Stipends and salaries, offerings and collections, contributions and taxes

The distinction between ministerial stipends and salaries is pretty well understood. We stipendiary ministers of Word and sacraments (SMWS) receive (gratefully) money from the church not in return for work done but in order to free us from work to fulfill the duties of an office to which we are appointed. We are not employees but office holders and the monthly payments into our bank accounts from the URC are not to be confused with a wage (although Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs treat them the same for tax purposes).

The money, in turn, comes not from the sale of goods or services but from the voluntary contributions of individuals who freely contribute to the work of the church. These (self-assessed) contributions are collected and dedicated in a variety of ways in locals churches and then those churches contribute to the denominational Mission and Ministry Fund (M&M), the bulk of which is spent on those ministerial stipends.

While every individual contributes what they see fit the M&M contributions of the churches is based on a formula that takes a variety of factors into account, especially the net income of the church. These contributions are assessed by the 13 synods but ultimately are determined by church meetings.

A peculiarity of the URC (certainly as compared to churches with more congregational autonomy) is that stipends are more or less completely severed from local finances. Ministers are allocated using a set of formulas not many people understand and M&M contributions “levied” using less arcane but still complicated processes. The two are pretty much separate so that M&M looks rather like a tax and ministry more or less like a “service free at the point of delivery”.

Furthermore the allocation of ministry assumes and depends upon the existence of a significant proportion of churches being without a stipendiary minister at any given time. These churches continue to pay M&M contributions and those contributions enable the rest of the churches to, on average, get more ministry than they pay for. Furthermore big churches, who contribute more than the cost of a minister, rarely get more than a minister, so that they also subsidise ministry in contexts where not enough money is raised to pay for it.

None of this is obviously wrong, and good (theological and other) justifications exist for all of it. However it is not without its difficulties. My feeling is that it contributes to a certain passivity and withdrawal from active engagement in the life of the denomination in at least some congregations. The centre is a distant body that levies taxes and sends people. Once in place those people themselves may have little contact with the centre other than the monthly receipt of a pay slip. In the absence of a clear hierarchy and much in the way of control it is easy for those who wish to to ignore the wider church.

Further the lack of clear and transparent connection between giving and receiving enables a lack of feeling of direct responsibility for the stewardship of the resources. If you don’t know the widow it’s easier to spend her mite.

On the other hand this very lack of local accountability can strengthen the distinctive character of the stipend. There is not much question, in my experience, of “value for money” in the relationship between local church and minister, since from the former’s point of view the latter is free, anyway. This may enable the minister to pay more attention to his or her call rather than to the expectations and habits of the local membership.

What is not clear is whether this model is sustainable over the longer term. As the average size of our congregations gets smaller and (at a slower rate) the distances between our buildings get greater the “fraction” of a minister each can pay for is reduced and it is harder to put together a viable group that can share a single minister.

This leads to even further diminished local accountability and will make growth in any church less likely (although of course some will still grow).

At any rate it will tend to strengthen the relative weight of the ordained in our denomination which I already see as too great.

  1. Ray Adams said:

    I have felt for some time that the ‘distance’ between the local church and ‘the URC’ could be bridged if people were organised in smaller units, financially as well as pastorally and for mission focus. It is always easier to blame/suspect/patronise people we don’t know. I don’t think the present URC structures encourage interaction and mutual support. I also share your concern about the sustainability of a system which becomes increasingly impersonal, although I am interested in the way morality comes into play in a recession. Those who avoid paying tax ( legitimately or otherwise) may have been regarded as ‘clever’ 10 years ago, but are increasingly vilified by society at large. Have you read James Surowiecki’s ‘The wisdom of crowds’? He has some interesting points to make on taxation and why people generally think it is a good thing to pay them.

  2. I think part of the point of the tax example is that people think it’s right to pay them so long as everyone does and so long as they believe they are going to be spent on things people broadly approve of (like state education, the internal and external security of the nation, the national health service). It is hard to apply this logic to a voluntary organisation like the contemporary church (although the funding of state churches via the tax system is an interesting phenomenon).

    I think you’re absolutely right about the unit of organisation but to make it work really well would require changes to the whole logic of the denomination around the funding and deployment of ministry, which I view as deeply (even fundamentally) flawed.

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