My church family gives me the profound blessing of paying me a full-time salary for the privilege of serving as their pastor. This is a gift for at least two reasons. First, it allows me to focus all of my energy and attention upon the task of being a faithful “under-shepherd,” who nurtures and teaches and shares with them the good news of Jesus as we walk together in His way. And second, it allows me to support my family — which is a blessing, indeed — since I’ve been “doing ministry” for so long now that I no longer possess the “practical” skills that would allow me to earn a living in any other way!
Thankfully, today’s New Testament lesson provides a biblical justification for this arrangement. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, and he says:
Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? (1 Corinthians 9:7-12)
But almost immediately, Paul goes on to explain why he has chosen to forfeit these “rights” and to support himself as he conducts his gospel ministry:
But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:15-18)
I feel called to the work I do. And I’m thankful for the support I receive that enables me to do it. What’s more — even if I wasn’t involved in “professional ministry” — I like to think that I would feel compelled to “preach the gospel” in the same way that Paul was. But I am also aware of the “entanglements” that ministerial support brings with it. It’s hard to be “prophetic” when declaring “uncomfortable truth” might incline people to diminish their support. And there is an argument to be made that having a “paid pastor” can tempt people to “leave ministry to the professionals,” when the truth is that all of us are called to our own particular form of “ministerial service.”
What, then, am I to do? Well, for a host of reasons I will probably continue to accept (with deep gratitude) the support that my church family so graciously gives. But I pray that I will always see that support as the “grace gift” that it is. And I pray, too, that I will always be faithful to point them to Jesus and to share with them “the full counsel of God,” even when doing so opens both them and me to the challenging winds of the Spirit, who takes us where God wills.