Paid Staff versus Unpaid Servants?

“We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love."  -Eph 4:15-16

As our churches gear up each fall, we start assessing how many faithful servants we will need to recruit and equip for deploying ministry and mission in the new “academic” year. Too often we fall into the trap of paying people to get the job done rather than doing the hard work of inspiring and equipping members of Christ's body to carry out his mission in the world. 

A recurring mistake throughout the life cycles of the church is our reliance on a “professional” model of ministry. Even Jesus didn’t possess the pedigree for the official priesthood. He was from the tribe of Judah, and only those from the tribe of Levi could be priests. The Christian movement began without a professionally credentialed priesthood. Every follower was anointed and appointed by the Spirit to use the gifts that he or she was given for the benefit of Christ’s body and mission. Other members of the body demonstrated and affirmed these gifts. Every member was a minister. If you belonged to Christ, then you were a functioning member of his body. Just like the members of your physical body, every member has a function. Your hand can’t work apart from your wrist, which can’t work apart from your forearm, which can’t work apart from your elbow. I think you get the picture.

As the church became more formalized and institutionalized, a two-tier caste system was created that separated “priest” and “parishioner.” (I write about this in detail in my book Spiritual Entrepreneurs, chapter 5, “The Priesthood Principle.”) We tend to make the same fatal error when the church begins to grow. Growth provides the fiscal resources to increase professional staff and programming. The experience of mission that was once the task of an unpaid servant is now assigned to a paid staff person. Unpaid servants are assigned the passive work of committees while paid staff performs the active role of mission. The unintended consequence is the shift from the experiential model, where one learns by doing, to the academy model, where one learns through study. Discipleship occurs in the active process of doing. We err when we try to create transformation in people’s lives through the transference of concepts rather than through participation in mission. The disciples learned as they traveled and ministered with Jesus. We fail to make disciples when we reduce the meaning of discipleship to the assimilation of ideas.

When Ginghamsburg Church had fewer than one hundred people, I was the only salaried staff person. Every hand was needed to accomplish the aggressive mission agenda that we were called to do. Peggy began the gently used clothing store; Sue, the food pantry. A local school teacher/track coach created one of the most mission-driven student ministry programs in the country. Two years later Mike became our second full-time staff person. Mary oversaw the newly formed cell group ministry, and Lou created a children’s program and, within five years, a preschool day care. Dean directed our visitation and hospital teams, and Tom organized our mission teams. Randy put together four worship teams, and Rose led the prayer chain. Diane and Len nurtured seekers through the membership assimilation process. The church of fewer than one hundred people had fifty to sixty disciples functioning as unpaid staff with a budget of $27,000 a year.

At Ginghamsburg I have always believed that a ministry or mission is never truly successful unless it is largely envisioned, planned and fueled by the priesthood of all believers. Paid staff ultimately only have one purpose – to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Don’t over hire – inspire! Now that’s success. 

Part of this blog was excerpted from my book Change the World - recovering the message and mission of Jesus. Our next CHANGE the WORLD Conference is on April 21/22, 2016, with special guests Shane Claiborne, Jorge Acevedo and Kabamba Kiboko. 

Recent Comments

I couldn’t agree with you more. Too many are waiting for staff to figure out the needs and execute their fulfillment. Time for us to become priests, turn the structure pyramid upside down, use the staff for the very important role of support and advice and aid in execution so we become a dynamic, driven body.

Unfortunately there are some of us who must have some sort of salary since we have no other income.  However, I agree 100% with what you have said.  This doesn’t seem true at Ginghamsburg, but I have observed at other churches that paid staff is “just doing a job” whereas unpaid servants have no other motive than to gladly serve God! Thank you, Mike, for being a leader who practices what he preaches!

As an unpaid church treasurer, I agree from the standpoint that our small church could not afford to accomplish its mission with paid staff. I also agree that the division between staff and lay positions in large churches creates a caste system in which the important jobs are no longer entrusted to amateurs. Sadly, I must disagree from the standpoint that volunteers cannot always be relied on to complete the tasks they have agreed to perform, myself included. I simply lack the time and energy to do both my paid vocation and devote the time to my position as treasurer that it deserves.

What Maurice said! YES!

I disagree. If these churches are large enough to pay pastors upwards of $75,000 to $100,00 they can afford to pay people the minimum wage. If a person doesn’t want to be paid because the spouse is making a decent wage, then she can do it for free. But to have all positions be volunteer when the clergy is making over $75,000 is not right.

I am experiencing a very difficult aspect of the paid vs unpaid worker. God has given me a passion for preschool ministry. I am thankful and blessed and I’ve experienced reliance on God as never before. No matter how frightening it is i have come to believe that a mission based on faith is the only way. It’s hard to surrender a challenge to God and then trust Him to respond but He DOES respond and it’s a beautiful thing!
Here is the rub for me. We have 2 staff members that are in charge of the children’s ministry of our church. They appointed me to be the preschool coordinator but they will not let me lead. My Pastor says that they are the leadership of that area so I need to do it their way. It seems that every time I make a decision regarding the preschool ministry they squelch the idea. I am confident that i am on track with the Lord but i also don’t want to stir up bad feelings. I feel like because they are paid they are above me and their words carry more weight than mine. Im not sure if i should boldly stand or if i should quietly exit. So far I am feeling that the Lord wants me to keep trying.

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