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Adventist Remuneration Philosophy: Not Quite Radical Enough

Every Wednesday morning I have breakfast with four other ministers (when we all can make it, that is). The group is made up of a Baptist, a Congregationalist (United Church of Christ), a Methodist, a Presbyterian and a Seventh-day Adventist. We have a lot in common. And we have some significant differences. Which makes for lively discussions, whether we’re talking about current events, politics, ethics, our families or what our upcoming sermon will be about.
One morning we somehow got onto the topic of pastoral remuneration. I explained that in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, pastors all are paid the same, whether they’re leading a large congregation or a small one. Of course, I pointed out a few caveats, such as adjustments for high-cost-of-living areas. The other clergymen were surprised and impressed by what I described. “In our denomination we’ve talked about doing it that way,” one pastor said. “But when it actually comes down to it, there’s absolutely no chance it would ever get approved.”
As they continued to question me about our radical philosophy, I found myself having to backtrack. I had to admit that Adventist clergy pay isn’t quite as egalitarian as I might have made it sound. There are responsibility loadings for those who work in departmental and administrative jobs. And the pay increases slightly as one moves to a higher organizational level. While the difference in pay from the highest to the lowest isn’t all that great monetarily, the psychological impact may be substantial, I’d suggest.
Since most businesses remunerate employees on the basis of their perceived value, our Adventist pay structure, though essentially egalitarian (if we leave out the healthcare system), screams out loudly and clearly that pastors are more valued than teachers, departmental directors are more valued than pastors, administrators more than departmental directors, workers at union level more than those at conference level, workers at division level more than . . . and, . . . come to think of it, maybe I should never have even used the word “egalitarian”!
In reality, the difference in pay may not even be quite as monetarily inconsequential as it would seem at first glance. If pastoral remuneration is premised on providing nothing more than a living wage–a wage that will just sustain a highly frugal family of four, let’s say–then a 6 or 8 or 10 percent pay differential is the difference between being able to afford a vacation and a few other luxuries versus having a totally bare-bones existence. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the adage “In the house of the blind, the man with one eye is king.” And in a too-poor-for-frills clergy environment, the preacher with 10 percent more is significantly advantaged.
Quite frankly, I’m proud of our denomination’s radical ministerial remuneration structure. Or, better said, I’m proud to the degree that we’ve remained radical. Unfortunately, as I had to face in talking with my clergy friends, what starts out looking like an impressive departure from a “worldly” model, loses much of its punch when the exceptions are factored in. Which is sad, granted that we could be making a powerful statement because we “almost have” such an admirable, extraordinary, radical, counter-culture philosophy.
I recognize that a good argument can be put forward for alternative remuneration structures. During the past twelve months or so, bank managers and Wall Street moguls have done a fairly effective job of defending the need for high salaries for high-level players––even when those high-level players have done an abysmal job. Money is a great motivator, they say. The level of remuneration makes a difference in who will consider a specific job. Employees enjoy receiving commissions and bonuses and other monetary forms of affirmation. Employees like having their perceived level of importance honored through their paycheck.
So shouldn’t the pastor of a church of 2,000 members receive more pay than the pastor of a district of four 50-member churches? And shouldn’t a conference president be paid more than a church pastor? And shouldn’t the president of a conference with 50,000 members be paid more than one with 10,000 members?
Maybe. But maybe not.
The Bible presents a unique idea that Adventists have deemed to be of sufficient importance to merit the label “doctrine.” We call it the “doctrine of spiritual gifts.” This doctrine suggests that God endows each of us with abilities that we should use to help build up the body of Christ, the church. Furthermore, the Bible says the Holy Spirit gives these gifts at His own discretion. All we can do is accept the gift gratefully and seek to develop it even further (as described in the parable of the talents).
The Bible doesn’t say that the gift of administration is worth 10 percent more than the gift of pastoring, and the gift of teaching is worth 10 percent less than pastoring. It does say, however, that if the body of Christ is to be built up appropriately, all the gifts must be present. No gift is dispensable.
Nor does the Bible say that one-gift workers for the church should be paid less than those with two, three or four spiritual gifts. It does say, though, that whatever we do, we should put heart and soul into it. And “each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10, NIV).
I wonder what the impact would be––on members, on pastors, on teachers, on onlookers from outside our denomination–if some brave administrator or group of administrators were to say, “You know, folks, it’s time we demonstrated in a practical way the true meaning of the doctrine of spiritual gifts. It’s time our remuneration showed that we value all spiritual gifts equally––because every gift is essential to our mission. So we’re going to do away with our finely tiered system of pay. It’s time we took this radical philosophy to the lengths it deserves.”
My guess is that, if it sprang spontaneously from administrators and wasn’t forced upon them by oversight committees or laypeople, such a move would impress everyone who wasn’t already receiving higher pay or eagerly looking forward to the day when they would. I believe it would create a new level of respect for church leaders. It would give deeper meaning to the concept of “servant leadership.” It would obviate the need for corporate ladder climbing.
Implementing the changes I’m suggesting need not be complicated or convulsive. If church decision makers decided to make our minister-teacher pay structure totally egalitarian, pastors, departmental directors and administrators could simply forgo all or some of their cost-of-living adjustments until the teachers caught up with the pastors. Then departmental directors and administrators could continue forgoing all or some of their cost-of-living adjustments until teachers and pastors caught up with departmental directors. At that point, administrators could continue forgoing all or some of their cost-of-living adjustments until there is total parity. The process might take five, six or more years. But it could be achieved quite easily.
In cases where one’s responsibilities require additional expenses––such as travel or entertainment––appropriate expense accounts could be provided. And appropriate loadings would still be added where the cost of living is high. But such allowances would say nothing about the perceived value of any individual role. They would, instead, simply ensure that, at its bottom line, the pay stays the same.
I recognize that not everyone will agree with what I’m suggesting. I’ll admit that good arguments can be put forward for creating even greater pay differential than our system currently has. But, typically, I’d suggest, denominations make their greatest impact not by running with the pack and looking like every other corporate entity in today’s secular world. Rather, we make our greatest impact by being radically different.
Granted that we’re so relatively close to a truly radical philosophy of remuneration (except for the healthcare system), wouldn’t it be great if we left our middle-ground stance and went all-out? Then, of course, we’d need to portray our new, truly egalitarian system as a biblically based radicalism. It should be used as a major selling point in attracting employees who would welcome the chance to work under such a radically different set of values.
My guess is that church members would be impressed and inspired, if not overwhelmed. And so would church employees. Such a move would, I suggest, change the public image of the church, revolutionize the working environment and dramatically increase the funds flowing into the church’s coffers.
But we’ll never know if we don’t try it.

James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham Woods Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Longwood, Florida.

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