Should pastors be paid?

By Eric Johnson

In a section of his 2011 book (Mormons Believe…What?! Fact and Fiction about a Rising Religion, published by the Parameter Foundation), Mormon pollster Gary C. Lawrence describes what he calls the “unpaid ministry” and makes several interesting comments. For instance:

The big sociological difference between the LDS Church and other denominations is that none of our local leaders are paid. We preach for free what the Savior gave us for free. Not a religious franchisee among us. (p. 155)

While many of his points are cute, much of what Lawrence writes in his book are certainly barbed and meant with a purpose. Technically, he is correct in the statement above because “local (Mormon) leaders” are not paid for their time. Yet how many Mormons believe that this means all of their leaders, no matter what level, are volunteers? He then writes on page 156:

No stake president, no bishop, and no other leaders in our local congregations make a penny from their church assignments. The website Paysacle.com estimates the average annual pay for ministers in the United States is around $44,000. If these salaries were applied to the LDS bishops and branch presidents in the approximately 14,000 wards and branches in America, it would mean $620 million would be spent just to put rice and beans on their tables and roofs over their families’ heads. (p. 156)

Still, Lawrence does admit that the higher level leaders are paid:

Of course, every major organization needs full-time leaders and staff at the top, but paying ministers at the local level? Where did that idea come from? Did Peter sit down one day and ask himself, “What job could I invent so I could have fine clothes, the admiration of the community, and not smell like fish?” (p. 155)

These are low blows indeed. But is his sarcasm warranted? When Lawrence asks “where did that idea come from” regarding local leaders receiving salaries, the answer is “the Mormon Jesus Himself.” Indeed, the idea to force bishops, the stake president, and other local leaders to work for nothing goes against the LDS Standard Works. Consider what was said in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C)—supposedly given to LDS Church founder Joseph Smith—regarding how local leaders should be paid. D&C 42:71-73 says that bishops (as well as elders and high priests who assist these bishops) are to receive “a just remuneration for all their services.” D&C 75:24 specifically names certain men who were called missionaries and states that “it is the duty of the church to assist in supporting the families of those [missionaries], and also to support the families of those who are called and must needs be sent unto the world to proclaim the gospel unto the world.”

I have referenced these verses in conversations with Latter-day Saints on several occasions and can never get a satisfactory response. Although most Mormons today do not publicly mock the fact that many Christian pastors are paid, some like Lawrence continue to do so. Could his sarcasm be a result of what has been ingrained in his mind by the church’s leaders? For example, in the pre-1990 version of the Mormon endowment ceremony that took place six days a week in every temple existing at that time, there was one scene that described how Lucifer and a Protestant minister made a gentleman’s agreement. This is how the conversation went:

ADAM: I am looking for messengers.

LUCIFER: Oh, you want someone to preach to you. You want religion, do you? I will have preachers here presently.

(Lucifer turns his head as a PROTESTANT minister approaches.)

LUCIFER: Good Morning sir!

PROTESTANT MINISTER: Good morning!

(The preacher turns and looks into the camera.)

PROTESTANT MINISTER: A fine congregation!

LUCIFER: Yes, they are a very good people. They are concerned about religion. Are you a preacher?

PROTESTANT MINISTER: I am.

LUCIFER: Have you been to college and received training for the ministry?

PROTESTANT MINISTER: Certainly! A man cannot preach unless has been trained for the ministry.

LUCIFER: Do you preach the orthodox religion?

PROTESTANT MINISTER: Yes, that is what I preach.

LUCIFER: If you will preach your orthodox religion to these people, and convert them, I will pay you well.

PROTESTANT MINISTER: I will do my best.

Notice how Lucifer made an arrangement with the pastor who responds by saying he “will do (my) best” just after he was told how he would be “well” paid. What is the image? That pastors and priests were paid hirelings of Satan himself.

Despite Lawrence’s admission that the “full-time leaders and staff are paid,” he certainly doesn’t go into any details about how much these workers get paid. For instance, a mission president’s handbook was released in 2012 (later taken down) on the Internet detailing the financial benefits received by mission presidents. While using very conservative numbers, we discovered that mission presidents in the United States bring in benefits beginning at $100,000 per year! In some parts of this nation, that number could easily reach $200,000. While the Doctrine and Covenants says that bishops should be paid, it remains silent about mission presidents. What scriptural precedence is there that mission presidents should receive financial rewards in the six figures?

Look at some of the benefits that a mission president receives:

  • Rent for a fully-furnished home
  • All utilities, including gas and electricity, water, sewer
  • House cable and phone
  • Maid for 20 hours a week
  • Gardener
  • Food, including meals out
  • Household supplies
  • Clothing
  • Dry cleaning
  • Cars
  • Gas
  • Car maintenance
  • Insurance, including medical, auto, renter’s, life, dental
  • Medical bills
  • Weekends away/gathering
  • Phones for the entire family
  • Presents for birthday and Christmas
  • Plane flight for oldest child to visit from college
  • School expenses
  • College undergrad tuition
  • Lessons for children (sports, music, tutoring, etc)
  • And there’s more

According to the handbook, the church tells these employees to keep these financial benefits secret with everyone, including their tax preparers. It appears that these benefits are not supposed to be considered salaries and are apparently not taxed by the federal and state governments! We’re still not sure how such a system is legal, even if much of the expenses could be considered “housing allowances” provided to licensed and ordained clergy. But much of the benefits that are given (i.e. food, weekends away, etc) are not covered under other clergy’s “housing allowances.” For more on this topic, check out the original article we wrote back in 2012 titled “What Does ‘Unpaid Ministry’ Look Like?

Meanwhile, seminary and institute teachers—those who administer classes in local areas to the faith’s high school and college students—generally receive the same salaries as the teachers in that public school district. Aren’t those men and women considered “local leaders”? And again, where does the D&C say that these teachers should receive a salary/wage? It all seems very inconsistent.

In early 2017, paycheck stubs for several general authorities were discovered and released on the Internet. This proves that general authorities such as apostles are making six-figure salaries, paid as wages. Check out this article titled “Mormon Business: Paying the Church’s Unpaid Clergy” showing how LDS general authorities are compensated for their time and efforts. While some might argue that what they make is little compared to CEO’s of private companies, this is not the point. Instead, this shows that these leaders are receiving wages, even though there doesn’t appear to be any support for this in unique LDS Standard Works.

Besides the fact that the D&C seems to encourage paying local church leaders, the question should be asked as to why aren’t they paid? After all, a bishop is in charge of 300-600 congregants! That’s a pretty large number. How is this man supposed to take care of the needs of these people, including interviewing his ward’s temple patrons every couple of years to see if they should keep their temple recommend cards, while managing a family (with children) and working a full-time + job? This would seem to be a pretty impossible task. Certainly the work can get done, but is the work being done well? Wouldn’t it be better if these men were allowed to dedicate themselves full-time to their work among the dozens of families they serve so they could better meet the needs of their people rather than being incredibly stressed by trying to juggle so many responsibilities at once?

Mormons are free to mock the Christian clergy and the fact that many of them receive a living wage, but as the saying goes, those who live in glass houses should be careful about throwing stones.

For additional questions and our answers, click here.