Oct 30, 2013

Should Christians Get Paid Less Because Their Work Is "Ministry"?

My friend Lisa is an extremely successful graphic designer. When a local church learned that she’s a Christian, they asked her to redesign their church’s logo and help them implement it on all of their materials.

What did they pay Lisa? Nothing.

They asked for the Christian “family discount.” Wasn’t it ministry, after all?

Lisa is in high demand in our city. Even so, she has slow months that leave her feeling uneasy. If she wants to pay her rent, she needs clients who pay. Working for free on a project like that set her back significantly for a period of time.

What came of that freebie project? Nothing.

The church had asked two other designers to do the same exact thing and they picked the work of another designer, leaving the other two without even a new item for their portfolios.

This story is common among the designers, writers, and artists I know.

It makes me wonder if Christians unintentionally undervalue each other’s work when asking for the family discount.

In some cases we have confused freebies with ministry, as if adding money to a transaction devalues the holiness of someone’s work.

When I talked to Lisa about the Christian family discount, she shared a really important insight, “When people pay for something, they value it a lot more.”

Most churches have no trouble paying a pastor and calling that type of work ministry. However, when a website creator or a graphic designer is asked to “minister” in a church, it’s oftentimes assumed that he/she will provide professional quality work at a steep discount or completely for free.

I’ve seen this play out plenty of times, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. I always expect churches, pastors, and Christian organizations to underpay me. Sometimes I even offer the discount up front.

If I’m still providing the same professional service that everyone else receives, why should I drop my price?

What if Christian professionals and organizations applied higher standards to our work with each other?

Rather than Christian organizations breaking binding contracts with Christian contractors, assuming they won’t take them to court, they should seek out the most equitable settlement with their contractors.

Rather than paying invoices months after they’re due, since the work was ministry, they should be paid immediately, honoring the calling of the colleague.

Rather than seeking the lowest price in every situation, perhaps good stewardship is more about finding the most qualified person and paying him/her a fair wage.

It’s possible that God may be far more honored by Christian groups who pay employees and contractors a sustainable amount that enables them to perform at the highest level possible. In the end, Christian organizations may be limited in what they can afford, but what they do have will be of a superior quality and the process will be far more honoring and loving toward those doing the work.

And before anyone suggests that Lisa and myself are greedy or lack any hint of charity, we both have one really big exception to our dislike of the Christian family discount. There are cases where we are truly in a tight-knit, even family-style relationship with other Christians. In such a context it’s quite healthy to offer work for free or at a discount.

For instance, I invested significant time in the website, e-newsletter, and announcements at one of my former churches. A unique situation cleaned them out of funds for staff beyond the pastor, and I stepped in temporarily to fill a need.

Lisa also does all of the design for our current church when work is slow. They never send her “rush” jobs that could upend her financially. In addition, she creates art work to sell in order to raise funds for one of our church’s main outreach projects. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lisa donates the most to our church.

Sometimes “ministry” or “generosity” isn’t as simple as working for free. Sometimes the best ministry we can do comes with a pay check.

Ed Cyzewski is the author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life and co-author of the forthcoming book Unfollowers: The Dropouts, Detractors, and Doubters of Jesus (Wesleyan Publishing 2014). His imperfect and sometimes sarcastic blog about following Jesus is www.inamirrordimly.com.

Image by Cindee Snider Re. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

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