Some churches plant “staff-light.” That’s what we did in early 2015.
Our mother church sent us out with four founding pastors, all of us working full-time jobs elsewhere. The arrangement gave us remarkable flexibility in our first year. Our ongoing costs were very low — essentially just renting a high school auditorium, buying bread and wine for weekly communion, and providing the lead planter with a modest stipend (since he shouldered more responsibility than the other three).
However, as we grew, we soon realized our fledging church was developing needs that four unpaid pastors were struggling to cover. We needed at least one of us to put aside his day job and be our first full-time paid pastor — that is, make it his breadwinning vocation. We needed at least one man, at this stage, to give his primary work time and attention to our young church for it to be healthy. Thankfully, the risen Christ provided. And in time, as the church has grown and needs have changed, we’ve received additional staff pastors to fill out and strengthen our pastoral team.
Three years after we launched, a dear sister church of ours planted “staff-heavy,” with three founding pastors, all paid. It was a financial load to carry at launch. They were more strapped for funds than a staff-light model, but their young congregation received unusual deposits of pastoral time and attention. They’ve made it too. And along the way, Christ has added to their number non-staff pastors to fill out and strengthen their pastoral team.
Whether staff-heavy or staff-light initially, most churches discover, in time, the need for a healthy blend of both paid and unpaid leaders. The nature of the church lends itself to needing both in due course — not only plants and young churches, but also older and more established congregations. Even churches with staff-only polities learn to lean heavily on key laymen who come to function in various pastoral capacities (even if they’re never called “pastor,” “elder,” or “overseer”). In any case, these pastor-teachers, Ephesians 4:11 says, are gifts from the risen Christ for the good of his church: “he gave . . . the shepherds-teachers.” And these gifts come in two basic kinds.
Some Paid, Some Unpaid
Search the New Testament, and you will not find two types of pastor-elders according to function (that is, say, teaching versus ruling). But you will find two sources of pastoral revenue (from the church or from other work) and, with it, comes the greater or lesser investment of time and energy. All pastor-elders feed (teach) and lead (govern), but some give part (or all) of their revenue-generating “work life” to the church, while others formally “labor” in vocations outside the church. Both can prove vital to healthy churches in the long run.
We should clarify that, in the New Testament, pastor = elder = overseer. These are three names for the one lead or teaching office in the local church (flanked by a second, assisting office called “deacon,” Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8–13). Elder is the same office often called “pastor” today (based on the noun pastor or shepherd in Ephesians 4:11 and its verb forms in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2). This same lead office is also called overseer in four places (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:7).
Within that group of pastor-elder-overseers, we find “two kinds of pastors,” we might say. Two texts in Paul’s letters in particular, both leaning on the words of Christ, establish the categories for these two types of leaders: some paid, some not.
Laborers Deserve Their Wages
First, leaning on Jesus, Paul establishes in 1 Corinthians 9 a “right” for other gospel workers to receive pay (while not claiming it for himself, which is vintage Paul). It’s fitting that a tentmaker construct the argument; neither Christian maturity nor love insists on its own rights, and so Paul lays out the case for others, for pastors in his day and ours. He writes, “The Lord [Jesus] commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). Where did Jesus say that? We have it in Luke 10:7 (and Matthew 10:10): “the laborer deserves his wages.”
In the second key text, Paul quotes the same words again (alongside Deuteronomy 25:4) in 1 Timothy 5:17–18:
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
Observe carefully, because this is often missed, that the distinction among elders here is labor, not teaching. Paul does not say that all elders “rule” but only some teach. Rather, the emphasis is labor, that is, in context, working full-time or making a living as elders. We know from elsewhere that ruling (leading) and teaching (feeding) are the two main tasks of the pastor-elders (1 Timothy 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). All elders rule and teach, but not all “labor” at this calling, as Paul makes plain in the explanation that follows: “For . . . the laborer deserves his wages.”
What Is ‘Double Honor’?
What, then, is this “double honor” that is especially for those who labor (that is, professionally) at the ruling and teaching work of pastoral ministry? “Double honor” means both (1) the honor of deserved respect as faithful leaders and (2) the honor of deserved remuneration or payment for the work. (From this second sense, we get the word honoraria.)
Good pastors are worthy not only of the church’s respect (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13), but also of financial support, and especially if they are doing this labor and not other breadwinning work. Paul’s language here is precise: being “considered worthy” means some elders may receive pay from the church and others not. Neither he nor Christ require that all pastor-elders be paid (or all unpaid), but he does establish a principle that is applicable to churches and pastors everywhere.
First Timothy 5:18 argues (“for”) that it is justice, not kindness or mercy, for a church to “doubly honor” its pastors with both respect and remuneration. Some will receive that right and bless the church through their willingness to give their work life (“career”) to the church’s needs. And others, like Paul himself, will forgo that right and bless the church by supporting themselves (and the church) through labors other than pastoral ministry.
In this healthy mix of both paid and unpaid, staff and non-staff pastors, we want to keep two truths in mind — truths that correspond to the two functions of pastor-elders in the New Testament.
All Pastors Lead and Feed
First, all pastor-elders are teachers. “Able to teach” is at the heart of the 1 Timothy 3 qualifications, and the culminating assertion of the Titus list. The Christian faith is a teaching movement, and its leaders are teachers — equipped, eager, and effective teachers — or the church languishes.
All elders are teachers — feeding the congregation through teaching in its various forms and settings — but some labor at their preaching (literally, “word”) and teaching. (We might here permit a practical distinction between teaching and preaching, such that some elders, while manifestly teachers, may not gravitate to preaching. Healthy churches need far more teaching than just a weekly sermon.) All elders teach, but not all labor full-time at pastoral ministry. The point is the amount of labor (and thus necessity of remuneration), not a division of gifting among the elders (as if some were able to teach and others not).
As this works out over time in the life of the church, it is often those who labor as a career in pastoral work who are most equipped through formal training, and have the time to adequately study and prepare, who therefore often carry more of the teaching and especially preaching demands. But this doesn’t mean that non-staff pastor-elders are not teachers. (If they have no interest in teaching, or no availability for it, then they are simply not good fits for the church’s lead office, which is a teaching office. But, if qualified, they may serve well in the assisting office, that of deacon.)
Teaching remains at the heart of the pastoral calling, paid and unpaid. And let this also be clear: the pastors are called to more than teaching — to overseeing, governing, prayer, and other critical aspects of local-church leadership. Pastor-elders are not only teachers but also overseers who do more than teach, yet without letting their teaching take a back seat. Such are the tensions we live in for this age. On the one hand, pastors should not give in to carnal pressures to do a thousand other tasks than preaching and teaching. On the other hand, it is naïve to think they can only preach and teach. Pastors are called neither to a thousand tasks nor to one alone.
But at the heart of the elder’s calling is teaching, whoever writes his regular paycheck.
Time and Attention, Not Gifting
To be sure, “laboring” outside the church doesn’t mean not laboring at all in the church through teaching and leading. But it does mean less labor.
Because good teaching and preaching make for emotionally difficult work, and require training and study and careful preparation, and because teaching is central to the pastoral calling, it makes sense that often paid pastors do more of the teaching (and perhaps especially the preaching in the context of worship).
However, we also observe that the paid pastors (because it’s their day job) do more of all the work. They also provide more oversight and contribute more the day-in, day-out aspects of the leading (“ruling”) in the life of the church. So, yes, it will often be the case that the paid pastors, who pastor for more hours, also do more teaching. However, correspond as it may, it would be a mistake to coordinate paid ministry with teaching and unpaid ministry with mere ruling.
The distinction, then, between two kinds of elders is not “gifting” but time and attention. An unpaid elder may be more “gifted” as a teacher than a full-time paid elder. Either way, as a pastor, neither is relieved of teaching or ruling. Paid and unpaid leadership may make for two kinds of pastors, but only one office of pastor-elder, and one pastor-elder team.
Paid and Unpaid Gifts
In the end, we see that both paid and unpaid pastor-elders are gifts from the risen Christ to his church. And he has his own particular blend for varying seasons in the lives of his churches. From my limited vantage, I doubt churches will thrive in the long haul with all their pastors paid (or all unpaid, for that matter). Given the nature of the church, pastoral teams function best, over time, when composed of some wise blend of both paid and unpaid leaders.
In the good times, the more staff pastors, the better. They are Christ’s gift to his church in giving their full-time work life and primary labor and energy to the church and its mission.
However, especially in leaner seasons, when there is tension within the church or even within the staff, the more unpaid pastors, the better. Because these men do not draw their livelihood from the church, they can be a stabilizing influence in conflicted times and (depending on the structure) less personally and vocationally beholden to the lead pastor. So too, when seasons of transition come, and paid pastors transition (particularly a senior leader), the balance of unpaid pastors can contribute greatly to stability during change.1
It is an amazing gift to a church when a man is willing, and eager, to give his life’s work, his “career,” to full-time Christian ministry. And it’s also an amazing gift that a man, in another line of work, would give himself to sufficient training and equipping, and then give many of his evenings and weekends (and often important moments during the work week) to unpaid Christian ministry.
Both kinds of pastors are gifts from Jesus to build and keep his church.
Discussing paid and unpaid pastor-elders often raises the issue of ratios of unpaid to paid pastors (specified in some church bylaws). I see wisdom in elder teams aiming to have as many (or more) unpaid elders as paid, whether this is a simple majority, or even a 2:1 ratio. ↩