The Religious Society of Friends is pretty weird. In a variety of ways, we buck the norms of other faith communities. Our worship often consists of long stretches of quiet, punctuated by brief messages spoken under the guidance of the Spirit. Many of the usual religious symbols are missing, having been replaced by silence., individuals standing to speak, handshakes, and announcements at the end. Yet, perhaps the most unusual thing about the Quaker community is the way we relate to ministry and money.
In most religious communities—Christian or otherwise—it is almost taken for granted that, ideally, some individuals are able to spend their professional lives doing religious work within the local congregation. In Protestant circles, that pursuit generally takes the form of a pastor. In the liturgical churches, there are priests; and Jews have rabbis. While this type of religious service is expected to be a spiritual calling for the individual, it’s also a profession, with all the benefits and challenges that come with professional work. In the Quaker community, however, we have a long history of rejecting professionalized ministry. This refusal to make ministry a paid job like any other is rooted in our origins in 1600s England, but continues to impact our shared faith and practice today.
In seventeenth-century Britain, gospel ministry in the established church had become a position of privilege, a role for the second sons of England’s wealthy elite. This ministerial 1 percent lived off of state-imposed tithes and often had no religious vocation. For some, being a minister was just a job. Friends challenged the authority of these state-sanctioned ministers, calling them hirelings, in reference to Jesus’s warning against leaders who are merely hired hands and abandon the sheep when wolves come (John 10:11–13).
Friends articulated a conception of ministry that was radically different from that of the established church. They believed that any person (man or woman) could be called by God to preach the Good News and tend to the spiritual needs of the people. This ministry was authenticated not by a government’s stamp of approval, nor by the authority of the institutional church; instead, early Quakers argued passionately that authentic ministry was authorized by the living Spirit of God. Such ministry drew its authority from the living presence of Christ as witnessed by the gathered community.
This kind of ministry stood on its own. Neither princes nor popes could overcome it any more than ancient authorities were able to defeat Jesus’s own ministry. This true, free gospel ministry spoke for itself, whether or not those in power cared to listen. It was also a ministry that came free of charge. Early Friends, steeped in the words of Scripture, noticed that neither Jesus nor his disciples ever demanded payment in return for their service. Jesus didn’t even carry money (Matthew 22:18–19), and at one point, he instructed his disciples to travel without any form of material security (Luke 10:3–4).
Instead of relying on their own resources, Jesus and his band of friends learned to depend on the hospitality of those they served (Luke 19:5). This pattern continued after Jesus’s death and resurrection. The early Christian community rejected private property and lived by shared generosity and trust in God’s providence. All gave according to what they had, and received according to their needs. There were some who wanted to commercialize the Good News, but this path was firmly rejected (Acts 8:18–20).
For George Fox and other early Friends, the apostle Paul was an important model for how ministry was to be done. Just like Jesus and the Twelve, Paul demonstrated a practice of ministry that set aside all concern for security in order that the Good News might be received with an open heart. He accepted hospitality when it was freely given, but he was also willing to work with his own hands if the communities he served would not or could not support him. For Paul, the highest goal was always to share the gift of the Good News of Jesus Christ, not to get paid.
The early Friends lived in a time when religion primarily reinforced the hierarchies and economic assumptions of the dominant culture. Ministry in the Church of England had become a trade, and church law was wedded to abusive political power. In this context, Friends were overjoyed to find a radically different kind of economy taking place in the Bible. The New Testament revealed that ministry could be a holy calling, without money and without price (Isaiah 55:1).
This seventeenth-century experience gave rise to a religious culture that endured for generations. For more than 200 years, Quakers assiduously avoided making gospel ministry a career path. Ministers were encouraged in their service, and even saw their ministry facilitated through financial and in-kind support, but being a minister was never a job.
Even today, for most Friends, ministry of the gospel still operates under very different economic rules than most other callings. For unprogrammed Friends, religious service is undertaken mostly at the minister’s expense, in addition to other professional activity (or a spouse’s income) that pays the bills. Even in Friends communities that support paid pastors, most ministers are not pastors, and the pastors are rarely paid a wage even approaching what they could earn in a secular profession. Paid or unpaid, Quaker ministry today is almost always a holy calling, a burden borne for others, a labor of love.
As someone who is called to this type of gospel ministry, I have often struggled with the fact that my calling and gifts are not necessarily economically valued by the Quaker community. It has been an odd feeling, at times, to get the message that I should get a full-time, secular job in order to support myself in doing religious work. For years, I have lived with an ongoing tension: How can I make enough money to support myself and my family while at the same time being faithful to the full-time calling that God has put on my life?
While I was single, my answer to this question led me to live well below the poverty line. Now, I am married to someone with a regular career, and my economic choices are slightly less urgent. Still, I am often tempted to resentment of the fact that my gifts and the calling that God has given me are frequently not valued economically by our culture. I confess that I have often envied my friends with more stable, socially valued professional callings.
I mention all this background information because it is important for what I am going to say next: I am committed to our witness of free gospel ministry. I feel strongly that my gifts and service should be given freely, not as a form of commercial exchange. God has created me to show love and serve others unconditionally, not to charge a fee for the love of Christ. I have received freely; freely should I give (Matthew 10:8).
At its best, our practice of ministry can be a demonstration of what a love economy looks like. Friends perform ministry as a gift, without asking for cash payment, and we are blessed in return by the ministry of others. In this way, we recognize that God’s gifts are not meant to be bought and sold, they are to be freely shared!
Yet, there is a wrinkle in our economy of love, a tension that often goes unnamed and unacknowledged: While we have largely de-commercialized religious service, most of the rest of our existence is still deeply marked by the logic of market economics. Those whose primary calling in life is to religious ministry are expected to give their gifts freely, yet this expectation may not hold true for those with other types of gifts, other ministries. For example, we might find it a bit odd if someone were to suggest that doctors, lawyers, or engineers should give their gifts freely without expecting any form of payment for their labor.
Yet, as we reflect on the underlying logic of our testimony, maybe this idea doesn’t sound so crazy after all. If gospel ministry is freely given by God, maybe everything else we are and do is a free gift, as well! How might our communities be affected if we embraced this reality?
What would it look like for us to take our testimony of free gospel ministry to the next level? What if each one of us, regardless of our profession and calling in life, no longer regarded our skills, talents, and vocation as belonging to us as individuals? What would happen if we truly embraced the reality that nothing we are or possess is earned, but that all lives and all professions—from street sweeping to brain surgery—are a service given to us by God and meant to be performed as a demonstration of God’s love for the world?
2 thoughts on “Free Ministry for All?”
[…] Micah Bales wrote an article about paid vs. free ministry in the American Quaker magazine Friends Journal. I was somewhat surprised to read it, because I assumed that most Quakers did not pay ministers. I know that American Quakers are more conservative than British Quakers and their meetings more closely resemble those of Evangelical Christian churches. […]
Thank you Micah, for this well thought out piece. Indeed, you have described my life as a Quaker minister. I have often felt torn between serving in a secular job that did not recognize my work as ministry, or attempting to live out my ministry in a faith that has little means to.provide for its ministers. My monthly mtg.has always done its best to support me in small ways and I am grateful to see organizations springing up in yearly.meetings and independently which recognize the importance of traveling ministry and recorded ministry. We need to continue to encourage ministers in our historic tradition and find ways to support them financially.
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