The Living Church posted an article a few days ago about Episcopal congregations who don't pay their clergy, some of whom report working 40 - 50 hours per week. This is because so many congregations, especially small ones, can no longer afford to pay full or even part-time salaries. Not paying a priest's salary (and benefits) can seem like a blessing for those churches that might otherwise have to close their doors. But at what cost?
1. The devaluing of ordained ministry. 'The laborer deserves to be paid,' 1 Timothy reminds us, especially those who labor at teaching and preaching the Christian faith. Ministry is clearly a spiritual calling, but from the beginning of the church, ministry has been compensated, whether through the community's direct support of food and housing or through wages. Not compensating ordained ministry at all devalues it within the church, and within the larger community. Which has larger consequences, including...
2. Putting ordained ministry in jeopardy. The Living Church article mentions those who serve without being compensated are either retired (with a pension) or working full-time in the secular world. They feel fortunate to be able to give of their time. But they may be inadvertently taking positions that could be compensated in some way from those who need them. As fewer and fewer congregations find it hard to pay salaries, more and more clergy at the beginning and middle of their ministry need to be able to support themselves and their families. This heads in only one direction - eventually only the very few churches will pay clergy and then many, many of those who feel called to bring their gifts to ordained ministry will be unable to afford to do so. Which leads to...
3. Confusion about what ordained ministry is and why it matters. The article mentions that non-stipendiary clergy support much lay ministry in their congregations (even though they, themselves, still work long hours). This is a non-sequitor. Lay ministry and ordained ministry are not the same thing, and we may be losing the distinction if we think that it is. Ordained ministers bear the Scripture, sacraments, and traditions of the faith, handed down from the time of Jesus and upheld by the Holy Spirit in today's communities. We are the living repositories of where God has made Godself known in the world and those who point to where that is still happening. This is not to be confused with individual discipleship - the call to follow Jesus in our every day lives and the ways we make this manifest in community, which is the same for everyone, lay and ordained. Supporting lay ministry should never take away from ordained ministry, nor vice versa, and getting paid for it is unrelated to this.
There is another way.
I am a Free Range Priest because I know that so many congregations cannot afford clergy salaries and I believe that clergy can and should be compensated for our work. I am paid hourly to lead worship and share other ministry in congregations. I am also paid to coach clergy, teach preaching, consult with congregations, to write and to speak. I get paid from many different sources, but all of it is for ordained ministry. I still contribute to my pension fund (a very important consideration for lots of clergy). I support clergy who feel called to this same type of ministry, using their own gifts for ministry both within and beyond the congregation. I support congregations who need ordained ministry and seek ways to afford it. And I support new ways of sharing ordained ministry in the world, both online and in person.
I am sure mine is not the only such ministry, and I am passionate about all the ways we can see and serve God in ways that are viable, spiritually and financially. We can find ways to support the church and share the Gospel and sustain our vocation. And we should.