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The best $50 you can spend to grow a small church

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

– I Timothy 5:17-18

This is going to sound self-serving, but bear with me. It’s good for a church to pay a worship leader, even at a minimal level. I recently read an article by Brian Jones about church growth that comes off as somewhat harsh, but grounded in reality. While I don’t agree with every point in that article, my experience does bear out his priorities with paying staff and the order in which to add them. Here’s my story of the difference that pay made in my capacity for ministry (and the subsequent growth in my church).

When Valley Life Church first started, I led the worship team as a volunteer for a year, and was happy to do it. But a funny thing happened when my pastor started giving me a monthly stipend: things got better for everybody. First, a quick distinction:

We have a small but extremely important policy at Valley Life, and it basically boils down to “everybody is a volunteer on Sunday.” I lead worship because this my church and that is my gifting. My pastor preaches for the same reason. Nobody is paid for Sunday. We are paid for the time that we spend away from Sunday, and that is the stuff that makes Sunday go smoothly. Specifically, I am paid to develop the team, oversee tech, schedule musicians, arrange music and make charts, communicate with the congregation, etc. All the stuff of keeping things moving during the week takes time, and that’s time that I can’t work at my primary job.

I get that this can be a hard thing to get over, especially for a church of less than 100 people, where it doesn’t seem that there are resources for this. It is easy to believe that it is virtuous for leaders to lead without compensation. However, there are limits to what can be achieved with an all-volunteer setup, and this may actually be harming the church. In my experience, the benefits far outweigh the cost.

Benefits to the church

Stability

A volunteer leader may be reliably on time for now, but there’s nothing keeping that from changing, including circumstances related to a day job or family changes that nobody would be upset about. When compensation is attached to the position, expectations can be raised that the leader undertake their duties consistently, or that they should stop accepting pay and allow someone else to take the position. Many small churches rotate through volunteer worship leaders, which harms the cohesiveness of the church more than regular attenders may realize. Looking for stability in a paid leader that leads at least 80% of the time helps the church establish a character.

Quality

It’s ok for a small, new church to have rough music. It’s almost expected. But at some point, you have to decide if the church is for the current group of people that like it as it is, or if the church is on a mission to reach more people for Christ. It wasn’t enough for me to just accept the ability levels of whoever was around; I needed to develop them. We planned to help plant more churches, and that meant getting other leaders ready to lead. All of this takes time, and I was happy to do it, but it was always spare time. A salary effectively lightened my work schedule so I could advance the church in a way that I could never do as a volunteer.

Unified Vision

Once I had some office time during the week, I had a weekly meeting with my pastor. About half of this meeting was used in review and planning for Sundays (because we teach in a very unified fashion), and the other half was for the big picture: culture of the church, vision for worship and teaching, etc. As a result, we’ve both led with far more clarity. I can confidently express vision to my team, and I can always be thinking about what’s next instead of just trying to survive this week.

How to get started

First, establish that you have the right leader. If they wouldn’t enthusiastically attend the church without working there, keep looking. And if they can’t act as a growth engine for the church, then they might not be a leader worth paying. Then, set clear expectations for weekly duties as well as the big picture outcome that you’re looking for. This will be important to agree to up front, since you are entering a new phase of accountability.
Starting small is a great way to begin any financial discipline, so while Brian Jones’s $50/week feels like a good starting point, have a goal to pay more when possible. If there is concern about sustainability, consider a gift in appreciation of services rather than an open-ended raise. After my first year, I was thanked with custom in-ear molds, which I think most of us will agree are pretty sweet.
This is truly not a time to muzzle the ox, as the work that’s getting done will grow the church. As growth occurs and generosity is taught in the church, people should be responding in obedience and there should be additional giving to compensate a worship leader. The right leader is a good investment.

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