Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Economics of Ministry

The activity of 'ministry' is only possible among those with a surplus of leisure.

I have been thinking about this a bit lately.

The model of thinking that was prevalent in my ecclesial background was that money paid to employed ministry staff is not so much wages or salary, it is money that frees them, to be set apart for ministry work. This represents the community of a local church valuing ministry enough that they are prepared to give generously to enable ministry.

I think this is the right model of thinking for ministry 'work'. One of its great strengths is that it cuts the direct connection between money and outcomes. Ministry workers ought not feel like they are responsible to the every whim and desire of those who raise their support. To do so will only lead to pandering.

However it sometimes blinds us to the economics of ministry. 'Ministry' from an economic point of view is a form of labour, and it comes with an opportunity cost. It's time invested by someone that could have been invested in other things. Which means that only people who have a surplus of time/money can invest that in ministry. That only happens if the people doing ministry (a) have other means of income, (b) are supported to do ministry, (c) are paid to do ministry. Note carefully that b and c are not equivalent. Personally, I think attitudes about ministry being 'free' for recipients, as well as misconceptions about generosity, blind us to certain economic realities of ministry, and also to the way it favours a certain kind of classism. In the rest of this post I'm going to analyse what the 'cost' of certain ministry activities might be.

Piece work.

Let's talk figures. The current minimum wage in Australia is AUD $16.87 an hour.

According to statistics I could find, full-time pastors spend 13-15 hours a week on sermon preparation. Bi-vocational pastors tended to spend less. Most full-time pastors spend somewhere in the 10-18 hour range.

Let's go with a low-end figure, and include time spent delivering the sermon as part of the figure. So let's set 10 hours for a freshly prepared and delivered sermon.

That sermon is a $168.70 product.

Would you, or more precisely your community, pay $168.70 to an occasional speaker? I'm thinking the answer would generally be, "No". I could be wrong; drawing on my experiences and perceptions, actual pay for occasional speakers is relatively close to that figure, but it is below it.

Perhaps more pertinently, if the answer is no, what is the implicit statement here? Someone else is paying. Either (a) another congregation has borne the cost (i.e. you brought in a ministry worker who is supported from elsewhere), (b) the speaker is bearing the cost.

Now let's be very clear - there is absolutely nothing morally wrong with option b, provided we are honest about this reality. Most of the ministry that does/should take place is done by unpaid volunteers. Churches are ultimately volunteer associations. It's not wrong for someone to volunteer their time and spend 10 hours to give you a free talk/sermon.

However this is always going to skew our demographics, because the people who can afford to spend 10 hours to prepare a decent talk, are doing so from a position of wealth.

So whether you pay for this one-off talk or not is not really my point; rather my point is just to make clear what the cost of that product is and make us reflect harder about who's paying for it. And if, ultimately, you (collectively) wouldn't pay $168.70 for a fresh sermon, what does that say about how much you value being taught the Word of God? What does that say about how much you value the labour of gospel-workers? What does that say about your expectations of generosity, if you assume/demand that someone else should bear that cost?

Let's take another example - camps. Say we've got a summer camp, 5 days, 5 talks, one speaker. How much does that cost?

On the one hand, we've got 5 talks, which if they're going to be good, let's start with a generous 50 hours, but then it's going to be a series, so let's discount to 40 hours of preparation. Most of which needs to be done before camp.

Camp itself is going for 5 days. For which your speaker needs to be on-site the whole time, so they're away from family and any regular life/work. Perhaps they've even taken leave from their job. But let's be generous and say that our speaker is singularly unengaged in the rest of the camp, so they're delivering their talks and then entirely free the rest of the time. They're still there for a full week.

I'm just going to balance out this pre-camp preparation with the on-camp presence and call it all an even work week. The weekly minimum wage in Australia is $640.90. So, again, if you value the work of a speaker in gospel ministry as a minimum-wage job, you need to come up with $640 in your budget.

I don't know how much most camp speakers get. I can't remember accurately what I've been given as an honorarium on camps. I've never particularly noticed because I've always had the surplus of time and wealth to take such opportunities without mincing these calculations. Though I do know I've never received that much. Again, I suspect the sum is close-ish to that sum, but below it.

Overall I think the kind of payments given for these kinds of piecework are reasonably close, but below minimum wage. In my view, that strikes me as problematic. It's problematic because it seems to rely on generosity of others. That only works if your ministry workers have financial security, and/or you assume their ability to offer work for free. It's also problematic because I have run these figures on minimum wage numbers. What happens when we discuss workers with years of training and experience?

I hope this post has been at least a little discomforting. I hope some people will engage and correct me where they think I'm wrong too. Thanks for reading.

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