Spurgeon was known for his scathing letters and sermons against the injustices of his day. He preached against the social ills of industrial England. He denounced the horrors of slavery in America. He went after evangelicals in the Church of England for tolerating baptismal regeneration in the prayer book. And towards the end of his life, he published articles confronting the growing theological liberalism all around him.
But Spurgeon’s criticisms weren’t only aimed at those outside his theological and denominational camp. On occasion, his words were aimed at his fellow Baptist churches. Perhaps his fiercest rebuke towards his camp was over an issue dear to his heart: the support of pastors.
Sending out pastors
Beginning with a single student in 1855, Spurgeon was committed to raising pastors. Spurgeon’s philosophy was to find men who had a divine call to preach, no matter how poor or uneducated, and provide everything they needed to be equipped for pastoral ministry. By 1865, the Pastors’ College was in full swing. There were 91 students enrolled as full-time students, fully supported in one way or another by Spurgeon, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, and other generous donors. Additionally, there were 230 students enrolled in evening classes. These were men working during the day and testing out their gifts in preaching and furthering their education in the evenings. Many of the students in the evening classes would be students at the Pastors’ College. In this way, God was raising a generation of pastors and preachers under Spurgeon’s ministry.
And the Pastors’ College came at just the right time. Many new Baptist churches were being planted by the middle of the 19th century as rural and urban demographics shifted. Not only that, but many pastors from a previous generation were retiring from the ministry. Additionally, Spurgeon’s fame and influence were growing. As a result, many Baptist churches reached out to Spurgeon for recommendations for their next pastor. During the early years of the College, the demand for pastors was so great that many students accepted a call to ministry before finishing the entire two years of studies. Spurgeon often counseled against such hasty action, but he sympathized with the church’s needs and did not forbid his students from going.
Spurgeon had many opportunities to preach ordination sermons for the students that were sent out. He observed the excitement from the congregation at the arrival of a new pastor. But over time, the enthusiasm gave way to the slow and plodding work of church revitalization and the financial challenges of pastoral ministry.
The plight of poor pastors
As a mentor to many young pastors, Spurgeon heard stories of the poverty they endured.
I heard the other day of a minister whose congregation would be shocked to know it, and I hope ashamed also, who very seldom sees a joint of meat, except on other people’s tables, and is indebted to gifts from friends in other denominations for parcels of left-off clothing, which are made up for his otherwise ragged children. With desperate self-denial alone is he kept from debt; comfort he never knows.
All this should have been a deep source of shame for Baptists. After all, the Church of England believed the state had a right to tax its citizens to support the ministry. Nonconformists argued that churches should be supported by the voluntary contribution of their people. But as Baptist churches failed to care for their ministers, they only strengthened the case for a state church.
In those days, pastors were paid typically through seat rents or subscriptions. Christians could join a church freely, and those who wanted to support the church’s ministry could do so through occasional gifts or a regular contribution. These funds would go towards paying for the pastor’s salary and other expenses of the church. But as Spurgeon heard back from his students, subscriptions often lagged even as the church grew. Not only that, but deacons were often stingy towards the pastor as they managed church funds.
As a result, the members of the Metropolitan Tabernacle began charitable ministries to help poor ministers. Mrs. Spurgeon’s Book Fund provided precious good books for poor pastors to add to their libraries. The Poor Ministers’ Clothing Society provided clothes for ministers and their families. As former students applied for aid, it grieved Spurgeon to see them impoverished and their families suffering.
So in 1867, Spurgeon published an open letter to “the members of the baptized churches of Jesus Christ” entitled “The Pastors’ Advocate.” To be sure, many Baptist churches “honorably discharge towards their pastors the duty of ministering to them in temporal things.” But most churches neglected their pastors, “[doling] out to them a pittance upon which they do not live but barely exist.” Spurgeon did not pull any punches in the letter. Instead, with affection and earnestness, he used his platform to speak on behalf of these poor ministers. “It is high time that a voice should be lifted up to warn the churches of their sin, and of the consequences which will surely fellow unless there be a speedy amendment.” So how does Spurgeon address the problem?
Exposing the sin of pastoral neglect
In the first part of the article, Spurgeon exposes the sinfulness of pastoral neglect. Ultimately, the problem of poor ministers wasn’t financial or administrative. No, it was a spiritual problem. Spurgeon believed that such neglect was evidence of deeper sin issues in the church. In particular, Spurgeon highlights at least five sins connected with pastoral neglect:
Worthy devoted men are obliged to sue for alms at the hand of our charitable fund in London, in order to eke out the scanty portions which their people allot to them; while in many cases there are those connected with their churches who dwell in sumptuous houses, own farms of many acres, and ride in their carriages.
If it be our conscientious belief that the pastors of the churches should give their whole time gratuitously; let us say so, and be consistent. If the laborer be not in our esteem worthy of his hire, let us tell him so, and bid him go about his business. Those who deny the right of the ministers to temporal support fly in the teeth of Scripture, but they are at least consistent in withholding their money; but to hold with a paid ministry, to make even more than commendable stir about electing a pastor, to expect him to, be instant in season and out of season, in the pulpit, and from house to house, and then to deny him even enough of bread to eat, and raiment; to put on, is shameful.
Many, it is to be hoped, have never thought upon this matter carefully. Would to God it were in my power to let those who withhold from thoughtlessness see the sorrow which they inflict upon those whom they respect. The ambassadors of peace do indeed weep bitterly with a weeping which is neither profitable to themselves nor convenient for us.
Despising Christ’s ministers
Is this the way in which we show our appreciation of their spiritual gifts, their fervent prayers, their earnest labors, their watchings for souls? In thousands of cases church members do to give so much as one penny a week towards the maintenance of the man whom they call their “beloved pastor,” and if they pay the mean and paltry pittance of a shilling for a quarter of a year they reckon themselves to have done liberally, and as becometh saints. Is this the manner in which we show our gratitude to the great Head of the church for sending us pastors after his own heart to feed us with knowledge and understanding?
Rejection of God’s commands
“If,” says the apostle, “we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we reap your carnal things?” 1 Corinthians 9:11. But is, it not in these days thought to be a very great thing if the preacher be properly sustained, and if he be left to be humiliated by debt or to be pinched by want, is it not thought to be a trifling grievance? The last great day alone will reveal the secret sorrows, the bitter anguish through which many a servant of the Lord has had to pass because of the niggardliness of the people who professed to be his loving and faithful flock. “Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things, live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar, are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.” 1 Corinthians 9:13, 14. Is not this ordinance of God greatly trifled with?
Supporting your pastors well
If pastoral neglect is ultimately a sin issue, then the solution is ultimately repentance. And repentance will be expressed in a commitment to support the ministry of the Word in obedience to the New Testament. What advice did Spurgeon have for churches who sought to care for their pastors well?
Find a pastor that you trust
Spurgeon recognized that there were lazy ministers who viewed the ministry as a leisurely career. He was not advocating on their behalf.
I am no advocate for an idle and ill-deserving ministry.
Instead, Spurgeon advocated for “faithful ministers of Christ Jesus who labor in our midst in word and doctrine,” and yet were oppressed by the selfishness of the churches. If a congregation did not trust their pastor to steward his finances faithfully, then that man should not be their pastor.
If the laborer be not in our esteem worthy of his hire, let us tell him so, and bid him go about his business.
Instead, they should call a pastor of integrity and hard work that they would trust to steward his finances well, and they should provide for him generously as he labors in their midst.
Recognize that the pastor’s welfare impacts the congregation
When a church cares well for its pastor, the church flourishes. Impoverished pastors, on the other hand, will bring loss to the congregation. Supporting their pastor generously will bring spiritual benefit to the congregation.
Meanwhile the evil recoils; the poverty of the minister is visible in the flock. He is meanly fed temporally, and they are scantily fed spiritually. They give unto the Lord scant measure, and even so is it measured unto them again. Want of books must impoverish the hearer quite as much as the preacher; debt must distract the thoughts, and so impair the discourse; children poorly clad, and rent unpaid must injure the mind and so the sermon.
Set a comparable compensation for the pastor
How much should churches pay their pastor? This is not an easy question to answer. Comparing salaries with other churches might be helpful unless those churches are also struggling to care for their pastor. Spurgeon encourages deacons and others with financial experience to consider comparable salaries from different industries. Also, inexperienced or younger members might not know what is needed to provide for a family, so make sure the people deciding have the proper understanding.
Hundreds of our ministers would improve their circumstances if they were to follow the commonest handicrafts. The earnings of artisans of but ordinary skill are far above the stipends of those among us who are considered to be comfortably maintained.
You, the deacons of our churches, know from your own experience, that £100 per annum, for a man with a wife and children, is not wealth, but far from it, and yet how many ministers would be; happy if their incomes came near to this moderate sum. We are asked repeatedly to send students to spheres where £40 is mentioned as if it were competence, if not more, and those who so write are not always farm laborers, but frequently tradesmen, who must know what penury £40 implies. A church contributing £70, frequently counts itself munificent, but many of its members must I know that such a sum is not respectability, nor much less than hard, I pinching, but covert want.
Account for cost-of-living increases
As cost-of-living increases, the church should also strive to make adjustments for their pastors. Also as the church and the work grow, the church should look for ways to recognize the increased responsibility.
At the present moment the great advance in the price of all the necessaries of life is very keenly felt in the pastor’s house; but has the fact been taken into consideration by the churches? The wages of workmen have advanced, but not the incomes of the workers for God. Bricklayers, carpenters, printers, all draw their extra pay at the week’s end, but there is no increase to the scanty quarterage of the poor preacher. Even kind friends forget this, and unkind ones only remember it to make cruel remarks thereon.
Lead by example
It is a difficult task for pastors to be their own advocates. Instead, pastors need advocates who will speak up for them and their families to the congregation, with whom they can discuss their needs and concerns. Lay leaders, in particular, have a unique opportunity to support their pastors as they lead the congregation in this.
I do not ask luxuries for my brethren, although many of them might claim even these; but I would, with all my heart and soul say, “Deacons of churches, stir up the members, and set the example yourselves of giving our preachers at least a generous supply of necessaries.”
Pastoral ministry was never meant to be easy. Spurgeon knew this, and he prepared his students to suffer. As many of them encountered poverty, they considered it an honor “to endure hardness of Christ’s sake.” But even as Spurgeon rejoiced to see their faithfulness, he was grieved that these were often cases of “needless hardships,” inflicted on them not by their enemies or the world but by their congregations. All this was a reproach upon the Baptist churches.
Churches today continue to face all kinds of financial pressures. There are ministries to uphold, missionaries to support, facilities to keep up, and much more. It’s often hard to know what to prioritize. But if a church is built on God’s Word, then supporting the ministry of the Word has to be a top priority. So how is your church supporting those they have called to labor in the ministry of the Word? Are they freed from worldly concern so that they can give themselves to the work of ministry? Is the preaching of the gospel honored by the support of the church? Does the pastor have at least one advocate in the congregation who is concerned for his welfare? Or is the church neglecting their pastor and bringing reproach to the gospel?
May the ministry of the Word be upheld in our churches, not only through the pulpit but also in the church’s giving.