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Theology of stipends

Pros and cons of higher pay for church leaders

An issue that will likely stir some debate at Methodist Conference 2008 is the Report of the Stipends Review Group. The Review Group was formed in 2006 to examine a raft of issues related to the careers of Methodist presbyters.

The Group’s report to Conference 2007 addressed such aspects of ordained ministry as stipends, recruitment, retention, itinerancy, housing, and retirement packages. The report argued that the issue of remuneration and stipends could not be separated from the other elements that make up the career of ordained ministers.

Nevertheless, it was the issue of ministers’ pay packages that caught the attention of last year’s Conference. Strong opinions were expressed in particular about the report’s proposal for a ‘responsibility margin’ in which those with greater responsibility in the life of the Church receive more money.

Singled out for higher payment were those in Connexional positions such as the general secretary, directors of Mission Resourcing, principal of Trinity Methodist Theological College, Mission superintendents and synod superintendents.

When Conference 2007 expressed a lack of consensus toward the Stipend Review Group’s report, it was asked to give its recommendations further consideration. During the past year it has done so. Synods were invited to reconsider the report and specific questions were referred to appropriate committees of the Church.

The Review Group is now finalising its report to Conference 2008. To preview where the debate may head in the up-coming Conference Touchstone asked two people who spoke on opposite sides during the debate at last year’s Conference.

Con – Equality is fundamental

Mission and Ecumencial secretary Rev John Roberts says he is concerned there is no theology backing up some of the Stipends Review Group’s proposals, in particular those that would lead to some presbyters being paid more than others.

The report, he says, lacks an underlying theological understanding of what it means to be church. Proposals that would create different levels of remuneration for presbyters in Connexional appointments or district superintendents are a departure from the fundamental Methodist concept of parity.

"The report’s proposals would create inequalities and discriminate. Some will become entitled to a health insurance package. For others it will be at the discretion of their parishes. Some will be entitled to higher remuneration, while others will not.

"The basic stipend presbyters receive is a living allowance, not a salary. It is based on parity. It reflects John Wesley’s Arminian theology which spoke of inclusion and treated people equally. Wesley was opposed to Calvinist doctrines of election and predestination and developed a theology in which all could be saved, not some.

"There is also a gospel basis for equal pay that extends from the phrase ‘The last shall be first and the first shall be last’. It follows the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Some worked long and hard throughout the entire day while others worked a good deal less, yet all were paid the same amount for their work. This challenges our thinking but we are told that such is the way of the Kingdom of God."

John says the image of servant ministry is an important one. It should be seen as a community of equals, where those with power seek to become like servants to others.

"We must recognise that the gospels are often counter cultural. The Stipends Review Group is suggesting we adopt more of a business model. Even if it is called not-for-profit, it is still a marketplace ideology and we must ask ourselves what it means for the church.

"I am not suggesting that we should not change the stipends package. But if we do make changes, they should be across the board so that all benefit, not just some.

"Currently the stipend is not a bare bones allowance and it does increase with the cost of living. If we are going to make further changes, for example in regards to housing or health insurance, we should do our theological homework and come up with changes that benefit all and not create privileges for some."

John also disagrees that the living allowance should be adjusted according to the marital status of the presbyter or his or her stage in life. While people’s circumstances change over the course of their working life, their level of need remains similar.

Pro – Servanthood is mutual

Papatoetoe Methodist minister Rev Andre Le Roux believes the Stipends Review Group’s proposals on remunerations emerge from a theology of servanthood that is healthier than the one the church currently follows.

Andre says love is central to the theology and practice in the Methodist Church. Servanthood is one way we express love as we make sacrifices for others, especially those in need.

"Presbyters are called to be servants of the church but it is also true that all Christians are called to be servants. Methodism has always upheld the value of ‘every member ministry’. To limit the title of servant to those employed by the church discourages members from fulfilling their ministry.

"It implies that the presbyter is the servant and the members are there to be served. A theology of mutual servanthood encourages every person to be part of God’s mission. Clearly this is important for the church to stay healthy."

Full time ministry is demanding and takes a toll on the presbyters’ family life. Presbyters are often out at night, they are always on call, new legislation means administrative work is getting more complex, and expectations for worship services are increasingly difficult to meet.

"When we pay ‘servant stipends’ we put added pressure on the presbyter’s family life. Just because presbyters are willing to make sacrifices to fulfil their ministry, doesn’t mean their family should be forced to sacrifice some of their goals and dreams.

"So, for me, the attempt to improve the rates of remuneration for presbyters was an expression of love. It acknowledged that I was more than just a cog in the machine of church and that my family’s future was important. More than that, it was an expression of value."

Andre says when we support low stipends for ministers we subtly undermine the value of generosity. When it is acceptable to give ‘just enough’ to the person who serves us, that same attitude comes through in other areas of church life. We give just enough money to pay the bills, just enough time to care for the poor, just enough interest to keep our position in leadership. Giving just enough undermines the value of mission and threatens the future health of the church.

"Love is generous. Applying a theology of mutual servanthood may help the parish acknowledge the added sacrifice and effort of those who work faithfully. It promotes the attitude of "we’re in this together," and encourages a sense of mutual acknowledgement and praise: "Well done, you good and faithful servant! &Come on in and share my happiness!"

"By serving one another to the best of our ability we express the way of Jesus, promote the unity of the church, and create the values that further the mission of the church."