In 1 Corinthians 9, St. Paul makes a characteristically creative move: he applies to the care and feeding of clergy a commandment from the Torah that originally mandated humane treatment of livestock. Well, perhaps clergy is anachronistic: let’s say instead “those who have dedicated their lives to the service of the gospel.” In particular, Paul defends his right to financial support from the people of God. He quotes Deuteronomy 25:4: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” He then asks and answers his own rhetorical question: “Is it for oxen that God is concerned? [No.] … It was indeed for our sake” that God spoke those words (1 Cor. 9:9-10). He vigorously affirms the appropriateness of those who work in their congregations receiving “material benefits” as a reward for laboring to bring forth spiritual fruit.

On the other hand, St. Paul balances his claims to “the rights of an apostle” with a sense of reciprocity and accountability. He articulates a principle in 1 Corinthians 6:12 (“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial”), which comes into play on this issue as well. His right to compensation could and had to yield to the imperative of his mission’s success: winning all to Christ is what matters most (9:23). Building up the Body is the final criterion for evaluating the mutual responsibilities that the laos and their leaders have for one another. “Though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all” (9:19): clergy compensation may be right, but it must also be good for the Church.

The Apostle is absolutely clear about whom he serves and the force of his Lord’s example. Everything he does is “for the sake of the gospel, so that [he] may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23). The knowledge that Jesus “loves me and died for me” (Gal. 2:20) radically conditions St. Paul’s claims, so that instead of pressing his “rights” he would “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12). If Jesus was willing to be crucified for the salvation of the good folks in Corinth, St. Paul figures he can quit a claim to financial support. Indeed, he asserts that “I would rather die than” be deprived of a scintilla of his proclamation’s effectiveness and the prize that comes from it (1 Cor. 9:15, 17, 23, 27). In light of Jesus’ real, bodily sacrifice, St. Paul’s case for “benefits” becomes nearly hypothetical: “[I am not] writing this so that they may be applied in my case” (1 Cor. 9:15).

If this is so with the one Apostle to the Gentiles, how much more for the many parish clergy! Should clergy be ashamed of their need for support for themselves and their wives and families? By no means! St. Paul points to indisputable precedents for household support, given by Cephas and the brothers of the Lord (1 Cor. 9:5). I don’t think most parishes want to see themselves as getting priests on the cheap. Their intention would probably be to park their leader’s salary near the level that they perceive is appropriate for a middle-class professional in their town or suburb. Admittedly, the generosity of this perception probably correlates closely to the size of the parish and the relative affluence of its locale. Nevertheless, I think most parishes want to hold up their end of the bargain and that St. Paul’s point in the first half of chapter 9 has been well-taken by most congregations.

Has the second half of the chapter been embraced by clergy? I think, on the whole, yes. But there are two aspects of clergy compensation that I think cause scandal in the minds of lay leaders, and it is the responsibility of clergy to be mindful of the limits of their “rights” in these areas.

The first is “sabbaticals.” I was talking recently with a lay leader of another parish who had taken part in setting the compensation of the new rector. He was surprised to find in the diocesan boilerplate contract that in addition to the allotted four weeks of vacation (which he found reasonable) there was an additional two weeks provided for “continuing education,” plus an amount of time accrued annually toward a “sabbatical” which was to take place every seven years of service. This layman is a lawyer who works 80- to 90-hour weeks in his own firm, and he noted that this was a better deal than he got. He was genuinely taken aback.

In other words, sabbatical months seemed an excessive assertion of rights to material benefits — and I agree. The sabbatical is modeled on the work cycle of professional academics. For these poor creatures, sabbatical semesters are an indispensable part of preparing works for publication, which is a condition of their employment.

Parish clergy may be bookish, they may be prolix, but they are emphatically not professors. If you want a sabbatical, join a seminary faculty: but be prepared to have more to show for it than a 20-page paper and some picturesque status updates on Facebook. From what I have seen, the sabbaticals of parish clergy are essentially long vacations in which a continuing education component is placed. We should have the honesty to ask for those when they are deserved: for example, at the successful conclusion of capital campaigns or at milestones of service to the congregation bearing the cost of the priest’s absence. But let’s have the honesty to call them what they are and not assert them as a right.

Continuing discipleship is, of course, a part of the daily discipline of a faithful priest. But what is more effective when learning a language: an immersion course lasting two months, or two years of 30 minutes of daily practice? Why would we think prayer life, Bible study, theological reflection, or professional coaching would be different? Week-long or weekend conferences are profitable accents in one’s calendar, but the burden should always be on acquiring skills and experiences that benefit one’s parish in a fairly direct way. That’s the job we signed up for. Reciprocity with your parishioners, focusing on the skills they need you to hone (rather than what you’re intellectually interested in), and a willingness to forgo that which is not beneficial to all — these are Pauline principles that would lead to a muzzling of the ox.

The second muzzling of the ox regards the amount of material benefits that would justly cause scandal among the faithful. Is there such a thing as “too much” compensation for clergy? Is the work of “cardinal” or resource rectors so qualitatively different from that of pastoral rectors? Do bishops, priests, or deacons who make enough to be a 1-percenter in America ($250,000 per year) lose their moral authority? Do they have a lifestyle alien to the life of Christ? To what standard would a salary ceiling be tied?

In imitation of St. Paul, I will answer my own questions. Yes, there is a level of compensation that is scandalous and it is appropriate that it be so. Clergy leaders are not secular executives, even if they are called to lead major enterprises in terms of budget or personnel. They are servants of a crucified Lord, and while I believe that a middle-class lifestyle is something capable of honoring God when accompanied by tithing and self-restraint, we need to remember that as Anglicans and good Catholics we are in a conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ who practice radical poverty in monastic orders. We have a mutual accountability with them and with our colleagues in other parish and chaplaincy settings, let alone clergy in poorer provinces.

Just because a parish is willing to pay it doesn’t make it right. It is lawful, but it is not beneficial. Those called to the peculiar work of overseeing large institutions, be they parishes or dioceses, are not in a vocation that is so qualitatively superior as to justify a qualitatively different life income. The Church Pension Fund is sinning corporately when it underwrites these qualitatively different pay scales in its policies. Either raise the minimum, or place a benefit ceiling, or both: otherwise the CPF is perpetuating massive income inequality that disproportionately affects those who accept calls to smaller parishes.

I propose a clergy salary ceiling set at three times the median family income in the United States: roughly $156,000, plus benefits. This is much more than what 90 percent of the population is making, and much more than 99 percent of clergy are making: a handsome amount of “material benefits” for anyone. If a bishop, priest, or deacon feels put upon to serve Jesus for this amount, perhaps another could fill their position while they go to their own place. In the spirit of the Nicene Canons, something like this could be placed on the floor of a diocesan council:

If any bishop, priest, or deacon should be so filled with avarice as to receive more than three times the median family income in the United States as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, let such a one be deposed.

Well, that’s fantasy, I suppose. But I wonder what that sort of restraint, that sort of giving up of rights, could say to our churches and the world about stewardship, discipleship, social justice, and life in Christ. Maybe if we muzzled the ox a little, there would be more seeds to sow.

About The Author

Since 2006, I have served as the leading pastor (rector) of St. Dunstan’s Church, located in a northwestern suburb of Houston. Prior to coming here, I had the privilege of serving on the staffs of the Church of St. Michael & St. George, St. Louis, and then the Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.

I have a BA and MA in history (Stuart England and colonial America) from Stanford and an MA from Yale, also in history (American religion). This simply demonstrates that a lot of resources can be thrown at a problem without solving a durn thing. I went to seminary at Yale Divinity School, where I: (1) came to Jesus, (2) stayed with Jesus. This demonstrates that with God all things are possible. My wife, Kate, and I were married in 1996, and we have three sons ranging in age from 9 to 15, which is why I can’t have nice things.

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14 Comments on "Muzzling the ox: Getting real about clergy compensation"

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While I agree in principle that it is not a good thing for anyone for clergy to be extravagantly paid, I wonder whether it happens with sufficient frequency to merit getting passionate about. As a diocesan bishop involved in clergy deployment, I worry much more about the opposite. I offer vestries the old rule-of -thumb that the rector of a pastoral size parish should be paid similarly to a middle school principal in the same community. Few meet that standard. As for sabbaticals, I must vigorously disagree with Fr Price. Yes, they can be abused, as a vacation in disguise.… Read more »
The principle involved would address not just extravagance (the interpretation of which involves mere custom), but immorality. Is it a sin for a servant of Christ in the episcopate, priesthood, or diaconate to be paid more than a certain amount of money? Could we imagine agreeing on what that sum would be? Could we imagine enforcing clergy restraint in matters of compensation with the same determination with which we enforce restraint in matters of sexual behavior? Would we admit that some cases of the former can be just as scandalous as cases of the latter? Might there be a connection… Read more »
I have been making similar arguments for years. The incomes of some of our clergy are grotesque and scandalous when compared to man even in our own Church, and certainly when compared to other Christian ministers, and in the face of the poverty of the world. We absolutely lose all moral authority around money and the gospel. There should be a cap on clergy salaries, and if a congregation/diocese wishes to exceed that amount then they should have to match that amount to go into an account to help smaller parishes afford full-time clergy. Another thing that would go a… Read more »
Lots to think about here, Rob. Thank you. A few quibbles: We may see that the financial arrangements that mainline churches have enjoyed for generations are crumbling. Maybe most priests will end up tentmakers (again). But with the system we have in place, I don’t think worrying about excessive clergy compensation is very fruitful. Getting a seminary education is very costly. It is perfectly reasonable that our most desirable prospects for parish leadership could find excellent compensation in secular jobs. It’s also reasonable, therefore, that the church come somewhere close to meeting that standard. Bishop Dan’s rule of thumb of… Read more »
Dear Andrew, I think your point about seminary debt underscores the reality of inequality: an equal debt load becomes very unequal when one has twice the salary to service it. I don’t object to using local civil servants with advanced degrees as a way of benchmarking clergy salaries: but I don’t know many districts that would pay a principal $200k. If they did, I wonder if a teacher in the system could write a similar article! My essay was a call to examination of conscience for the top earners amongst the clergy. I don’t think it is inappropriate to desire… Read more »

I agree about the topmost salaries Rob, I just wonder exactly how many clergy qualify? As I wrote below in my comment, it seems to me that our bigger problem is fast decline and congregations that can’t pay clergy, or won’t be able to. Maybe dealing with this can aid in answering that larger challenge, and maybe it can build trust in the laity, but we need some major systemic changes, I think, if we’re going to grow and thrive (our death could be long and slow indeed, however).

To add the least to this important conversation, I would simply say that the value in living in the same community as our (presumably wealthier) congregants is not what it used to be. In cities, people generally drive through various types of communities to worship with their chosen congregations.

The author has obviously spent ALL his time looking at the compensation of clergy in wealthy urban dioceses; most of this essay is absolutely nonsensical in a small or rural diocese.

Of course, the uneven “corporate model” compensation system of the Episcopal Church is a scandal in and of itself, but with all respect, this writer needs to get his tushy out of the rich parts of the country and go meet the small town clergy who could make better money as a secretary.

Dear Michael, you are correct that I have very little relational exposure to small town clergy, since I have served in urban and suburban settings. I must share with you, though, that my conscience is seared more by my exposure to the clergy of the persecuted church in Southern Sudan. Nevertheless, I find it fascinating that an essay that I wrote in part to validate the work of clergy who serve small churches vis a vis wealthy parishes and dioceses has been understood to somehow denigrate or ignore them. Part of my concern is to call folks from the part… Read more »
Like Bishop Martins, I also wonder whether the upper limit is the most pressing concern. Where it relates to the problem of clergy not getting enough is the problem of older clergy (sometimes even retired clergy who get exemptions from pension rules) who continue to make more and more, seemingly (though not directly) at the expense of those making significantly less. If there are guidelines for diocesan minimums, it makes sense for there to be diocesan maximums. But I’m not sure how often any of this is ever enforced except at the letter-signing/calling stage — and even then, all you… Read more »
This is an interesting and important conversation, though I admit to finding it unseemly for clergy to argue over clergy compensation :-p. I’ve often wondered if the Episcopal Church might learn something from the model of our United Methodist brothers and sisters in regard to fostering a little more parity in clergy compensation. And yet, one reason that works for them is because their congregations don’t call their clergy, they’re appointed, and the longer someone serves (generally) the larger congregation they move to. Episcopal parishes and others like to be able to call their own clergy (and generally I think… Read more »
Getting down to the nitty gritty, I can say I fully support these ideas: “Just because a parish is willing to pay it doesn’t make it right. It is lawful, but it is not beneficial. Those called to the peculiar work of overseeing large institutions, be they parishes or dioceses, are not in a vocation that is so qualitatively superior as to justify a qualitatively different life income. The Church Pension Fund is sinning corporately when it underwrites these qualitatively different pay scales in its policies. Either raise the minimum, or place a benefit ceiling, or both: otherwise the CPF… Read more »
Dear Jody, thank you so much for your thoughtful responses above. I was raised as a UMC preacher’s kid, so maybe that’s where I got the commitment to a rough parity. Any “cap” would be completely arbitrary, and in the end it doesn’t really matter at what level it’s set — I just grabbed the idea of the median family income as a benchmark in order to give an example. As I wrote above in response to Bp. Martins, my primary point is can we acknowledge or even imagine the appropriateness of *any* upper limit? Could we even have the… Read more »
The Reverend Emmetri Beane, Deacon

I guess we vocational deacons were not part of the clergy you considered for your article. In most Dioceses, we serve without any compensation. Some of us struggle to get expenses reimbursed. Many, if not most, of us do not receive funds for books or continuing education. Vocational deacons are clergy. We support ourselves through marketplace employment or other means of support. Yet, a stipend or honorarium from the parish we serve would honor our contribution to the ministry within the parish and outside the walls of the parish as an icon of Jesus the servant.

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