NOT LONG AFTER I became director of lay ministries, I experienced a growing sense of uneasiness in my weekly interactions with my pastor. When I asked Charles about this, he readily confessed to a measure of awkwardness in knowing how to treat me. At first I wasn’t sure what the problem was, but after a period of time Charles finally said, “I guess I don’t know how to deal with you as a volunteer. How can I hold you accountable? We don’t pay you to do this ministry, so I find it hard to hold you to the same standards I would expect from a paid staff person.
We had stumbled upon a blind spot in our system and values. Actually, we had uncovered a lethal assumption about laypeople, money, and accountability. We were carrying on the time-honored error of equating pay with “real ministry” as opposed to unpaid “semiministry.” What’s more, we were assuming that we could expect someone to keep their word if we were paying them, but without a paycheck commitments would invariably be less binding.
I call this a lethal assumption because I’m convinced it kills pastoral ministry and discourages a great deal of lay ministry. Pastors end up taking on all kind of roles and tasks, even if they’re ill equipped to perform them, simply because they accept the understanding that “it’s what they pay me for!” Meanwhile, laypeople sometimes shy away from ministry that they’re well equipped to do simply because they’re afraid they’ll be stepping on the pastor’s toes. The pastor went to seminary, so surely he or she is able to do “all things!” Or, what’s worse, laypeople volunteer to undertake a project, only to be told that because there’s no money to pay them, the project will have to wait. When it comes to receiving pay for ministry, need and circumstance should be the highest priority in evaluating salary levels. A paycheck does not automatically make one person’s ministry more worthy or valuable than another person with similar gifts who does his or her ministry without receiving pay.
Because Charles and I were both committed to a larger vision, we knew we couldn’t let this issue derail us. I simply told him to pretend that he was paying me and leave it at that until we had worked out the relationship. The truth is, if we couldn’t get beyond this, we wouldn’t be able to do the more significant work of changing the system itself.