The Myth of the Money-grubbing Minister

dmitry-kolchev.jpg

There’s something that concerns me when I listen to new ministers and seminarians. We have an awkward relationship with money.

As church leaders, we are consciously opting out of a high salary. Pastors comfortably fit into the top 25% of intelligence levels in our country. So, we’re smart enough to be doing just about anything, but we are counter-cultural and have a calling to something else.

A friend of mine went to Princeton University, and when she announced to her family that she wanted to become a pastor, her mom moaned, “Well, that degree was a waste!” I am sure that you, no doubt, have heard the same sort of plain: “But you’re so talented. You could make money. Why would you want to do that?”

I have heard that doctors, lawyers, and pastors used to make the same salary. Now we don’t. Things have changed. We know that the very top guy in our field (as much as we might think he’s overpaid) is usually not making a fraction of what he would make in a comparable position in another occupation.

So, we’ve obviously made some monetary sacrifices. That’s clear. But here’s where things get weird….

I saw Rob Bell in his “The Gods Aren’t Angry” Tour a few months ago. It was very good. He presented a clear, entertaining, applicable view of the atonement. It was an evangelical, penal substitutionary atonement view. But he shifted the need for the penalty from God to humans. God isn’t angry, God doesn’t need our sacrifices to atone. There is something deep within us that needs to present those gifts. He took this delicate, yet very important step, with his audience, by setting a historical context.

There was a line, however, within the presentation that stuck with me. Bell was explaining the Levitical codes, and he pointed out something like… priests used to be very wealthy. They made a lot from people’s guilt and their need to atone. He said something sly and sarcastic, about how we couldn’t imagine religious leaders making a lot of money off of people now. I looked around the packed auditorium. Hundreds of people (each paying a ticket price to get in) nodded and chuckled. It clearly resonated with the crowd.

The theater that he was performing at is on the GW campus, just a couple of blocks from my church. I walked through the hordes of people buying his books and DVDs. I’m glad he’s making money. He’s smart and talented. But, as I walked back to the church building, I was disheartened. He just validated that notion that religious leaders are making truckloads of money. He will drive away in his big bus, and I will need to continue to work on that campus, now having to overcome yet another stigma that I’m a greedy religious leader.

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll just hope that he’s talking about his colleagues–evangelical pastors who have congregations of thousands, like his. That he wasn’t talking about the associate pastor of a congregation of 250 members. But I’m not sure my neighbors make that distinction.

I hate the perpetuation of this idea. It permeates our society, our churches, and our very own leadership. This notion that somehow we ought not to be making money. That if we do, we’re greedy capitalists. That if we have a particular calling to a large congregation, then we must have it for nefarious reasons. When in reality, most of us are in debt from going to seminary and we can’t pay our mortgages. We could be doing a whole lot of other things if we were in it for the money.

So, is there any way to put an end to this, once and for all? Could we please stop the myth of the greedy pastor?

photo’s by Dmitry Kolchev

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8 thoughts on “The Myth of the Money-grubbing Minister

  1. Wow. I don’t think this is a myth that floats around rural America much. Folks are always telling me I’m underpaid. The pauper pastor is more the image up here.

    I think that’s sort of problematic and a myth, too. I barely make over Presbytery minimum, but my congregation compensates me generously. I am comfortable. I am not poor. I have great health insurance (usually). I get six weeks of away time a year.

    I agree with you though, that we, as pastors, have a strange relationship to money and that few, if any, of us got into this for the money.

  2. I don’t think there is any way do put an end to the myth, because I don’t think it’s a myth. Back pedal: I don’t think it’s a myth with regard to what people are exposed to in the media.

    Frankly, I have stopped caring. I have a family and I will negotiate terms of call that will provide for them. Ministering in an affluent community then, means living in that affluent community, which in turn means creating the appearance of affluence in my own life. (I realize that compared to 90% of the world’s population, I am not only affluent, but amazingly wealthy. However, in this town we drive to Grandma’s on vacation instead of flying to Europe.)

    I have gotten to the point where saying I’m not in it for the money feels like saying, “Some of my best friends are black,” while growing up in the South.

    My teeth aren’t as white as Joel Osteen’s, and my clothes aren’t as cool as Rob Bell’s. But I feel like trying to prove who I am not distracts me from who I want to be.

    I agree it’s a myth, but it will be as long as tv’s exist and people are still intersted in this internet thing.

  3. I really don’t have a clue which myth is more real: pastors are greedy, or pastors are pauper. Perhaps both are equally true/untrue, when you think about it. I’m thinking, Carol, that maybe people don’t think much about either myth anymore. Nothing is secure econonically and maybe we’re all getting used to everything shifting, and pretty quickly. People feel like they have money, then they feel like they don’t, with housing prices going crazy up and then bursting. Who can say who has money anymore? I still think that any family with a stay-at-home parent is incredibly privileged. And my husband and I did that for our kids (although it was him at home, not me) so maybe we ARE greedy, I don’t know. I know we made our choices, anyway. Isn’t that what money always is: choices? Sorry to ramble, this may contribute nothing.

  4. MCTP,

    I have a friend who’s an Episcopal priest in rural Alabama who makes the minimum, but it’s way more than his parishioners make. So, he has the experience as you… feeling very blessed.

    And I do too. My husband and I live close to our churches, and I thank God every morning for that fact. Not to mention the insurance. And the vacation time. And I’ll add the pension to that.

    I think the frustration for me is how the pastors’ motivations are so often questioned.

    And… how does Osteen get those teeth so white?

  5. I think the strange thing is that the cost of the education to arrive at such a standing is overlooked. The former ways of tithing are lost in the church, and people are generally penurious. There is a misperception about what the pastor has to pay for with his or her salary, as sometimes health care and housing are already covered, and so the salary is artificially lowered.
    Thank you for bringing this issue up, and addressing some of the continuing stigmas attached with pastor’s salary, whether that is $20,000 toilets, or super jets, or car allowance that can pay for a new lamborghini every few years. There are abuses to be sure, but the actual value of the pastor and the pressures they undergo are amazing.
    Peace,
    David

  6. Carol,
    I am sad that money is something that inspires trepidation and fear in many of my graduating collouges and I. I do not know any money grubbing ecclisial pirates. Perhaps a few idealistic, hungry sinners seeking to find truth and serve G-d.

    We seek to invest your life in something that matters. I think pastor vocation is not the same thing today as it was in previous years. With the stigmas and misconceptions we face it is a miricle that anyone attends seminaries at all.

    Money, sexuality, and salvation are explosive topics. They are all rooted in power. The Xers, to which I am part of, are dying for truth. They are also not the most supportive of “organized religion”. I ponder if bi-vocational pastoring is the becoming the only viable model of sustainable ministry.

    As for ending the money grubbing pastor perception. Preach it from the pulpit and in life. I think the pastor needs to be most human. We need to be vulnerable and open our hearts, minds, and will to minister from our journey. Life is full of teaching moments. Let our lives speak to the hunger that brought us to the foot of the cross. To steal from Dr. Donelson, “at the foot of the cross we are…with its ever shifting ground. Falling and lifting, we are there.”

    Blessings and peace

  7. The myth is alive and well here, so much so that I found myself sputtering, trying to defend a tiny quarter time salary (at presbytery minimum) to a small church that is angry about having to pay “all that money” for a new pastor.

    It is disheartening.

  8. M6127,

    Ugh. I’m so sorry. I’ve been there. It is disheartening. In fact, as this post stewed for a day, I think I’m working through a bit of post-traumatic stress from former salary discussions.

    (Is “PTS” over-dramatic? Actually… I don’t think so….)

    Ryan,

    I hope we don’t end up going to bivocational pastorates. Most pastors I know have a difficult time keeping things within 40 hours as it is. I can’t imagine what it would do to our families if another job was expected of us. Maybe we’ll go back to the itinerant preacher model.

    I think, at this crucial time, we need to be very careful. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again… this is quickly becoming a job that only the wealthy or retired can enter.

    To guard against this, we need to be paid an amount that (1) pays for adequate housing in the area and (2) takes into account student loans (how we can do this without people getting snoopy with our debts is another question…).

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