The Church Is Changing: Is The Day Of The “Paid Pastor” Over?

jobI saw a video over at Tony Jones’ blog which should be chilling wake up call to anyone under 30 who wants to be a pastor or go into some form of professional ministry.  Its a clip from PBS on the decline of “paid” pastoral roles at congregations within the United States.

Says Greg Sterling, Head of the Yale Divinity School:

There are about 300,000 churches and congregations in the United States.  I don’t know what the percentage of those are financially viable enough in the sense of having the capacity to support someone on a full time basis but my guess is the majority are not…

The video shows numerous seminary graduates or qualified ministers who are holding down part time jobs to make ends meet while they struggle to look for a church to hire them.

Which begs the question “Is being a pastor a viable career choice for the 21st century?”

Was it ever meant to be a career choice?

Was ministry supposed to be something we sent CVs and resumes out for hoping to score a job?

As I watched this video I felt for some of these guys.  They bought into the church “system” but that “system” is disappearing.  They are horse and buggy drivers and the first Model Ts are coming off the assembly line.

Some of the comments on Tony’s blog shine some more light on the issue:

* “Every time someone tells me they’re going to seminary, I tell them to get an MBA instead. Or an MFT. Anything, for God’s sake, but an Mdiv.”

* “In the future (I’m talking 30-50 years) most pastors will have to do their jobs on a voluntary or part-time basis. It being a career will be a thing of the past.”

* “Many of us pastors now are earning our livings out there in the “real world” and our ministry is completely voluntary. The career path of the past 100 years is already dead and gone; just too many of us haven’t realized it yet.”

* “Good news for religious professionals is hard to come by these days.”

* “This almost makes me rethink going to Seminary.”

I must admit I get a little nervous when someone under 25 tells me they are going to Seminary or Bible college.  My concern is the possible struggle they will have later in life in a field that is increasingly a “non-paid” position.

Granted there is still enough of the “system” that it could work out…but I have seen many a pastor have to make a transition to the “secular” work environment in their 30s and 40s armed with only a Bachelors in Missiology…

…and it ain’t pretty!

I remember when I started my undergraduate studies.  I did it more as a hobby as I was already a pastor with my mind determined that was my life’s occupation.  With that in mind I decided to get a “secular” based Bachelor’s degree to help me feel connected to the “real world”.  A pastor friend of mine took issue with that and tried very hard to encourage me to get a religious B.A. which would be the springboard to a Master of Divinity.  I thought about it for a bit as  I really admired the man and respected him a lot but…

thank God I didn’t take his advice!


Church leaders in the 21st Century

In the first century the newly established Christian communities were led by:

* fishermen

* tent makers

* tax collectors

* doctors

and I’m certain a host of other professions.  There were no “church professionals” back then.  A desire to serve others and the anointing of the Holy Spirit seemed to be ordination enough for a group of people that took Christ’s message of love and reconciliation to the ends of the Earth!

In like manner the emerging Christian communities of the 21st century will be led by:

* artists

* teachers

* skilled labor

* entrepreneurs

* white collar workers

* blue collar workers

and a myriad of other people with the calling of God on their lives.

You want a leadership role in the 21st Century church?

You best learn to:

* Love God

* Love People

…oh, and it would probably help to get a job!


  • Tim

    The idea of not being paid for full-time ministry is a tough pill to swallow for those who have “heard the call from God”, went to Bible College and/or Seminary, became ordained, took on debt, heard the confirmation of that call by many others, maybe raised $$$ to plant a church or bought in to the enterprise church plant model. With some much invested it’s difficult to see another way. After 12 years of paid ministry I left more out of seeing that the institutionalized church is broken and that I was part of the problem. Making that decision to walk away wasn’t easy and the past 12 yeas have been a rugged journey of discovering what else I can do to support my family and be faithful to God and the Church. Along the way I’ve met many others with similar stories. Like you Steve, I feel a bit nervous when I run in to younger guys telling me of their plans for paid ministry by going to school, then planting a church, or looking for some position. If there is an openness, I often suggest to them that they consider getting a BA is Business or something else that will serve them in supporting themselves and family.

    • Steve

      Tim, Thanks for your your heartfelt sharing. It was 10 years ago for me that I cut the financial ties that linked me to paid ministry. It was a both a “freeing” as well as “terrifying” time. These days I do still get honorariums on occasion when I speak somewhere. I have no objection to receiving a gift, biblically it is part of sustaining ministry, but like you I question whether a full time paid position is a sustainable model for the future and more importantly, has it neutered the priesthood of believers and limited the effectiveness of the Gospel?

      • Tim

        Steve, you may have heard the quote from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It’s a Matrix thing, you either see it and then deny it, don’t see it and live happily ever after, or see it and live differently. The Church Institution most likely will always exist with some paid staff, that will dwindle in numbers, and may end up appearing archaic.

        It appears the Jehovah Witnesses have been successful without paid staff, along with groups like AA.

        The Barna group pegs the average Protestant church size in America at 89 adults. 60% of protestant churches have less than 100 adults in attendance. Only 2% have over 1000 adults attending. So, it appears the majority of churches are smaller in size and most likely employ one full time leader. My question has always been, why does a church with 100 people or less need to pay anyone? Certainly there are capable leaders among them that are able to teach, counsel, lead, etc.

        It appears the early church helped with the needs of the apostles, those sent out to plant when the gospel hadn’t been preached. Once there was a core group of people gathering, the apostles left the leading of the gathering in the hands of local capable men/women, who were then called elders. I don’t see where there is any indication that the local elder role was then a full time paid position.

        Yes, in the end it does hurt the priesthood of all believers because we have a hired hand to do all the work. We pay him/her, set them up on a pedestal, and they become our representative before God, just like Moses. It’s unfortunate that this is the model of leadership that we have rather than that of Jesus, who gave the ministry away and set people free to do it. His disciples were baptizing more than him.

        Enjoy your writing, Steve. Keep the conversations going.


  • Bob

    I think there will always be a place for vocational (i.e. paid) ministry. Mainline denominational churches still provide a salary and often a place to live or a housing allowance. Many non-denominational churches pay quite well. The housing allowance, in fact, can be quite beneficial because the recipient ends up paying little or no income taxes. Still, I get what you are saying and I have known a few folks who have really felt that call to ministry, only to struggle mightily and eventually have to get a “day job” to support themselves and their families (while seeing some of their classmates and/or former colleagues prosper). Anyone considering fulltime vocational ministry should do his/her homework and get plenty of wise counsel before diving in.

    • Steve

      Bob, no doubt there are still many good paying ministerial positions out there…its just that there are more applicants than vacancies these days. My point though, “are we even supposed to consider “full time vocational ministry”? Is it supposed to be a career? There may be “seasons” where ministry pays (as it did with Paul) but there should be seasons when it doesn’t (Paul in Corinth where he made tents). My advice is for young people is to prepare for ministry…but learn a trade.

  • daryl

    great article! iagree the Church is changing…i think for the better as those like yourself bring these things to light,to discuss and consider.I believe for to many years we have made a “god” of the local church,and because of that (along with the mixing of law and grace),what we represent to the world is a gross distortion of a christian

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