Poor financial compensation for pastors is one factor among many today that could imperil the future of the Chinese church. According to a recent article, the average salary for those working in a tier-one city today is around 7000 RMB (approximately 980 USD) per month. However, a young pastor fresh out of seminary or Bible school might make only 1500 RMB (approximately 211 USD) per month. Many pastors rely on donations from church members and family for food, clothing, and rent money. As a result, pastors and their families live with a regular worry about how they will provide for their family.
Why the low salaries? There are a variety of reasons why many pastors are not paid well in China. For starters, Chinese Christians have historically advocated for meager material allowances for Christian leaders as a sign of their devotion to the Lord’s work. Many Christians believe material things are “worldly” and, because they must be more spiritual, pastors ought to do without nice material things for the Lord’s sake. In some congregations, the leadership even dictates that a pastor ought not make more money than the poorest people in the congregation.
Of course, there are less complicated reasons for low pay. Some churches simply cannot afford to pay pastors well, such as many rural churches or churches in urban areas made up of predominately migrant workers. Yet, while quality and cost of living sharply increase in China, many pastors and their families struggle to make ends meet.
To be sure, this is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, but there are cultural factors that work against changing the norm. Pastors may desire to change the situation, but it is shameful to request a salary increase because to do so is to appear ungrateful for what God and their brothers and sisters in Christ have provided. Not to mention asking for an increase also raises questions about the pastor’s integrity and his motivations. Moreover, if the church truly cannot provide more compensation, then it is possible they will feel ashamed to the point of asking the pastor to leave. All the while, the family’s shame is compounded if they need to turn elsewhere to borrow money or work odd jobs to supplement their incomes.
When pastors are not paid adequate salaries this leads to several problems for Chinese churches.
First, low salaries are wreaking havoc on pastors’ marriages and families. Reliable numbers are very difficult to come by, but anecdotally there is a significant number of Chinese pastors whose marriages have led to separation or ended in divorce due to financial strain. One of the best ways to throw a pastor off a God-honoring, obedient call to shepherd and care for God’s people is to hamper him from first managing his own family well. Pastors cannot pastor well long-term when financial insecurity continually strains his own marriage and family. Churches willingly handicap pastors (and consequently themselves) when they do not pay pastors an adequate living salary.
Second, because pastors are often paid so poorly there is a decreased incentive for others to become pastors or to consider full-time ministry. Many families, even Christian families, are reluctant to marry their daughters off to a future pastor because they know financial hardship lies ahead. There is already a huge need for full-time trained pastors in China. Yet, as China modernizes and the cost of living increases, many individuals do not feel that full-time ministry is a viable option because it does not pay the bills. If churches do not commit to better pay for pastors now, the pool of viable candidates will continue to shrink and there will be a large number of churches without a shepherd. The future leadership of the Chinese church is at stake.
Third, not only do many pastors not receive an adequate salary, but also many churches provide little to no funding for future training of staff or potential ministry leaders. In order to meet the needs of the church, more training is needed for ministry leaders. This is particularly true in a rapidly urbanizing and modernizing China where the church is facing complicated questions about how to exist in a challenging environment.
Finally, churches that do not see the biblical necessity for a trained and adequately paid pastor put themselves at risk to become even unhealthier. Some churches have opted to do away altogether with a full-time pastor and instead rely on lay people to run church activities. These churches are at risk of receiving questionable and irregular preaching from the pulpit. Such shoddy teaching does not help mature the body, but only disseminates more unbiblical teaching. Moreover, without a full-time pastor to shepherd, dangerous teachings can more quickly spread through the congregation. Members of the congregation receive little formal care or oversight. The role of a pastor is to protect the flock, feed the flock, and guide the flock. Without a full-time shepherd, the flock dangerously roams wild.
The solution to low pastor salaries is to first teach congregations about the biblical mandate for full-time paid pastors. Exactly how much a church can and should pay will of course depend on each individual congregation’s situation. But, churches must commit to a living wage for their pastor that reflects their desire for gospel teaching and need for shepherding.
At the same time, many churches have no idea how much a pastor ought to make. For those churches that have committed to paying their pastor well, a good amount of research into compensation packages is required because there simply is not an abundant amount of information available about pastor compensation in China. If more churches are to pay their pastors better, a helpful step is for a third party that can research this need and disseminate impartial information to churches in different contexts (for example, see this church salary system).
Understandably, there is a great deal of attention on the external problems or pressures of the Chinese church today. But, we ought not forget that some of the biggest dangers to the church are internal issues. For the long-term health of the Chinese church, congregations need to commit to well-trained and well-compensated pastors who love and care for the church.
Image credit: Bling bling by Karl Baron via Flickr.
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