Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Throwing Money

My brother once commented (rather perceptively) that I try to solve every problem I encounter by throwing money at it.

He was not wrong. And I’m not the only one.

An elder at one of the local churches in my neighbourhood invited me over for dinner a few weeks ago, and we spent a very enjoyable evening together discussing nearly everything under the sun. One of the subjects he brought up was the regular compensation of pastors.

To his satisfaction, I did the expected double-take.

The Gift of Pastors

Among the gifts given to the Body of Christ by our risen Lord is the pastor, or shepherd.

When my friend used the word “pastors”, he qualified it by adding that he was using it in its New Testament sense. He meant someone who takes care of the spiritual needs of the flock, not an extra-scriptural hireling assigned much or all of the responsibility for pulpit ministry and church administration by a board of elders, as the word is common misused today in much of Christendom.

By “pastors” he did not mean seminary graduates and careerists, but people who are spiritually gifted shepherds. Nurturers. Caregivers. Sound with scripture and able to feed the flock. Not necessarily or primarily pulpit guys at all.

The Pressing Lack of Home Visitation

Now, to be clear, my friend was not in any way manoeuvring for his own benefit. He’s employed full-time and in no financial need. Nor does it appear he was looking for a salary package for any of the current elders in his own church. Rather, he was observing a problem that exists across the board in modern churches and looking for ways it might be addressed.

The problem he sees is a lack of home visitation.

This is not a new concern. In fact, it’s at least a quarter-century old, and I suspect a great deal older than that. An article by Larry Batts posted last week at assemblyHUB was originally published in 1991 ... and pointed out exactly the same thing.

And yet here we are.

My friend’s very tentative solution is to pay someone to do what it appears elders were not doing enough of in the early nineties and are still not doing enough of today. To be fair, he didn’t come right out and say he was thinking about formal salary arrangements, but in most local churches of any size, doing visitation properly could easily top forty hours a week. The need is such, he says, that it cannot be met by four to five men with family responsibilities who are working full time, giving attention to Bible study, the preaching of the word of God, the management of the local church and so on.

A Few Potential Issues

But paying a full-timer? Hmm. I can see a few potential issues here that my friend will need to address if he and his fellow elders are going to keep their visitation arrangements scriptural:

 The Elders are to Shepherd

It seems to me it would be undesirable for elders to become reliant on others to do their shepherding for them even if a suitable replacement or replacements could be found to do it full time. Why? Because shepherding is one of the basic responsibilities of elders. Peter says:
“I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
Get that? The “elders” (who are also “overseers”) are to “shepherd”. While it would be going well beyond the teaching of scripture to suggest that ONLY elders are to be shepherds, or that shepherding ONLY occurs during home visits, any rearrangement of church responsibility that removes or significantly reduces the elder component of shepherding moves us away from the commands of scripture. The help of others in the local church with shepherd hearts is certainly desirable, but connecting with the sheep on a personal level is part of the job description for elders. We cannot consider “outsourcing” a good idea, even if may be a successful trend in the business world.

Not a good plan.

 “Visitation” vs. Hospitality

It should be noted that the New Testament writers direct us to be given to hospitality five times more often than they recommend visitation, and that they do not envision the regular practice of hospitality as restricted to elders, pastors or overseers but instead recommend it to the entire church.

Both my friend and Larry Batts frame the problem as a lack of “home visitation”, but I wonder if it is not hospitality that is really in short supply. It seems to me visitation is something you do for shut-ins, people who have stopped coming to church, or widows and orphans in needs of practical help as well as personal involvement.

Hospitality is harder than visitation. It involves more than dropping in on people for an hour a couple of times a year. It means opening your home for an entire evening or afternoon when you might prefer to watch the football game or relax, or taking someone to lunch in the middle of a busy day. It means involving your wife and family. It may mean messy clean-ups afterward. Hospitality costs us more (even if we just have Swiss Chalet) and it means serving in a practical way rather than having someone else serve you (even when what’s being served is only coffee and cookies).

But the benefits are tremendous. Hospitality has a natural quality that a bi-annual visit from a designated elder does not. It includes family members who might otherwise be left out. It allows opportunity for an elder to step away with the head of the home for quiet word of counsel or encouragement, if necessary, without making it the obvious purpose of the visit. It gives the wives a chance to connect in an informal setting. It gives all a chance to discuss the things of God over a meal as if they are — perish the thought — part of everyday life rather than something best kept to an hour every Sunday.

Best of all, hospitality has the advantage of being a biblical solution rather than a man-made one. If all the members of a local body of believers were regularly showing hospitality to one another, I wonder how much perceived need there would still be for home visitation?

It would be interesting to find out. But that might take work.

 The Extra-biblical Expansion of the Elder’s Role

As our conversation wore on, it occurred to my friend that part of the reason elders cannot seem to fit in home visitation on a regular basis is that they are doing a whole lot of things that those who functioned in leadership in the early church didn’t seem to be doing. The famous declaration of the earliest leaders of the church is this:
“We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
“Prayer” and “ministry of the word”, as distinguished from dealing with practical matters that could well be handled by other godly men. And yet elders today are far too often co-opted for (or insert themselves into) local church activities that could just as easily be done by others, freeing up the time they need for one-to-one and family contacts. My elder friend is involved in boy’s club and youth work: good activities, both, but they do not require the presence of an elder. Other elders I know have far too much involvement in building administration and work that is properly the responsibility of deacons.

In Summary

I am not suggesting the answers are easy, but it seems to me that rather than being the root problem, the lack of home visitation is merely a symptom of other problems, both practical and conceptual, in the role of both the elder and the average church-goer.

Paying somebody to do a job to which they are not already committed is a poor solution to any church problem. That is true whether they are paid regularly or irregularly, formally or informally.

You don’t solve spiritual problems by throwing money at them.


  1. Good article and thoughts. I agree 100% that most elders (including me) do tasks that are better suited for deacons or others capable. I'm surprised by how many assemblies don't even have deacons. No wonder the elders are swamped.

    I would like to suggest though that home visitation does have a very important place for elders (and others). My wife and I love hospitality and we have people in our home almost every week. However having also done home visitation we have noticed that many people will open up more in their own home and will be more guarded in our home. It's something about a person sitting in their favourite lazy boy drinking their favourite coffee and feeling relaxed.

    As to money for shepherds I personally believe that if the local church would commit to "helping" a few elders with finances they could cut back their working hours and dedicate time just to the church. I'm not suggesting a salary, although I may not be against that. If 2 or 3 elders in a church were able to cut back work and dedicate 20 hours each to the church what a difference that would make.

    This is a big topic. Thanks for bringing it up.

    1. Good points, Crawford. There is certainly nothing unbiblical about "helping", as you say. We wouldn't want to muzzle the ox. As long as we don't start negotiating deals to deliver 'x' amount of grain annually in predetermined weekly increments conditional on specific performance on the part of the ox ...