Bad Pay

If you’ve ever made $ 11,000 per year working in a ministry, while supporting a wife, three children, and a dog and then had the senior pastor you work for tell you that taking government assistance wasn’t “trusting God”…you might have been a fundamentalist.

Fundamentalist churches are generally not full of professional, high-income members. Doctors, Lawyers, and other such folks are noticeably absent from the church rolls and their tithes are noticeably absent from the church budget. As a result of this lack of funds, these churches often rely on a workforce of very poorly paid employees to take care of the ministry. Woe unto you if you’ve spent six years in school to get a Masters Degree in Education at an unaccredited fundamentalist college. At the local fundy school (the only place you’re qualified to work) that effort will probably net you church staff housing, no insurance, and less pay than you might get working at the local McDonalds.

To compound this problem, — and for reasons more political than doctrinal — many fundamentalists are deathly opposed to welfare of any kind. The claim is that if the government is helping you then they get the credit instead of God getting the credit. The idea that maybe God uses the government to help folks sometimes has evidently never dawned on them.

This lack of funds combined with an inability to seek help from any other source (not to mention threats that leaving this glorious ministry will ruin God’s will for your life), combines to create a class of indentured servitude with people who are too literally too poor to escape the cycle. Add to this the bellowing of preachers who blast their lackeys for even daring to inquire about how much money a ministry position might pay and you end up with a very sad situation indeed.

It’s all fine and good to be told that slaving away for sub-minimum wages is laying up treasure in heaven. One has to wonder if it’s inconceivable that it might be possible to get both treasure in heaven and a decent dental plan down here on earth in the meantime.

34 thoughts on “Bad Pay”

  1. I hope to see you speak more to this “God’s will” notion (“(not to mention threats that leaving this glorious ministry will ruin God’s will for your life)”). I distinctly remember “God’s will” requiring that you either be a pastor (or pastor’s wife – because you can be “called” to that), a missionary or a christian schoolteacher or you would only be in his “permissible” but not “perfect” will.

  2. “If you’ve ever made $ 11,000 per year working in a ministry, while supporting a wife, three children, and a dog” while the president of the ministry you work for drove around in a Alpha Romeo in the summertime and a fleet of snowmobiles in the wintertime . . . you might be part of a fundamentalist institution.

  3. The vow of poverty is not dead in fundamentalism. A wood-paneled 1983 Buick station wagon is a sure sign that you are not only giving your all to Jesus, but that you’re suffering for him, too.

  4. Funny. Except, not so funny when you grew up in a family where your parents not only believed this, but still kept producing children (after all, birth control is also a sin). Been there (as a kid): low salary (even though your dad is always gone), no good insurance, little food, station wagon that’s 20+ years old and breaks down all the time, 3 outfits among which to rotate when you attend your basement church Christian school. . .

    And then, we know your mom can’t work–she’s supposed to be the keeper at home.

  5. Great post. This was the initiating force in my leaving the IFB movement I had been raised in. I wish someone would have given a warning the degree was for all intents and purposes useless. Obviously I could not have known any better having only known this way.

  6. I didn’t have a choice about working two part-time jobs while being a pastor of my first church – the church checks bounced. A great motivator for employment outside the ministry.

  7. I like how you mention “Fundamentalist churches are generally not full of professional, high-income members”. I remember one church camp where the speaker told all of us to go into full-time ministry, and “let the unsaved be doctors, lawyers, etc.”

    If any of my sons are interested in ministry, I’m going to recommend learning a trade or getting a bachelor’s degree in something other than Bible (from a regionally accredited school) first, then going to Bible school. If they end up not getting into ministry as quickly as they hope, their education will hopefully help them find gainful employment.

  8. Oh, the memories!! As a single Christian school teacher. I loved teaching, though. After I got out and moved on to a music ministry I had a call from a fundy school back home. They were looking for a teacher for the next year and got my contact info from a former colleague. Knowing the school, I had no interest, but I couldn’t help but push the guy’s buttons. What was the pay? It was so low I laughed, rather rude, I know. I said I had 14 years experience. Plus, I would have to move in with my parents and commute 30 miles one way. “Well, we were really just looking for a housewife who could use some extra cash and wants to keep up her skills.” he said.

    ‘Nuff said.

  9. “A wood-paneled 1983 Buick station wagon is a sure sign that you are not only giving”

    Mebbe they’re actually ahead of the curve. 😉 In the collector care arena woodies are making a strong comeback. Even more so in the surf culture. I saw a 1972 Chevy Kingswood Estate go for 45,000 at an auction!!

  10. Kate, I would have let him have it. Looking for someone who’s “just” a housewife is so insulting to women who stay at home, but ridiculously low pay is insulting to professional women – I sort of want to get this guy’s number and let him have it myself.

    Also, on an unrelated note, I am the proud owner of a station wagon (granted, it’s a maroon 2001 Saturn), and I love it. It’s funny that fundies love them so much, given how much room there is in the back … 😉

  11. “Lord, all we ask for is a poor, humble preacher. You keep him humble; we’ll keep him poor.”

  12. Here’s a shocking thought: being well paid as a pastor can be a great motivator. I often think, “This church is investing so much to have me here, I’ve GOT to give them my best!”

  13. Growing up this is exactly what I had. Of course now my parents have found a loophole.

    My dad is one of the few, perhaps the only, IFB Chaplain in the Army. A ministry that, as an officer in the United States Military, pays pretty well.

    Now, I don’t know how this works in other Fundy circles, the being payed by the Government thing, but most of the fundy circles I have been in have been very military friendly. Patriotism is a big thing for fundies, and any church that can boast of having a chaplain is a big bonus around the Fourth of July sermon.

    Some of the accredited Fundy colleges are catching on and have started ROTC programs. Personally I think this is a great way to combine ministry with actually being able to pay off college, all while getting the Fundy students into the real world for a few years before they get into churches as pastors.

    Some of the smaller Fundy colleges, especially the unaccredited ones, may actually go as far as to preach against it. I don’t know, but these days it would be very hard to find a fundy church that would be against the military.

  14. My first teaching job in 1976 netted me $6,000 – for the year. My dad’s church, back in 1963 paid him $100 a week. There were four of us kids. He had a part time job on the side. Boy, do I remember.

  15. I recall that on one of the Fundmentalist websites that you feature, there was a sermon preached against the “worldly” fundmentalists preacher wives who were asking their husbands get out of ministry and get a job that would support their families.

  16. My first paycheck as a Christian school teacher was exactly the same (to the dollar) as my last check when i was in broadcasting. The difference was that my school check was for the month and my other check was for a week.

  17. Second look at the picture makes me wonder if that is really what it takes to get a fundy to exegete…

  18. This may be the case in other parts of the country, but where I live, the most fundamentalist churches are mega-churches in well-to-do suburban commercial wonderlands. One fundamentalist Baptist church not far from where I live boasts a million dollar organ in it’s sanctuary. They’re the richest church in the state, both in terms of actual funds to the institution and median income of the church members.

    This is only a particular example but this seems to be the case all around Atlanta

  19. So, getting government assistance isn’t “letting God get the credit”. Taking home a paycheck, albeit a small one, is? The paycheck that you worked for and earned? Isn’t that being arrogant and not letting God provide through miraculous, unearned, unexpected means? Interesting logic.

  20. I’ve found that the salary for the employees of a Christian school in an IFB church has absolutely no correllation to the salary of the pastoral staff or the financial position of the congregation of the sponsoring church.

    I made $14k/year back in 2002 teaching at my old high school…meanwhile the church youth pastor made much more than double that with a quarter the work load, plus he got a “housing stipend” above and beyond his salary…

    And when Christmas came around and we got $50 Walmart gift cards, the pastor went on and on about how much work it was to raise the dough to give us that bonus…I was thankful…I certainly wasn’t expecting anything at all, but we walked out of that meeting almost feeling guilty…while the pastor went out and drove off in his church-paid-for car…that they replaced every two years…

    IFB Christian school teachers generally are at the absolute bottom of the totem pole when it comes to getting paid…my aforementioned employer has only raised its base salary from $14k in 2002 to $16.5k this year…

  21. There should be a blurb in there for the Christian Teacher as well. I had a friend who worked at a Christian school for a year. She barely made enough to live.At the end of working there for a year she found out that she qualified for food stamps. She asked her boss why they didn’t tell her and they sort of hem hawed around the question.

    Yea I laughed at this, but in some ways a little too close to the truth. I think you are right though that a lot of it has to do with the type of people who comprise those churches. I’ve been musing over this thought for a while, but Fundamental churches tend to be rural or suburban at best. They don’t tend to be in the urban areas, read mission fields. Which if they were that is where you would find a lot of your professionals who earn more.

    Now that I live in an urban area and go to an urban church I find it funny how many “missionaries” or “mission teams” to cities I heard about growing up. They played them off as these vast waste lands of atheism and Democrats. The latter might be true, but the former couldn’t be further from the truth.

    Of course the truth is that the Fundamentalist ideology doesn’t blend at all in urban areas which is why they find them vast waste lands.

    Anyway good post, genius as always.

    By the way the RSS feed stopped working for me for some reason. Not sure why.

  22. All of these posts are so right-on. I exp. like what Mark said as our son is a Christian school teacher/coach. We are praying that a better paying job will open up–even in the public school. He taught for 4 years in the public school and got paid a living salary. Mark, you are so right about the teachers vs staff. Teachers are on call all of the time, work way longer and more than 5 days a week. At the same time, God has blessed our son and family in ways that are amazing. All said and done, he needs a better paying job.
    Our pastor makes a very, very good salary for the size of our congregation, but the wife complains that they are poor. Ya right. They seem to treat the people with money in our church, or at least the ones that give them big ticket items, way better than the ones that don’t have a lot. Paul says so much about that, and is agreed from the pulpit. But in reality, the opposit is true.
    This is such a great site. Love it!

  23. What about the part where “you’re not allowed to get a second job” to supplement the bad salary because “we don’t want people in the community to think we’re not paying you enough or that the Lord doesn’t provide.” My response to the person who told me that was “You’re NOT paying us enough. Why are the employees burdened with not only a bad salary but also the requirement to cover it up?”

    I can remember interviewing a guy who really, really wanted to work at the fundamentalist institution I worked for. He had a wife who had the conviction that she should stay at home with their six kids. He was an experienced designer who had a lot of success in the business world and he wanted to “use his talents for God instead of capitalist greed.” I told him, “Look around the office. Everyone in here is either single or recently married with no kids. There’s a reason for that. The pay is so atrocious that it honestly won’t support anyone else unless you’ve used your time in the business world to amass a pile of cash or your wife is a working RN or business executive. I’m telling you, you won’t want to work here. We’d love to have you, but I won’t do that to you or your family.”

    I seriously think that this kind of ministry breeds its own doom. If you breed people who are poor, they’re going to be ultra thrifty. Which means they’re going to want everything cheap and the quality is secondary. So you’re going to have to keep cutting tuition to keep these people coming to your school; which means lowering the salaries. Which means people get more thrifty and price matters even more. It’s a cycle that just keeps spiraling downwards. The workman is worthy of his hire. And that means Christian families should be paying a fair price for their education. If they can’t afford it, they can’t afford it. Remember that God is sovereign and if you don’t have the money, your kids don’t need a Christian school education.

  24. I’ve been there too. I taught at a Christian school for two years and made jack squat, having been informed that it was “ministry.” I agree that it was ministry, and the Lord took care of us (I was newly married), and I would never say that it was a worthless time of life. I learned a lot about a lot of things, like how NOT to run a ministry, how NOT to preach, how NOT to deal with children, and how NOT to treat your fellow-laborers. It was not a waste of my time.

    That being said, I believe that it is both immoral and unethical to pay people so little. Payment ascribes worth, and Rev. So&So was telling me I was worth about as much as a part-time fast food chef. Not to mention the fact that I was the only guy in the building who had any mathematics training past high school; the textbooks were based on failed models of human understanding, the kids were heathens (outreach school), and my room was infested with spiders. And don’t even ask about my bulletin boards: I’m male, and they stunk. I often bribed my students to do them for me!

  25. “Lord, all we ask for is a poor, humble preacher. You keep him humble; we’ll keep him poor.”

    LOL!!! That is so true! I attended a Christian school and was so shocked to find out that a couple that taught at my school and their 5 or 6 kids were living in tents at a local state park because they didn’t make enough money for housing. It was so sad.

    I also did a brief bit of time teaching in a Christian school in 1992. I had been making $18,000 as an entry level secretary. Imagine my surprise when I was told that, with my master’s degree, I would make no less than $7,000 per year. Thank God for that master’s degree!

    After that, I got a master’s in Education and state licensure from an accredited university. When I finished, and the job search wasn’t going particularly well, I called a local fundy school just to see what they said. The principal was very interested in me. I did have two master’s degrees in my field. He told me that I would teach music to all elementary classes, jr high and senior high chorus, the band (knew I wasn’t an instrumentalist), play the piano for Wednesday night choir practice, and I had to go to their church and make sure I was at Thursday night soul-winning. And the cherry on the top–they would provide me with a “Godly, Christian roommate” to move in with. And what was the salary for all this? $11,000 per year!! He wouldn’t let me off the phone before I had promised that I would prayerfully consider the job. I promised, hung up, and prayed, “Lord, thank you for not making this child of your’s stupid enough to get roped into that hot mess!”

    I’m in public education, and I love it! I also work with more sweet Christian people than I ever have.

  26. I lived like this in ministry for 3 years. Then I decided it was time to get a job. I made money in that job in 20-30 hours a week than the ministry paid and I was expected to put in 40 hours a week plus be there Sunday 5 hours, Mon visitation 3 hours, Tues Awana 3 hours, Wed 2 hours, Friday 3-4 hours with teens. I was so burned out after a couple years that I finally left.

  27. When I was (briefly) a pastor in an IFBC in West Tennessee, the deacons (including the treasurer, who insisted on counting the offerings ALONE), were INCENSED that my wife and I had split a custodian’s job in a PCA school in the next county. Never mind that we could have come home most weeks after Wednesday night service, dropped dead, and not been missed until time for Sunday school. The treasurer even asked, “If you were working for Wal-mart, would you walk off the job?” I thought to myself, “Wal-mart wouldn’t expect me to be there 24-7, either!” I had the parsonage phone forwarded to my cell phone just in case something happened–nothing did. BTW, it took them three months to discover that we were working that other job on the side. My wife asked one of the older members, “Why is it that you always have first-timers as pastors?” The old lady replied, “So we can control them better.” Yes, there are abusive IFB pastors. There are also abusive IFB churches.

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