Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

The Problematic Predicament of Paying the Pastor

  • Joe McKeever
  • 2010 23 Dec
The Problematic Predicament of Paying the Pastor

Every pastor I know is held by two scriptures at opposite poles--and also torn between them.

On the one hand, "The laborer is worthy of his hire." That word from 1 Timothy 5:18 is a quotation of several Old Testament references. The New Testament will not let the super-spiritual among us dismiss the idea of compensating the minister with something like, "The Bible teaches that the ministers should get out and hold jobs like everyone else; there's nothing in there about paying the preacher."

Bad wrong. Read your Bible.

But on the other hand, the other reality that Scripture nails down as a line the minister must not cross says, "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:10).

On one side, the minister must never put a price on the work he does. He must look to the Lord as the Source for his needs.

On the other side, he should be adequately compensated. The church must do the faithful and responsible thing in providing for these the Lord has called, equipped, and sent into His fields to labor.

He has a hard time saying this. So, I'm saying it for him.

Some thirty years ago, Dr. Bill Prout was a professor of religion on the faculty of Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, MS, where I served the First Baptist Church. I was Bill's pastor, but he himself was a former pastor of Southern Baptist churches. He often supplied pulpits in the area for absent ministers and took interims when churches were between pastors.

I wrote an article for the old Baptist Program (the wonderful Leonard Hill was editor) based on a conversation Dr. Prout and I had. Fifteen years earlier, when he arrived in the community and began to fill the pulpits, he told me the average check to the visiting minister was 50 dollars.

"It's still 50 dollars," he laughed.

A friend who worked at a local bank ran the numbers and informed us that 50 dollars in, say, 1960, would have to be about 125 dollars fifteen years later, in order to have the same buying power. I quoted him in the article and urged churches to be more generous and faithful in taking care of their visiting ministers.

And now, that truth has come full circle for me.

It was easy to say churches should do the responsible thing when I was serving a rather prosperous county-seat-town church. It gave me a lot of pleasure to hand visiting ministers, particularly revival guests who had spent a week laboring among us, a generous check.

Then, I came to pastor a church in the New Orleans area that had barely survived a split and was struggling to keep its head above the water. The monthly mortgage payments on the huge sanctuary required over half our income. There were times back then--I grieve to remember--when the offerings we gave visiting ministers were far less than they should have been.

For those who read these words, I want them to know I remember. I didn't forget their faithfulness and the sweet spirit with which they took the small checks and went on to their next assignment.

The prayer of my heart was (and is) that the Lord made it up to them on the next place they served.

These days, as an unemployed retiree I am now the one being handed a check at the end of a day. All in all, I have no complaint. In my case, it really is working out that a low check one time is made up the next time.

In every case--large check or small--I thank them and thank the Lord. The Lord is my Source. I do remember, be assured of that.

I'm leading up to something; bear with me.

Before getting to it, I want to tell you about those full-time evangelists who are being invited to hold revivals in fewer and fewer churches. Now, with Southern Baptists counting over 40,000 congregations, there are still enough doing extended revival meetings to keep several hundred evangelists at it full-time.

But, they cannot make a living from revivals. Does that surprise you?

Just so you'll know, the typical evangelist has to find friends wtih deep pockets who believe in his/her ministry to help underwrite the work. An evangelist friend said on Facebook the other day (to someone else; I was eavesdropping the way we do on FB) that without the support of his board he would be living at the poverty level.

Figure it out. He can preach no more than 30 to 35 weeks of the year at most, due to his physical limitations, the scheduling difficulties and because churches do not schedule revivals year round, but only at certain seasons. If he makes, say, a thousand dollars per week on average, he's in big trouble. A great deal of expenses have to come out of that before he can pay his rent and put groceries on the table or buy braces for the children's teeth.

I don't read where anyone is saying this any more.

What I see--and this is where I was going with all this in the first place--is how churches want something for nothing. Well, okay, that's a little strong. They want a lot for a little.

Ask any denominational worker who gets invited to fill the pulpit in the pastor's absence.

Ask any bi-vocational pastor.

Ask any retired minister who still wants to preach, both out of his sense of call and love for the Lord and His church and because he needs to supplement his income.

Ask me.

I can't get out of my mind an experience from the early 1970s when a deacon from a former pastorate invited me to drive to South Mississippi--we were living in Jackson at the time--to help him get a youth rally organized. He knew we'd been active in such rallies in Birmingham, New Orleans, and Greenville, MS, where I'd most recently pastored.

My family made the 100 mile drive, spent the afternoon with him and his team of adults who were trying to put the rally together, and then I spoke at the youth meeting at one of their churches. So, now, late that night, dead-tired, my wife and I and our sleepy-headed sons are ready to make the drive back to Jackson. The deacon said, "I don't owe you anything for this, do I?"

There's only one answer to that. "Nope. Glad to help."

And I was. But I felt taken advantage of. I was being poorly paid in the present church staff position and would have been delighted had he offered to pay for my gasoline at least.

That afternoon, in my counsel to his team, I had emphasized that they should take up an offering in each rally to have a worthy gift for the speaker.

"We don't owe you anything, do we?"

You could carve that in stone and erect it in front of far too many churches as summing up their philosophy of caring for those who labor among them, particularly the visiting guests.

I'm going to do something here which I might think better of later. If that happens, I'll come back and delete this section and later readers will never know it was here.

As a cartoonist, I love to help churches do block parties and VBS parents nights and such. I get requests to "draw our pastor at his desk doing such-and-such" for his birthday or anniversary and if I can do it, I do.

You'd be surprised how few thank-yous I receive.

And the churches that actually give you something to help pay for your expenses (gasoline, paper, pens, whatever) would be one out of a hundred.

I don't really know any other people who do this. There aren't a lot of Southern Baptist cartoonists, in case you haven't noticed. So it's not like we get together for gripe sessions. We don't. We don't even know one another.

But I'm betting it's the same with them too.

When a staff member of a large church asked me to do an involved drawing for the cover of a book his church was printing, then asked me to re-draw it and change a couple of things, he eventually e-mailed his thanks and said he'd like to buy my lunch sometime to show appreciation.

I was torn.

Do I tell him? And what do I tell him?

I am not good at this.

I wrote back, "My friend, I have to eat. I'll always be glad to share a meal with you. But bear in mind that I spent several hours on that drawing. I need to be paid for it. I'd like to suggest you get with the pastor and figure out what would be appropriate."

A few weeks later--yep, weeks, not days--an envelope arrived with five 20-dollar bills stuffed inside. Not a word with it.

It felt like a rebuff.

The very idea, that I expected to be paid for this.

One of the departments of our SBC publishing house that puts out Sunday School literature has taken what I consider an innovative step. They have a cartoon along with the Sunday School lesson for that particular age group. Since none of the others do that (to my knowledge), I applaud them.

When I received a call from them inviting me to submit cartoons to be considered, at first I was interested. They pay 200 dollars each, which, any religious cartoonist could tell you, is extremely good.

Here's the problem. They send you all the material about those Sunday School lessons for a full quarter, perhaps a year in advance. You read the stuff, study the main points, and then come up with cartoons. When you finish--remembering there are 13 Sundays in a quarter--you send to their office. They collect all the submissions from all the cartoonists and on a certain date, they open them and go through them and select the ones they want. They inform the artists who then draw finished versions and color them.

The first time they asked me, I begged off. I had a full-time job and felt this would be a great deal of labor for possibly a small or even no payoff.

A few weeks ago, they contacted me and asked me to reconsider, saying they've seen my work and like it. Okay, I said. I'm retired now, so I'll give it a try. I did. And because I was late entering the process, I had 2 weeks only to get everything in.

For the 13 lessons, I probably sent 15 to 20 cartoon ideas. To do that took perhaps that many hours of reading and thinking and sketching.

Yesterday, the department head notified me that they've chosen one of my cartoons. Now I'm to draw it and color it and scan and send it to them. I have 10 days to do that. I'm to send an invoice with all kinds of information on it, requesting my 200 dollars.

I'll do it. But I sent a return note to the supervisor to ask her to "include me out" the next time. The people in her office are super nice and I'm thrilled they are running a cartoon with the lesson, but this is not something I want to do twice. It's a poor use of my time for the small payoff.

After all, as my wife reminds me sometimes, it's not like I need something else to do. (Look at my preaching schedule on the home page of I'm blessed to be staying so busy).

How I wish I was one of these people who understood his motives better than I do. Wish I could see clearly through the fog of my own desires, ego, love for God, devotion to ministry, and pride. It's all so mixed up, it's hard to know where the "strait and narrow"path is sometimes.

Is this ego? Is it righteousness? Is it both?

That's my dilemma.

Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at with permission.

Original publication date: September 17, 2009