Paid clergy isn’t priestcraft

But I’m still glad we don’t have one.

For the sake of this discussion, I’m not concerned with the technical definition of “priestcraft.” I’m using it as a shorthand term for “something about another church that isn’t just different (like having crosses on their steeples) or incorrect (baptism by sprinkling instead of immersion), but a form of institutional wickedness.” Hiring and paying a pastor is different and maybe incorrect and definitely subject to abuse, and since it involves priests and money we usually take a dim view of it, but I don’t think it’s institutional wickedness.

I’ve recently read the memoirs of a pastor in the United Church of Christ (or rather, one of its precursors) at the turn of the twentieth century. As the son of a pastor himself, he grew up in impoverished circumstances: his mother sewed shirts out of old sheets for his father to wear while attending seminary, as a child he tasted ice cream only when a wealthy parishioner bought it for everyone at a parish picnic, his proseminary and seminary tuition was waived, and, like Harry at Hogwarts, he was one of the students who stayed at school over the Christmas holiday because a train ticket home and back was too expensive. In his own pastoral career, he served in a series of rural parishes that paid a few hundred dollars a year. In return, he not only preached once a Sunday, or twice when trying to establish a congregation in a new location. He also visited parish members as needed during the week, met with the parish council, and taught the one-room parish school and its confirmation class four or five days a week and also summer school where possible. He was in effect something like the bishop, seminary teacher, local school teacher and elders quorum president all in one (and at times an organist and music teacher as well). One parish paid only $200 per year, but he was thrilled to also have use of a 10-acre farm where his family could raise food, and farming parishioners were committed to supply him with food and firewood. This is not priestcraft, only the provision of sustenance for someone engaged full time in the Lord’s work. It’s not much different from how our missionary funding eliminates financial worries for missionaries, which I benefited from and appreciated, or what our general authorities enjoy today (and which I think is entirely appropriate, but a topic for another post and not something I want to spend time on here).

But after reading the same memoir, I’m glad we approach the training and support of local clergy and congregational finances differently. A lay, unpaid clergy and centralized finances lets us avoid:

  • The pastor’s wife having to go door to door to collect parish members’ dues so she can feed her family.
  • Unscrupulous pastors angling for significant payment from the family for performing a baptism, wedding or funeral.
  • Parish council members having to visit wealthy parishioners to convince them to contribute according to their actual means for church building maintenance or expansion projects.
  • Parishes being on the hook financially for debt incurred in building projects.
  • Inequality between parishes, with some able to afford organs, stained glass and projectors for silent films, while other congregations have to scrounge to afford second best.
  • Suspicion and scandal when checks get lost in the mail.
  • Acrimonious debate over how much of the proceeds from donations to keep for local needs and how much to forward to the synod to support its institutions and further its external mission.

There are some things that might reasonably arouse envy of how other churches work. The financial structure that makes academically trained clergy and professional preachers possible is not one of them.

13 comments for “Paid clergy isn’t priestcraft

  1. We do have a paid clergy. Just not at a local level. Vicars and Rectors in the Church of England, for instance, are allocated a very modest living stipend each year plus housing. It’s the same for Anglican Bishops (Suffragan and Diocesan), Deans, Archdeacons, and so on. They publish their figures each year, with Diocesan Bishops receiving only £46k (an extremely modest salary given the weight of an Anglican Bishop’s responsibility).

    https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2021-04/Central%20Stipends%20Authority%20%28CSA%29%20Report%202020.pdf

    In our faith, and by comparison, Bishops, Branch Presidents, Stake Presidents, and Area Authorities work for free. But General Authorities receive a very generous living stipend. One estimate I recently came across put it at around $130k. That’s huge.

    We also have paid chaplains who are employed by the institutions they work for. Whilst the funds for chaplains doesn’t come from the church, there is a requirement that they’re both theologically schooled and CPE trained. In fact, BYU now has an MDiv programme for this very reason, and these chaplains work the same jobs (and alongside) Anglican clergy (to name but one faith tradition).

    Receiving sufficient pastoral training in order to work effectively in chaplaincy is essential, and is stipulated by the church’s Military Relations and Chaplain Services. Information on this is also available to read in the new handbook.

    It’s a shame we do not require the same theological schooling, or pastoral training, of both our local and general leadership. Our clergy would be much more effective ecumenically, and within the wider community, if we valued this sort of vocational call to serious study, training, and ministry.

    It is not priestcraft to be supported in ministry to serve the poor, imprisoned, or sick on a full-time basis. Priestcraft looks more like establishing yourself as a brand, and then shifting tonnes of poorly-written books through church-owned presses. This is why Christ asks the rich young ruler to: ‘go, sell all you have and give to the poor’, and not: ‘go, make a name for yourself, and enjoy the spoils.’

    We’ve so much to learn from these wonderful faiths who support their clergy in full-time dedicated ministry.

  2. Sterling, nice that you could stop by. It kind of seems like you commented without taking time to read the post, since you seem to be adamantly disagreeing with things that aren’t in it.

    Like your line about it not being priestcraft to be supported in ministry on a full-time basis. I agree! In fact, it’s the title of the post. You read that much, right? Please tell me you at least got past the word “priestcraft.”

    Or your insistence that we do so have paid clergy because our general authorities receive a living stipend. Also true! Admittedly I mentioned it in a parenthetical comment, but it’s right there in the post, I promise.

    It is a bit weird how you think £46k is extremely modest, while $130k is huge. In nominal terms, $130K is about twice as much. And twice as much is definitely more! But in terms of salary, it’s still kind of unimpressive. Personal perspective and all, but there’s really not that much difference between the two figures.

    It’s totally okay if you think a professional paid clergy is superior. But, you know, in the spirit of the post, you could pause to think about both the costs and the benefits.

  3. It sounds like the person you read about dedicated his life to Christ, and sacrificed for that choice, and he and family should go directly to CK.

    We did require similar sacrifice from some members not that long ago. My father had a building business when he joined the church in 1958, in Australia. By 1960 he was on a building mission for the church, in Scotland. For this time we moved house every 18 to 24 months (my high school years) no holidays, my father worked 80 hours a week, no school excursions, or anything that cost money. Around 1968 my father became an employee of the church, and I went on a mission.

    When the Sydney temple was announced in 1980, my wife and 4 children and I had just built a home, and had a mortgage of about $ 28000, we were asked to contribute $5000 to the building of the temple, and we did. We lived 2 hours drive away, and our car was worth about $500. We lived on a dirt road, and the muffler fell off a couple of times a week, we couldn’t afford to have it welded on.

    When the Brisbane temple was built in 2001, it is 15 minute drive, and we were asked for nothing, just attendance.

    I was amazed a couple of months ago that most of the young married elders in our ward play golf, and the others run. Such frivilous activities were beyond my budget, and culture when I was their age.

  4. Whenever women’s roles in the Church are discussed, someone is bound to wax nostalgic on how the Relief Society used to control its own funds before the big bad wolf of Correlation robbed us of that privilege. Less often noted is the labor that went into raising those funds that we then controlled — hard manual labor in the fields to grow and glean and clean and store Relief Society wheat once upon a time, on through all the sewing and baking and heat of canning and mess of jam making, then staffing booths to sell those items at a Relief Society bazaar. Then there were the bake sales, and dime-a-dip suppers to raise funds for chapel building, and on and on.

    Maybe — maybe — it wasn’t such a big deal when you were sewing baby clothes or doll clothes or aprons for your household anyway to do a little more to contribute to a bazaar … but I wonder how many of us would really be willing — or able? do we still have the skills? — of home production to stock bazaars every year to raise the funds we think our grandmothers were so empowered by controlling. When it comes right down to it, I think most of us would (secretly? grudgingly?) admit that this aspect of modern church financing has its benefits, too.

  5. The LDS Church Educational System (CES) resembles a paid clergy, an educated priestcaste that serves to exercise dominion over doctrine by turning it into dogma.

  6. Mr Green. My comment is intended to provide nuance to the subject. The way in which I engage with your post is not simply a matter of agreement or disagreement (I’m certain you can see past that). Rather, your post provoked me to write from my perspective as a way of joining the discussion. I hope that is permissible?

    I’m especially interested in the idea that we don’t have a paid clergy, or even a trained one. Really my words suggest that whilst we might not have the latter (outside of chaplaincy, which is essentially modelled on Catholic and Anglican chaplaincies), we certainly have the former. I wanted to give that a little more emphasis than your post did.

    I mean, you do say “But I’m still glad *we* don’t have one [a paid clergy]” and then go on to say: “There are some things that might reasonably arouse envy of how other churches work. The financial structure that makes academically trained clergy and professional preachers possible is not one of them.”

    At least in the world of chaplaincy in the church, there’s a little more to it. Before BYU established its MDiv programme, for instance, we actively encouraged our chaplains to receive trainings solely at the established theological colleges of other faith traditions. This is because it is *essential* that our chaplains are trained professionals when working in the world. The church has now adopted this same structure to train its own chaplains at its own university – though it doesn’t then support them financially.

    Whilst the church supports its general clergy financially (and $130k is huge considering so many of our members live very humble lives, and a greater number exist outside of the States compared to within), it does not expect the same standards of professionalisation. I mean, an MBA seems to be the degree of choice for our paid clergy, rather than the MDiv, MChap, or MSt in Theology.

    Isn’t it a wonder that whom the church trains it doesn’t pay; yet whom the church does not train, it calls and *pays*?

  7. Sterling, thanks for the additional thoughts. Please excuse the terseness of the first few lines of the post, which left out some information.

    I wasn’t aware of BYU’s MDiv program; thanks for mentioning it. Then again, outside of a relatively smaller number of chaplains (I’d guess primarily for the military), it doesn’t seem like an item of central importance for most members. That these people can gain the qualification they need to serve as chaplains is wonderful, but even for LDS servicemen and -women, their spiritual needs will primarily be met by their local ward or branch leader (at least, based on my son’s experience in the Army).

    It’s true that we have quite a few general authorities (and we could add in full-time missionaries, mission and temple presidents and CES employees teaching seminary, institute and university-level religion courses, too) that look quite a bit like paid clergy (more the general authorities, to a lesser degree the CES teachers). And that seems just fine. Giving general authorities enough to live on so they’re not primarily worried about their finances seems like the best approach. Views will differ on how much constitutes enough, but “people in other countries are poor” isn’t much of an argument (as it doesn’t establish any lower bound for what’s appropriate), and the difference between $65k and $130k isn’t enough to worry about. That “huge” figure tells me that the general authorities aren’t even the church’s highest paid employees, and that they’re not earning more than twice what quite a few junior employees might earn. It’s not my primary point here, but it’s also an issue I plan on coming back to in an upcoming post.

    So that leaves us with the local clergy. I can understand the benefit of an academically trained pastor and trained preacher. Then again, there are drawbacks. To name a few:
    A congregation that can’t afford to pay a preacher is out of luck.
    Drawing local clergy from more than one career and educational background is a strength, not a weakness. (In the memoir, the pastor remarked several times that so much of what he needed to know couldn’t be learned in a seminary.)
    An MBA teaches skills that are important for leading a congregation or a denomination, and other degrees or career fields will have their use somewhere in the life of a church.
    The social compact of a ward, where you sustain a bishop or Relief Society president in the knowledge that you too might be asked to step into that role some day, is superior to the social compact of a congregation that can fire a disfavored pastor and replace him or her with one they prefer.

    Someone might look at these points or at a comprehensive list of advantages and disadvantages, agree with some and disagree with others, and still find a professional clergy preferable. Maybe the choice between the two is merely a matter of different preferences, or perhaps one is actually wrong, but neither constitutes wicked priestcraft (although I do think there are more opportunities for wicked personal enrichment with paid local clergy).

    So it is with finances. Online discussion of tithing is often a matter of angst and acrimony, but local congregational financing would make matters worse, not better. Instead of being asked once a year if you pay an honest tithe, imagine Mr. Smith from the parish council coming to visit, observing that your car dealership was obviously doing splendidly, and noting that you had donated only as much toward the church renovation as Widow Jones, so could you please come back with a more plausible figure? To me our system of tithing seems much superior.

  8. Why won’t you post my comments, T&S? Even when I *support* what you say, you haven’t let any of my recent comments through. What the hey?

  9. Ardis, sorry, our comment system is getting stupider all the time. Any time there’s a typo in a name or e-mail address, it sees it as something from a brand new commenter and automatically puts it on hold for a while. Any time one of your comments gets trapped in the filter, just let me or one of us know.

  10. You’re glad we don’t have a paid clergy? GA’s and mission presidents are paid 6-figure salaries. If that isn’t paid clergy I don’t know what is.
    Compare the LDS practice of paying its leaders fat salaries with the practice taught in Mosiah 18:20-29, where we are taught that the only reward for preaching is to “receive the grace of God.”
    The LDS church has failed to reach its destiny because it violates this principle. A compensated clergy cannot “wax strong in the spirit” and therefore cannot “teach with power and authority from God.”
    This is because “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” LoF 6:7
    True religion takes your time, resources, energy and effort. Practicing it does not reward you with compensation.
    Alma teaches us how church leaders ought to function: “And when their priests left their labor to impart the word of God unto the people, the people also left their labors to hear the word of God. And when the priest had imparted unto them the word of God, they all returned again diligently unto their labors, and the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers; for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner. And thus they were all equal; and they did all labor, every man according to his strength.” (Alma 1:26)

  11. One definition of ‘priestcraft’ is a message that does not include knowledge about how the audience may come to God themselves; the primary intent is always to make others dependent on the messenger.
    It is vanity to spread new and personal revelation about the afterlife, God, man, prophecy, visionary encounters, and spiritual experiences if the primary reason does not focus on instructing how the audience can come to God themselves. It is dangerous to trust teachings that fail to give man guidance on how to find God for himself.
    It is the way to find God that will save you, not someone else’s new and exciting spiritual manifestation. Still, people will go to great trouble and spare no effort to find someone who will only give a titillating peek behind the veil but who will do nothing to instruct you on how you can meet God here, be redeemed from the fall of man, and come back into God’s presence.
    Any man who tries to put himself between another person and heaven, claiming that he alone should be the source of religious beliefs and education, is practicing priestcraft and will, in the end, lead both himself and his followers to damnation.
    When we pursue any end other than establishing Zion, the Book of Mormon calls it priestcraft. That is what we have accomplished with the Book of Mormon thus far.

  12. In the spirit of doublethink: This is the most correct post on the earth today and it is all incorrect.

    If the subtitle of it is a false statement, then it hardly matters a heavily qualified correction is buried in the bottom of its body.

    In the spirit of clarity: I agree with every single bullet in the post & most of the main body of it.

    As a Saint outside the Book of Mormon belt I’ve had a lot of friends invite me to dinners that by happy coincidence were also shared with their Pastors. A meal the Parishioner seemed to see as an opportunity for my conversion was interpreted by the Pastor as an opportunity to discuss church and personal finances. In one case a Pastor led a very hopeful discussion about a family vacation to Disney –if the money could be found to do so.

    Despite its self-congratulatory tone of the post and the reality of challenges associated with decentralized financing. The real villain of the post is destitution and human greed. Neither are a direct result of decentralized of financing.

    Although self-awareness doesn’t seem to be the core purpose of the post it does invite some self-examination based on the contrasts it draws. It primarily focuses on the inherent yuckiness of money discussions, but does it without mentioning why Saints are excused from it. Despite numerous scriptural mandates we have for church finances to be totally transparent with complete accountability (to the general population of Saints) we haven’t had either since the last time our 1st Presidency (Pres. Henry D. Moyle) nearly bankrupted us, which has been a recurring example of administrative negligence since Pres. Smith.

  13. I just want to clarify – BYU does not have an M.Div program. They have a Master’s of Chaplaincy degree that is M.Div equivalent for the purposes of the US Department of Defense and the healthcare Chaplain certification bodies. Prior to the BYU program, the Department of Defense had an exemption for LDS Chaplain Candidates which allowed them to get an MA in Psychology with additional theological training. The DoD changed their criteria and the church created the BYU Master’s of Chaplaincy program to meet the DoD standards. Currently, the BYU program is limited to military chaplains, though there have been a couple of exceptions. I believe they accept up to 6 students a year. The link is below.

    (http://gradstudies.byu.edu/program/chaplaincy-ma)

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