Should Pastoral Ministry Be Treated As A Commodity?

by Reverend Haynes

A former seminary professor of mine once stated: "Populism and Free Market Capitalism determine much of North American Christianity". He also stated that in congregationalism (in which a congregation has the power to hire and fire a pastor): "A minister must not only sell himself to the congregation but continually keep himself sold". Lastly, he quoted the famous Protestant reformer, John Calvin, who said: "I might be a servant to the church, but the church is not my master".

To add to this, I once read an article in Pulpit and Pew magazine entitled: "How Much Should We Pay the Pastor: A Fresh look At Clergy Salaries In The 21st Century", by Becky R. McMillan and Matthew J. Price. At the end of this article there were a number of responses. The one response I wish to draw our attention to is: "Ministry as Commodity", by Rev. Kenneth L. Carder. At the very opening of his response he states this:

"The free market may be the most pervasive god of the modern world, with capitalism as the dominant expression. The market has become more than a system for the transfer and exchange of goods and services; it is an ideology, a lens through which life is viewed, a power that affects every aspect of living. It is looked to as a solution to basic human problems and as a source of meaning, security, and fulfillment. The market assigns worth in accordance with commodity exchange. What a product or service is worth depends upon its value in the market place where supply and demand, competition, and efficiency become the guiding principles. Even persons tend to be valued for what they have to exchange in the market. Professions are valued and compensated according to the market rather than the intrinsic value of the service rendered. Ministry, thereby, is reduced to a commodity available to the highest bidder."

In light of the above references, and sobering comments, I firmly believe that one of the most significant factors contributing to pastoral burnout and despair is the serious lack of pastoral preparation (and/or raised awareness) with regards to the harsh reality of the crushing dynamics of the free-religious-market place on pastoral life.

Moreover, student pastors in bible college and seminary are blindly encouraged (and even mandated) to prepare work-place resumes to submit for pastoral work as religious-based service providers. In my experience, no one ever thought, for even a second, to question the legitimacy (or ethic) of doing such. Everyone around me preparing for pastoral ministry seemed to accept this process at face value without question.

Just to allude, for a moment, to one small (and somewhat bizarre) market-driven example in ministry, I once knew an unemployed, independent pastor who would purposely wear a minister’s collar and carry a big, black, briefcase that he had inscribed, on both sides, in big white letters: "Minister for Hire". The irony of it all, was, that he seriously thought it was a legitimate way (i.e. through contracting out infant baptisms, funerals, marriages etc.) to provide him and his family with a measure of ministry employment income. Whereas I, on the other hand, thought it was a travesty, regardless of any genuine need, that cheapened pastoral ministry down to the level of a commodity for sale.

Bizarre examples aside, I firmly contend that pastoral burnout (or the crushing of the pastoral spirit) is going to increase exponentially as long as the Protestant-Evangelical church (whether at the bible college/seminary level, denominational level, or local church level, etc.) continues along a path in which the cut-throat dynamics of the (religious) market place prevail and where a market ethic of survival and growth at all costs reigns supreme.

Furthermore, the role (and/or duties) of pastors are becoming, more and more, religious-market driven than ever before. In David Well’s book, No Place for Truth, he brings to the fore how seminaries, pastoral ministry and local churches are being "disabled" by the destructive dynamics of the free market. And, unfortunately, these dynamics are most prevalent, sad to say, in congregational-based churches (though not exclusively) where supply and demand competition and efficiency are felt and experienced most keenly.

Additionally, the detrimental effects of the free-market-driven ideology on pastoral life are enormous. It literally re-shapes (or re-defines) the very nature and essence of pastoral life, work and ministry. Consequently, pastoral life and ministry are both deconstructed and re-fashioned into the image (or demands) of the religious-based consumer. And it is this pervasive, religious-based consumerism (or spirit) that has literally transformed pastoral ministry into a cheapened commodity.

Furthermore, or more specifically, the pastoral office itself is being re-defined (or re-made) into the image of the religious consumer’s needs, wants, desires and even whims. As such, these ever-expanding consumer demands, in turn, create (or spin off) ever-expanding, as well as ever-revolving, (so-called) pastoral job openings. That is, job openings for youth pastors, college and career pastors, junior high pastors, senior high pastors, children’s pastors, nursery pastors, cruise ship pastors, executive pastors, activities pastors, and so on and so forth. It is literally a dizzying, consumer-driven, employment-based, pastoral smorgasbord that has arisen out of a powerful, religious, economic spirit within the free market-capitalist enterprise.

In Roger Finke’s and Rodney Stark’s eye-opening book: The Churching of America: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, they argue, and right from the outset, that: "Religious economies are like commercial economies in that they consist of a market made up of a set of current and potential customers and a set of firms seeking to serve that market." Of course, and within my experience, those populist pastors who are "winners" tend to thrive within the church as a religious-market-economy and, conversely, those unpopulist pastors who are "losers" tend to fail within the church as a religious-market-economy. Go figure.

It is here, at this point, that a crucial question needs to be asked: Is the religious-market-based-economy good for the life (or bene esse – well being) of the church; and especially pastoral ministry? Or, is it, in truth, an evil ideology that both dominates and oppresses North American Christianity? Some, like Barna, would argue that Jesus Himself, was, in fact, a marketing expert and that we should adopt, and even further refine, a religious-market-based-economic model (together with its workplace "burnout") into the life of the church. Others, like myself, would strongly contend that we need to seriously protect the church (and especially pastoral ministry) from the potentially dangerous, oppressive, and crushing dynamics of the market place and not submit to it. Unfortunately, that is a tall order.

Notwithstanding this formidable giant in the land, I believe that by simply recognizing and refusing to submit to this ever-increasing, overwhelmingly oppressive, religious-market ideology (that ranges anywhere from massive, mortgage-like student loan burdens, to institutional ethics of survival and growth at all costs, to submitting ridiculous resumes for jobs as pastors, to being hired and fired within an ever-revolving, ever-expanding myriad of consumer-driven pastoral positions, etc.) is, I believe, a positive step toward reclaiming our lost pastoral identity and staving off pastoral burnout and despair.

Reverend Haynes

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