The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” 1 Tim. 5.17-18 (NIV)
An article has been circulating the internet on speaker honorarium by Dr. John Stackhouse, a professor at Regent College, on how churches abuse and underpay outside speakers. As a frequent outside speaker (since I make my living freelancing), I concur that his picture is accurate, but even his picture can be a little too optimistic at times. Reality can be much worse. The above verses deal with the payment for elders in the early church, but it also implicates all sorts of ministerial honoraria.
One lesson I learn about freelancing is that there’s no fixed rate. If an organization thinks your service is a priority to the its health, they’ll pay you whatever you ask for. If someone just wants you to fill a hole in the program, the sponsor will just say that you’re too expensive or try to negotiate your price down or the organization will try to nickel and dime your expenses. One very large (non-Chinese) conference I know pays a speaker a seemingly large amount until the speaker has to pay for his own travel and food. Well, the whole hassle comes out to about much less than a speaker who does his own speaking in a church for a weekend. In some cases, if you’re a big enough name, they’ll even try to profit off your speaking by selling your DVD’s or MP3’s without your permission. The plot looks something like this. They’ll come to you after and say, “Well, you’re OK to give us permission to record and sell your DVD’s, right?” If you somehow object, they’ll tell others that you’re all about the money and never about serving God’s people.
To make matters worse, many places that invite speakers to speak never think of the financial matter from the perspective of the speaker. Most places won’t pay for even a premium economy seat. This is quite a small matter until you have to arrive at a place jet lagged, and are expected to speak immediately. The worst are the long-haul flights (let’s say, over 5 hours) where you’re cramped next to some overweight guy who takes up two seats while breathing really heavy. You get off the plane feeling infinitely worse than when you got on. Then, they expect the speaker to perform. In contrast, we don’t do that to our (both amateur and professional) athletes. We let them adjust to the time changes, jet lag and changed locations. Not so the church, even though speaking is also a physical act! Somehow the church often expects the speaker to work immediately without break, even having to stand for hours during the speaking engagement (we stand for hours because after the worship team sits down, we’re still standing to speak). If the speaker wants to arrive one day early to adjust, s/he would have to pay for meal expenses on those days.
These above situations are true scenarios in my own experience because honorarium is all about power and transaction. The one holding the money bag has the power in the transaction. Money is power and the more money someone possesses, the more power he holds. Of course, as speakers, we also have (disproportionally less) power to say no, and I’ve learned to say no a lot more lately. The fact is, the church doesn’t always get its priorities straight, amidst all these “programs” it creates.
In my travel and speaking, many people have the mistaken notion that speaking for huge churches often pay better. Sometimes, this is the case, but quite often, it is not. I can only speak from my own experience. In fact, the ones that paid me the most reasonable and bargain the least are small churches. Why? The reason is simple. Small churches don’t always have the luxury of running many out-of-control programs that also drain funding. For example, I know for a fact that some churches spend huge money for “evangelistic meetings” (aka proselytizing via guilt trip, glamor, and manipulation) because they think head count is the most important thing. One particular Christian celebrity, who’s known more for his heretical and outrageous preaching than his theological acumen, charges something like 200,000 HKD (almost 30,000 USD) per event. Wow, that’s a GOOD living. I won’t tell you how much I charge, but this amount is way above my fee. The fee is based purely upon what they think each speaker or his/her ministry is worth. Visible and immediate results take priority every time. The usage of money is based on transaction between the giver and the taker. The giver weighs the value, and the taker represents value. Somehow, Jesus taught something quite different about money and the kingdom.
Another thing that churches skimp on is the hotel. If you aren’t prepare to pay for a decent hotel, don’t bother inviting a decent speaker. The reason is simple. We can’t think when we don’t have enough sleep. The problem isn’t whether the hotel is nice or not. That’s usually the mistaken notion people have about hotels. Get us business hotels where the clients aren’t on holiday, and their next day performance in front of the boardroom is dependent on a good night of sleep. One of the best accommodations I had (pictured in the blog) is a service apartment in Australia where I got a peaceful night of sleep to recuperate from the busy activities of the day and evening.
Before booking a hotel, find out whether there’s heavy construction going on because sometimes a good hotel puts up a sale because of the renovation. I’ve stayed in nice hotels that have continuous drilling in the wall from morning to night. Forget about sleeping and not getting a headache. I’ve had to leave the hotel to avoid a headache. Hotels where people spend holidays are the worst because people come in and out at all different hours, making horrendous amount of noise right when we’re about to fall asleep OVER AND OVER AGAIN. Some hotels have an indoor pool that isn’t aired out properly and is located very near the room. I’ve gotten ill just from smelling the fumes of chlorine before. I may sound like I’m asking a lot, but think about this, when you conduct your next biggest contract sale out of town, would you put yourself in my hotel and expect to make your next biggest sale? Well, there’s your answer. At the end of the day, many such decisions are based on priorities.
Kingdom is much more about priorities. The reason 1 Timothy talks about payment for elders is mainly because the Ephesian church had some troubles with their existing eldership/leadership system, evident in the list of qualifications of 1 Tim. 3. The passage in 1 Tim. 5 is based on qualification first and foremost. In other words, qualified people get better pay period! These days, our societal value causes us to pay athletes more than teachers by a ton. Entertainers make much more than educators. Has society’s value somehow crept into the church? The honorarium system and salary scale for ministers indicate that such social value has penetrated the thick walls of the church, even if the church fails to reach beyond its thick walls into society. While visitors might find our thick walls hard to break through, secularized value practically got a free pass though. Often enough, money is simply the means to transaction for immediate gratification. Good stewardship isn’t merely about financial planning. Good stewardship is about healthy thinking. Money is only the means. The end is where the problem exists. Money was never the problem! It’s only the symptom.