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Should Those Who Pastor Among the Poor Be Poor?

Electricity is not always in constant, predictable supply here in South Africa—not even in our major cities. Sadly, it is far worse in the rural areas where many have no access to the national power grid. Can you imagine living every single day without electricity?

The Poor Missionary

I knew a missionary who came to South Africa to work among the rural poor. When he arrived he decided to live like the locals, in a poorly constructed house without electricity. This may sound noble, fitting some stereotypes of ‘mission work’. But the locals thought it was odd. Looking back, this missionary remembers the thoughts expressed by his local neighbours. ‘Why would you choose to live like this? If we had a choice, we would not choose to suffer. Soon after these interactions, the young missionary built a brick house and secured electricity along with running water. That seems reasonable, right?

But I have observed another persistent and misled way of thinking about missionaries. ‘Be poor, for the people among whom you work are poor.’ No doubt such thinking stems from a desire to remove barriers to ministry. But I am with the locals: it’s a strange move.

The Wealthy Missionary

In studying the lives of some of our missionary heroes the above mindset does not seem to feature much. Consider the example of William Carey. Headed for the mission field in Burma, Adonaraim Judson and his wife Harriet visited Carey in 1812. According to Harriet Judson, the stone house belonging to Dr Carey was “so large that to her wondering eyes it looked like a palace”. While it is likely Carey was influenced by British Imperialism, there can be no questioning his sacrificial gospel work among the poorest of the poor. This makes me wonder if we are thinking rightly on this topic.

Below I will outline two biblical reasons for why we should not pay pastors poorly simply because they work among the poor.

We should not be surprised or offended if pastors enjoy a more affluent lifestyle than some of the church members

1. Churches are called to honour their preachers with generous pay

The New Testament instructs the church to honour her leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12; Hebrews 13:17). We should treat them with special respect, without placing them in a special class of Christian. One of the ways such respect is given is by paying the pastor well. Observe how Paul frames his instruction to pay the elder generously. “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). Therefore, we should not be surprised or offended if pastors enjoy a more affluent lifestyle than some of the church members.

2. Poor pastors may have to leave their work

The nagging idea that we should impoverish the pastor of the poor has unintended and potentially disastrous consequences. Leaders may consider leaving their work among the poor, merely so that they can provide basic necessities for their families. We know money must not drive a pastor (1 Timothy 6:6-10, 1 Peter 5:2). And if a pastor is forced to choose between ‘ministry-plus-poverty’ and ‘ministry-minus-poverty’? Surely he cannot be blamed for choosing the latter!

Here is a scenario. A pastor is labouring among the poor and is paid a meagre salary. Imagine for a moment that this man is particularly gifted at his work. He is then called by a church in a comfortable, suburban neighbourhood. Is he wrong to consider the opportunity? What about the effect on his family? He is, after all, a husband and father before he is a pastor.

What if a pastor is forced to choose between ‘ministry-plus-poverty’ and ‘ministry-minus-poverty’? Surely he cannot be blamed for choosing the latter!

An Unfair Choice

It is unwise to structure a pastor’s salary in poorer areas such that there is a significant gap between his pay and that of his colleagues elsewhere. For you then create an incentive that perversely undermines ministry among the poor. This incentivises godly men away from the poor areas as they quite rightly consider provision for their families, which is obedience to the Lord.

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. They must not be seen to chase after wealth and earthly pleasures. Nonetheless, we must recognise the huge responsibility for every Christian husband and father to provide for his family. Thus, it seems unkind (and short-sighted) for churches to structure a pastor’s compensation in a way that forces him to choose between his church and his family.

They that Preach the Gospel should Live of the Gospel

Few will disagree that doing gospel work in poorer areas brings with it many additional burdens for the pastor and his family. As a result, less men are drawn to these hard places. And yet, we should aim to encourage more men to consider labouring in these needy places. But when we further insist that they must live in poverty, we create even greater hindrances to work among the poor. These hindrances are unreasonable and appear to be unbiblical too.

We must recognise the huge responsibility for every Christian husband and father to provide for his family.

Perhaps the drafters of 1689 London Confession offer timely wisdom for us. They summarise the Bible’s teaching on 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.

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