The Economics of Preaching

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Have you ever thought about the economics of preaching?

Probably not. 

If you were to take a moment to think about the value we ascribe to the action of preaching in the American church, you may start to wonder if we’ve overvalued it.

Think about it from an organizational economics perspective.

  • The Sunday morning sermon is seen as the single most important activity in the action of the American Protestant week.
  • Take away the sermon and you wouldn’t call it a worship service.
  • If you don’t have anyone to preach you may think about canceling church. You couldn’t say that about any other element of the standard worship service. (Music, public reading of the Bible, receiving offerings, testimonials, etc.)
  • Ask anyone in the pews what the most important qualification for a senior leader is? Preaching.
  • In many contexts the title “preacher” is a suitable substitute for the more proper title of pastor, elder, or overseer. But the connotation is clear, the main value in the senior leader is his/her ability to preach. I’ve never heard a pastor’s title swapped out to “host” or “Mr. Gentle.”
  • If a person isn’t a good preacher, even if they are good at a lot of other things, they don’t have a reasonably good chance of a career as a senior leader.
  • When a church grows, most often it’s because people say the church has a great preacher.
  • When a church dies most people blame the preaching.
  • People will put up with a lot from a pastor if that same person delivers good sermons.
  • Organizationally, you could argue that the Sunday morning message is the fulcrum for the whole organization.
  • Want to launch a new initiative? You better preach about it.
  • Want to address an issue in the congregation? You guessed it, the sermon is the best way.

Think about it from a monetary economics perspective.

  • The senior pastor makes the most money in most churches.
  • The one activity the senior pastor works the most consistently on? Preaching.
  • The highest employed staff person’s most important task, the one task costing the most amount of money per hour to the church? Preaching.
  • 30 minutes of speaking costs the church at about 25% of their highest paid employees time.
  • You’ll pay the drummer $75. But the pastor? We don’t disclose that. 

A hermeneutics problem.

You cannot argue, hermeneutically, that the New Testament values preaching to the level the American church places on it. When Paul gave Timothy qualifications for overseers he didn’t give special attention to preaching. “Able to teach” is one of 14 the qualifications listed. Preaching, specifically, is not mentioned. (Able to teach could mean a lot of things.)

If anything is emphasized by Paul it is matters of personal character. You cannot argue by Paul’s emphasis or in his order that we should value an overseer purely by his/her ability to preach. “Able to teach” is buried in the middle. If it were first on the list you could say Paul was emphasizing it. If it were mentioned twice, likewise. But stuck in the middle of a phrase like that? It’s just one of the regular qualifications.

Yet, in America we value preaching above all else. Think about it from an governance perspective. Your church could have 6 elders and 1 of them is the senior pastor. The primary difference in that person’s organizational responsibilities compared to the rest? Preaching. In most cases, the other 5 elders wouldn’t even consider payment for their service. But the preaching elder? You have to pay that person.

Here’s what we know. (We could each point to specific examples) If a person is a good preacher we will choose to overlook obvious character flaws. Even flaws that clearly disqualify a person from the role of overseer. 

The over-valuation of preaching in the American Protestant church is a classic example of syncretism.

And this one syncretism is a primary feeder for our denial of the priesthood of all believers. When you over-value preaching… you’ve created a new priesthood.

Question 1: What does it reveal about our view of God to over-emphasize the role of preaching in the local church?

Question 2: If we didn’t have regular weekly preaching what would our gatherings look like? 

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18 responses to “The Economics of Preaching”

  1. Josh Corley Avatar

    I like the thought process for sure.  I think it definitely depends on your context to answer the questions though.  At your church for example, I’m guessing that your “teaching/preaching” pastor focuses mainly on that aspect.  However in my context in KY, almost all of the pastors at churches are the only staff person and handle 100% of all duties.  I do think you’re correct though that our paradigm has told us to value what is done from up front more than the other qualifications or functions of that office.

  2. Adam McLane Avatar

    This isn’t about “my context.” It’s about “our context” here in America. 

  3. Matt Cleaver Avatar

    I wonder how it breaks down when you count the number of churches. I get the feeling that smaller, more rural churches (which are more common numerically than the megachurches) tend to have a better balance in their pastors. It’s the ones who are great preachers who get all the press because they are the few who lead the biggest churches.

    It’s also a function of our culture. If someone can command a stage in almost any industry, they often generate a following and get all the press.

    Of course, you could make the same argument about the economics of pastors in general, whether they are the preaching type or the shepherding type. Do we really want to pay someone a full-time salary, benefits, etc. to visit people in the hospital and in their homes?

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Matt – if I understand the data correctly, where the church grows fastest, there are few– if any — paid clergy. Likewise, the LDS has no paid clergy and is the fastest growing sect in the world. 

      1. Matt Cleaver Avatar

        Isn’t the LDS’s growth more a function of a high birth and retention rate?

        1. Adam McLane Avatar

          I think there are a number of factors. But it can’t hurt to have a 15% tithe factor and very little staff overhead. 

  4.  Avatar

    Where do you get this information that that is what is expected of pastors? Is this personal opinion or facts that you did not state? My experience in the three locations I have done ministry is the exact opposite. Regular programming is good for consistency, but I have always been required to uphold all these other values as much or more so.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      I actually asked around for some opinions. I started off thinking preaching was maybe 50% of what we expect from a pastor. But the discussion quickly became “that’s why people come to church.” And “if there’s no pastor at a church who preaches no one would come.” That’s what moved the needle to 75% of what people value in their senior leader. I don’t think size of church is a significant factor. Most of my experience is in churches of under 400. If you can’t preach (or decide not to) you’re value as a staff person is significantly diminished. 

      1.  Avatar

        So that is a personal context, even if you ask a couple of people… I’d be careful throwing around graphs and saying this “is the case” without proper research to back it up.

        1. Adam McLane Avatar

          You’re welcome to do some research. But you can’t tell me that a pastor can decide not to preach and keep his job. But a guy decides he isn’t going to do any of those other things but can preach? Yeah, you’d keep him. That’s the nature of the beast. 

          1.  Avatar

            I know of three pastors fired for your 1% regardless of the 75%. I agree that many do it, but your blanket statement does not fit.

          2. Adam McLane Avatar

            I’d challenge you to think about that. Yes, some get let go for those other items. The point is that in America we put a disproportional value on preaching. 

  5.  Avatar

    Adam, Great thoughts as always. I’d offer a caveat that speaks to I guess what could be considered the reverse cultural/biblical interplay of what you described. In many of the large-to-megasize churches I’ve encountered, I’ve found the senior pastor is the CEO, a great administrator who is able to lead by adapting business/corporate strategies to maximize growth. (Let’s not get started here.) When they hit the pulpit the result seems to be more often in line with a self-help seminar, or a cheesy corporate lunch. You know what I would be cool with? If we recognized that many of these guys’ primary gift isn’t teaching. But because they are the “CEO,” they’re expected to act as such. It seems to be due in part to the model we’re saddled with (in certain places). In these large churches, the senior pastors are compensated so richly, for them not to preach every Sunday just wouldn’t fly. There are always exceptions to this, but those exceptions (at least the ones that come to my mind) fall in the paradigm you just described. It’s a frustrating dance, at times.

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Yup, I’m bundling that all up in the phrase “a rejection of the priesthood of all believers.” 

  6. Tim Baker Avatar
    Tim Baker

    Adam…I feel like there’s an unstated deeper implication / question looming inside your post, one that asks, “What is the most effective mode of encouraging congregants toward being a living sacrifice, and into Christlikeness?” For so many years we’ve allowed speakers to do the exegetical work for us. Maybe another one of your points ought to be “We value the process of passive listening more than we value interactive engagement.”

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      Absolutely. I wrote this last year on a similar topic.

      At issue is that we overvalue something the NT wasn’t really about. Preaching. In fact, in many cases, we’ve made church “about” listening to sermons. But the flip side is that the Christian life is about so, so much more than this.

      I think it’s one of those things that people who run churches don’t think is true but if you ask people who attend church, they see it differently. 

  7. Sean Scott Avatar

    I believe many people and churches are under the impression that the primary aim of Sunday church services are to get an emotional feeling. People want to “feel” the good feeling of God. I don’t think this is the real intent of WORSHIP, however. 

    God is not as interested in our feelings as he is in our faith. If God cared about our feelings then we might never face trials and hardships. We would probably never cry when we think about the anguish and sacrifice of Jesus for us. Feelings are just emotional responses to a given situation. What one person finds funny, another person may find terrifying. Neither feeling is “wrong” or “right.”

    But because people want to leave church feeling “uplifted” the pastors who understand this are often the most successful. The old-fashioned “hellfire and brimstone” sermons are rarely heard anymore because they don’t bring people in. Today it is more common to find pastors “selling” something that “helps” people to use God for their “personal growth.” I am sure you can find some on TV without trying too hard.

    So if a church wants to be financially successful they need to fill the pews (or theater, or arena). To do that, you need to sell a product people want to buy. Reaching out to lost souls who don’t intend to go to church isn’t as lucrative as ministering to those already in the building.

    I realize that a great many people who live by the Holy Spirit and have Godly intentions make their living working for churches, I would be one of them if the opportunity would ever arise. So I do understand the need for financial support. But I can’t escape the nagging voice in me that also asks, “Is all of the hierarchy, buildings, and expensive overhead really necessary when the first churches simply met in the shade of a tree or by a stream?”

  8.  Avatar

    Not sure many are answering the questions you asked?

    Question 1: What does it reveal about our view of God to over-emphasize the role of preaching in the local church? 

    While I am struggling with this post I still see that there may be the desire to shift responsibility to someone who the church “pays”.  When you do that you can fire the person and hire someone else without really being accountable.  That is not an “across-the-board” statement but I could see this being an issue.  Secondly, I think what might come into play is Ed Friedmann’s famous Fallacy of Expertise statement he made.  We have become obsessed with experts and bigger churches have bigger experts. 

    Question 2: If we didn’t have regular weekly preaching what would our gatherings look like?

    Perhaps more “round-table” and inevitably the crowds would have to get smaller.  That does not mean smaller memberships it means smaller gatherings.  I would venture to guess services might be more contemplative and a bit more participatory although that is not to say we do not participate right now.  I think it means we would have to have more ownership in the gatehrings and maybe even a little more transparent. 

    Make sense? 

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