May 8, 2019

Must We Pay Poor Pastors Poorly?

The following article was written by Gustav Pritchard. He is an elder at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Electricity is not always in constant, predictable supply here in South Africa. Even in the major cities, we face power failures for parts of the day, sometimes for days on end. Sadly, it is far worse in the rural areas of South Africa. There most people have no access to the national power grid.

Can you imagine living every single day without electricity?

I once knew a missionary who came to South Africa to work among the rural poor. When he first arrived the man decide to live like the locals: in a poorly constructed house with no electricity.

This may sound noble. Such a choice may even fit the stereotype of ‘mission work’. But the locals thought it was a strange move.

Looking back, this missionary remembers how the local people around him expressed their thoughts on his housing: ‘why would you choose to live like this? If we had a choice, we would not choose to suffer!’ Soon after these interactions with the people, the young missionary built a brick house, and secured for himself electricity and running water. That seems reasonable, right?

But, as I observe men sent out to pastor in poor areas of South Africa, this thinking appears to persist – ‘be poor, for the people among whom you work are poor!’ No doubt, such thinking probably stems from a desire to remove barriers for ministry and help the man relate well to the community. But I am with the locals: it’s a strange move.

At a recent pastors’ meeting, one black brother posed a searching question. He asked “why do we expect the pastor to live in poverty, when the vast majority of the people around him are trying their best to get themselves out of poverty?” I think it’s a fair question.

Interestingly, when we look back on the lives of some of our missionary heroes, this mindset of keeping the pastor poor doesn’t seem to feature much. At the very least, William Carey appeared to view ministry differently on this front. By mid June 1812, Adonariam Judson and his wife Harriet arrived in Calcutta, India. They were headed for Burma to take the Gospel to that distant land. The stopover in India however afforded them the opportunity to meet William Carey, the missionary pioneer from England, who was at this time based in Calcutta. According to Harriet Judson, the stone house belonging to Dr Carey was “so large that to her wondering eyes it looked like a palace.”1

It might be true that Carey’s view on these things were overly influenced by British Imperialism. Nonetheless, who would question Carey’s love for and Gospel-service to the millions of poor Indians? Surely it’s striking then that William Carey would agree to live in very comfortable surroundings when the people to whom he ministered were shockingly poor.

All this makes me question whether we are thinking well on this topic. Furthermore, I perceive at least two reasons from the Scriptures to not pay the poor pastor poorly; one direct and obvious reason, the other reason is more subtle and nuanced. We begin with what is obvious.

1) Churches are called to honor their preachers with generous pay

Consider the various instructions in the New Testament to honor those who serve as under-shepherds.

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thess. 5:12)

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17)

It appears plain that church members are to treat their pastor-elders with special respect. This doesn’t imply that pastors are a special class of Christian! They too are sinners, in need of God’s grace every day. Nonetheless, due to their work, elders are to be treated with special honor, an honor that is not given to all the members of the church.

One of the ways such respect is given is by paying the pastor generously. Observe how Paul frames his instruction to pay the elder generously: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17).

Do follow the logic here. Elders are to be afforded special honor. Such honor is bestowed in part by generous pay. Therefore, we should not be surprised that those who are so honored by the church are afforded a more affluent lifestyle than some of its members.

2) Poor pastors may leave their work on biblical grounds

The persistent teaching that we should impoverish the pastor of the poor has unintended and potentially disastrous consequences. Essentially, this practice forces the man to consider leaving his work among the poor – merely so that they can provide basic necessities for himself and his family. While the pastor may not be driven by money, in the event that he has to choose between ‘ministry-plus-poverty and ‘ministry-minus-poverty’ he will most likely choose the latter. In fact, I believe if this man has a family, he has biblical reasons to choose ‘ministry-minus-poverty!’

Think of the scenario where a pastor is laboring among the poor, and is paid a poor salary. Imagine for a moment that this man is particularly gifted at his work, and is called by a church in a comfortable, suburban neighbourhood. Let’s further imagine that his wife begs him to consider the call to the suburban church just so they can purchase health care, and send their children to decent schools.

Would the man not be obliged to listen to his wife, especially given that his family is his primary responsibility? Is this not a case where the husband ought to live with his wife “in an understanding way?” (1 Pet 3:7)2

When we structure the pastor’s salary in the poorer areas such that there is a significant differential between his pay and that of his colleagues in the middle-class suburbs – we perversely create an incentive that undermines ministry among the poor. This incentive drives godly men away from the poor areas since they are committed to providing for their families in obedience to the Lord. Indeed, the man’s reasoning is simple and righteous – the Lord Jesus first calls him to be a husband and a father, and then to be a pastor.

It goes without saying that pastors ought to be model stewards with their finances. They must not be working with the aim of becoming rich, and they must not be seen to chase after wealth and earthly pleasures. Nonetheless, we must recognize the huge responsibility for every Christian husband and father to provide for his family. Thus, it seems unkind and shortsighted for churches to structure pastoral pay for men in poorer areas such that they are forced to choose between his church and his family!

A natural question arises in this discussion at this point: from where will the money come. In an attempt to answer, let me offer a few possibilities.

1) There is money in the townships

Even when people live in poverty, there is capacity to support Gospel work. We see this from the existence of the prosperity-gospel preacher. Isn’t it interesting that prosperity- preachers are able to live rather lavishly even when they work among the poor! It is probably true that these fraudsters overly burden the people with their heavy-handed teachings on giving. Yet too often I believe more faithful brothers patronize the poor by dissuading them from financially supporting their pastor. With a sensitive and careful approach, the pastor can encourage his poor members to give faithfully, as with keeping with their income (1 Cor. 16:1).

2) Wealthier churches can help the pastor get started

From the New Testament, it seems that sometimes churches live in such poverty that they are dependent on outside funding (see 2 Cor 8-9). External funding does unfortunately bring with it the temptation for the poor to become negligent in their support of their pastor. This is no small temptation. Too often gospel work among the poor is wrongly sustained by external funding. It is indeed an unhealthy, perhaps even unbiblical, situation when external funding is received without any plan to teach the church members to obey the Lord in sustaining their own pastor (1 Cor 9:11; Gal 6:6).

Nonetheless, in some places poverty exists to such an extreme that the pastor will need some external funding to sustain him in the short-term. South Africa faces huge unemployment problems: 29 % is the unofficial employment rate and in some areas that figure climbs to above 45%3. In these contexts, it seems reasonable for the pastor to receive some external funding in the early years, even as he labors to teach his people their financial obligation toward him.

3) Suburban churches can send middle-class earners

Perhaps the most biblical solution would be to send not only money from the suburbs but middle-class earners. Recently, I observed a couple doing just that, moving from an affluent suburban church. They became members in a church in Soweto, a massive township in the southwestern part of Johannesburg. Such a move not only has the benefit of brining money into the church but there is potential for more educated members to disciple others in applying biblical principles to their lives, including their work-life and job-search. Furthermore, such a move has the potential to say much of God’s glory in creating a new humanity across social and ethnic lines.


Few would argue with the claim that doing Gospel work in poorer areas brings with it many additional burdens for the pastor and his family. As a result, a small number of men are drawn to these hard places. When we further insist that the man and his family must live in poverty, this seems only to hinder the work among the poor. Further, these hindrances appear to be both unreasonable and unbiblical.

Perhaps the drafters of 1689 London Confession offer timely wisdom for us when they summarize the Scriptures teaching in this subject as follows: "The work of pastors being constantly to attend the service of Christ, in his churches, in the ministry of the word and prayer, with watching for their souls, as they that must give an account to Him; it is incumbent on the churches to whom they minister, not only to give them all due respect, but also to provide them with 'all good things' according to their ability, so as they may have a comfortable income, without being themselves entangled in secular affairs; and may also be capable of exercising hospitality towards others; and this is required by the law of nature, and by the express order of our Lord Jesus, who hath ordained that they that preach the Gospel should live of the Gospel.”

1 Anderson, Courtney; To the Golden Shore, pg 136

2 This logic can of-course be abused to argue that the pastor is free therefore to look for the highest paying church. That however would be the motivation of an unqualified man (1 Peter 5:2)! The focus here is on the aspirations of a man who aims to provide a reasonably comfortable life for his family – a lifestyle of neither poverty nor riches (Prov. 30:8). A good test question may include asking the following question: ‘if a non-staff elder changed jobs to secure a similar lifestyle as that to which the poor pastor is aspiring, would we call that non-staff elder worldly?’

3 rural-municipal-failure/ | accessed on 17 September 2018

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