Preacher Support

By Wallace H. Little

One of the perennial “delicate” subjects among brethren is the support of preachers. Over the years, I have heard some rather interesting “explanations” of support. They have ranged from the idea that a preacher ought to provide his own support by working (this one, obviously, considers that preaching is not work, a contention hardly likely to go uncontested) to the extreme that all a preacher does is “preach two sermons and teach two Bible classes a week,” contending thus that supporting him is a waste of the Lord’s money. This also might be subject to some dispute. Interspersed between these is the growing recognition that a preacher does have a right to be supported in his work in preaching the gospel (1 Cor. 9:1-23) at a level to permit him to provide for his family responsibility (1 Tim. 5:8). There still needs more recognition of the fact that his check is gross pay, while that of most brethren working in secular jobs is net. That is, theirs has already had taken out of it such things as social security; income tax, several varieties of insurance and, usually, some kind of a retirement plan. The preacher must subtract this from his pay check before any fair comparison can be made. Also, he has some added expenses inherent in his work, including increases in telephone and automobile expenses, cost of books and a few other things. I do not want to dwell on these, however, and only mention them in passing. I want to consider at greater length several other points needing understanding by brethren.

First, in my experience, there are too many saints who consider the preacher to be the paid employee of the church, that the relationship is one of employer and employee. This is not according to the New Testament. Paul makes it plain that support is a fellowshipping, a sharing of the supporting brethren in the work that the preacher is doing in spreading the gospel (see Phil. 1:5; 4:15, other texts). There are some consequences of such an attitude that must be realized, then corrected among brethren. First and foremost is that if a church can pay a preacher to preach, he thus has a price, and for a higher one, he can be paid not to preach something! This, usually, being something the brethren do not want to hear (see 2 Tim. 4:2-4). This hardly comports with Paul’s instructions in that text. On a secondary basis, I have yet to find a church that has enough money to pay me “for preaching.” If it is only a job, and nothing more, I can enjoy my “work” in another “job” a great deal more, without the heartache and personal agonizing that goes into preaching. I have met few experienced preachers who do not agree with me in this. Another serious consequence in this “employer-employee” thinking is since he is an employee, he can be used by others in the church to do their work, or do the work which can be much easier done by them, to leave him free to study and teach, which are his primary functions. Thus, preachers are pushed into the position of doing the “churchin.” Brethren, that ought not to be. A third consequence of such thinking is that our “employee,” the preacher can, since “he has more time than anyone else in the congregation,” get out and do more personal work.

It would be difficult to find a notion more foolish than that, and one more dangerous. Even holding it allows the holder to sit back relaxed, thinking with self-satisfaction, that “we’re doing our work, we’re taking care of our responsibilities.” Hopefully, those so believing will learn better before judgment. Even from a practical standpoint, however, this is nonsense. In the first place, the preacher who works, does not have “more time than other brethren”; he will have far less than most. Secondly, in the local community, he is a relative stranger and classed as a migrant. It is considered his “job” to knock on doors and do personal work, thus not many of those he contacts will give him serious consideration. Next, he has far fewer local contacts than the newest saint who has lived there for any period of time. Again, my own experience teaches me that there is not a member of the church who does not have (or would not, if he would work at it the way he wants the preacher to do) more opportunities to teach the aliens than the preacher. Any church that has a mind to work can grow; the plan is simplicity itself – it is outlined in full in Acts 8:4. Read it, and see how much depends on the preacher doing the church’s personal work. What is said there is: “each one win one.” Any takers? Of course the preacher is to do personal work – his, not the church’s!

Another situation needing some comment: the (bad) habit of some brethren in failing to consider the preacher’s needs when he moves with them. Since he is a stranger to the area, his ideas of the cost of living are apt to be somewhat inaccurate, no matter how closely he manages his income. Likely, not wanting to impose on brethren, he will ask only what he feels he needs to provide for his responsibility, allowing no margin for unforseen expenses. But what if he under-guesses (that does happen, you know)? Some folks simply tell him, in effect, “Sorry about that; we can’t (they mean, won’t’) consider a raise until you have been here for a year.” Now that is sensible! Right? Preachers do not have unions to fight for what is fair; they must depend upon the good-will of brethren to do what is right for them. I am not overstating the case when I say this does not always happen.

On more than one occasion, I have heard words such as, “May the Lord keep you humble; we’ll keep you poor” in reference to the attitude of too many brethren. One preacher was so sensitive to the criticism of brethren concerning his support that he never wore new clothing until he had it hang in his closet for a week or so. I asked him what this was for. His response: “So when brethren remark, `Oh, that’s a new coat you have, isn’t it?’ I can say, `No, I’ve had it for some time now.”‘ Silly? Depends on how much you have had others leaning on you. One preacher-friend said it this way: “The world will take care of you, but your brethren will let you starve to death.” He spoke from personal experience, and might be excused if he did exaggerate a little for emphasis. His case is not the only one I know of. Now brethren get into this sort of thinking probably for one of two reasons. Either they just do not know what is happening and so do not know their preacher’s needs. If this is true, a little investigation would be in order. The other possibility is just plain covetousness. I would pray my brethren would not be guilty of this, passing it by under the guise of stewardship. Yet I fear some are so.

One more situation: the tendency of preachers to move every two or three years to better their economic situation, and corollary to that, the tendency of congregations to want the preacher to move every two or three years. What a gross waste of the Lord’s money, in many cases! I have known more than one man to move because his financial situation was so bad he could not continue as he was, and the brethren flatly refused to make any adjustment. On the other hand, they were more than willing to spend hundreds of dollars trying others out and, when a selection had been made, spend several thousand to move him there. Try dividing the total cost of this activity out on a monthly basis to get some idea how much better off the congregation would have been financially, if a sizable raise had been offered the previous preacher.

The attitude on the part of brethren concerning what to offer a new man is in need of some overhauling, too. I once sat open-mouthed in wonder in a business meeting where it was proposed and passed (over my objection) that the new man be offered between two limits set at the meeting, with the urging of the brethren to “keep it as low as possible.” Not a word was said about the mar’s need. Needless to say, when the prospective preacher learned of this attitude, he did not move. Some in that congregation are probably still wondering why he refused. (At that time, I was not preaching, so I had no personal position to defend.)

Brethren, preachers are no different than you. They get hungry, need clothing, must be treated by doctors when they get ill, require a roof over their heads, grow old and need some kind of retirement, have a wife and kids whose needs cost money, and so on. They are not “outsiders”; they are members of the body of Christ with you, and associated with you in the work in that place, with you fellowshipping them in this. Treat them accordingly. No preacher ought to try and make the gospel a way of gain (1 Tim. 6:5) and honest ones will not do so. But they do need to be supported at a level which satisifies their needs.

Brethren, think on these things.

Truth Magazine XXIII: 46, pp. 742-743
November 22, 1979