake of the Gospel.

Yet there is also a clear teaching for churches here too, made explicit in 9:13-14:

Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

Strong words: “the Lord has commanded.” Exactly what “command” Paul has in mind isn’t entirely clear—whether something specific Christ in his earthly ministry, or if he is simply using the typical rabbinic move of kal vachomer, reasoning from “light and heavy”, from God’s care for oxen to God’s care for man. Either way, the Apostle is clear: Christ has commanded.

What this would have meant in the specific economic conditions of Paul’s day is hard to say. But that didn’t stop him from saying it, and expecting the Corinthians to work it out. For much of church history, it looked like support provided in some fashion by the central church authorities in the form of bed and board. That’s not to say that, prior to the modern era, clergy were never muzzled oxen. It’s easy to romanticize the parish life of a medieval priest living in his thatched rectory, but I’ve recently been reading Nicholas Orme’s fantastic book Going to Church in Medieval England, and he makes clear that clerical incomes varied wildly, with many medieval clergy grossly undersupported. Fast forward a millennium or so, and C.S. Lewis makes an aside in his essay “Myth Became Fact” to the reality that clergymen are usually on “starvation pay.”

Coming forward to 2024: What does it mean for those who preach their gospel to “receive their living from the gospel” today? Given that we are now in a world in which dual-income families are a majority, it can be tempting to say that, in our context, it means paying the pastor a reasonable individual salary, since this is what making “a living” means for most folk now. Pew Research in 2015 found that 48% of two parent US families have both parents working, up from 31% in 1970 (and it seems reasonable to assume this has only risen in the past 8 years). ONS figures show that, In the UK, the most common arrangement for two-parent families since 2020 is for both parents to be working full-time.

This, however, accepts the rules of a very recent game: the dissolution of the household into atomized individuals, rather than a collective whole. The “household” is a category assumed throughout Scripture, from Genesis 7 when Noah is told to take his whole household into the ark, through to Hebrews 11 when the same household is mentioned again. The household is not simply a contingent bit of “Ancient Near East” context, but a God-given part of nature, recognized as the basis of human society in every civilization prior to the post-WW2 West. And even we were reminded of its inescapable reality during the COVID pandemic when the word “household” returned to common parlance. And so it is an unbiblical move for us to see the reward of a median individual salary as a faithful application of the Lord’s commands here.

For a pastor to “receive his living from the gospel” in our context, then, will usually mean that he receives a family wage from the church, since his living is that of his household. We can note also that Paul says pastors have the right to “take a believing wife” along with them (9:5)—his assumption clearly being that a pastor should expect the church to remunerate him in a way which supports his wife, as well as him.

There is much more than can be said here (and I recently wrote a longer piece on the bigger issues surrounding this whole issue). Economic issues, congregational sensitivities, witness to unbelievers—all of these impinge upon the conversation. But we must begin with biblical principles. And when we ask “what should our pastor’s salary be?” it seems hard to argue, with our feet planted in 1 Corinthians 9, for anything other than a pastoral family wage.

Now, what exactly does that mean? Paying the equivalent of two full-time professional salaries? Or the median household income for the locale? Approximating your pastoral payscale to some other industry scale which the elders regard as relatively equivalent? These questions take into the territory where churches must begin to determine things for themselves, and I will refrain from making prescriptions here. A good place to start, though, would probably be with surveying young families in the congregation.

Practicalities will always differ, of course, between congregations. But if we are all working from Scripture, our principles should be the same:

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,”and “The worker deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5:17-18).