Guest Blogger: Teresa Blythe – Open Letter to Church Leaders: Why I Cannot Work for Free

As part of my commitment to a couple of book projects, this spring I am taking a personal blogging hiatus and have invited some folks to blog in my stead. It is my intention help share some new voices and perspectives with a larger audience and keep my blog active during my break. If you are interested in guest blogging, feel free to submit an idea. Today I welcome my friend, Rev. Teresa Blythe to the guest blogging crew and thinking about the economics of Christian Ministry. Teresa is an ordained United Church of Christ minister and full-time spiritual director in Tucson, AZ. She is author of 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times from Abingdon Press. Find her on facebook at blythespirit2.

The economics of Christian ministry is rapidly changing, no matter what the tradition, denomination or sect. People graduating from seminaries today are being told there is a good chance that they will have to be bi-vocational, like Paul, who made tents to support his preaching. Ministries and new churches are expected to be self-sustaining almost from the start. Many of us are being encouraged to move to a “fee-for-service” pay structure rather than receiving the traditional full-time salary with benefits.

I am one of those who has gladly chosen the itinerant fee-for-service ministry life. I’m a seminary trained, ordained United Church of Christ minister working as a freelance, full-time spiritual director. I do a lot of public speaking, mostly to churches and religious organizations, on the topic of prayer, spiritual growth and discernment. To make a living, I seek contract jobs with churches to supplement income from my spiritual direction practice.

Some institutional church leaders point to my work as an example of how ministry in the future will be done. Well, this is not the future. It is now. And if the institutional church is going to encourage ministers to work “fee-for-service,” it has to be willing to pay the fee because I can’t work for free.

Given that my livelihood is spiritual formation with individuals and churches, and I have expenses like all other working people, I can only accept offers that compensate me for my time and effort. I take a financial loss every time I take on important regional or national projects for travel expenses only—which is all that is usually offered. Retreats are the biggest conundrum. Frequently I’m asked to do a retreat “in exchange for a free trip.” It’s not a retreat for me, nor is it free—I work very hard to create programming and experiential practices that help you and your church deepen in relationship with God. It’s fun and enriching, but it’s also a lot of work. A “free trip” in order to work means I leave behind other work, block out days that I could be meeting in spiritual direction with clients or time I could be writing and developing new programming. So when you seem shocked that I charge $400 a day for a retreat (a pretty low fee, actually), keep in mind that much like consultants in other fields, my hourly rate is a bit higher than an employee’s because I foot the bill for my own benefits and self-employment tax.

Don’t get me wrong. I do my share of pro bono work, especially with spiritual direction clients who are unemployed or otherwise unable to pay. I sometimes speak for free to an organization that has no budget or to a small, struggling church as an act of charity. That’s one reason I am charging mid-sized to larger churches and judicatory bodies a fee—so that I can have the financial sustainability to take on the occasional and exceptional pro bono request.

You may also be thinking, well, what about Rev. Joe Blow down the road who will do a retreat for free? Certainly there are people in ministry who have the energy and desire to do exactly the same work I do for no compensation, kind of like a hobby. You are most welcome to invite him to do the work for free. (It’s not the first time I’ve lost work to him.) I’d simply ask you to keep in mind that Rev. Joe Blow probably already has a job that pays benefits and a pension. And even so, I’d prefer you paid him because that helps all of us in the long run. Actually, I’d prefer he start asking for compensation. That would help freelancers everywhere.

Here’s the bigger question for you. What message does it send the world when you want content, leadership and experience for free? What does it say about how much you value that work? You most likely do not expect your janitor to work for free. You certainly pay your plumber, the phone company and other utilities for service. You pay an enormous amount for insurance.

I know churches are facing hard times. We’re all in this economic recession and “new reformation” together. We are on your side and want to say yes to your offers. It’s just that healthy boundaries require us to ask for what we need in fair compensation. We aren’t trying to get rich. We’re just like you—seeking quality of life and financial sustainability. With that in mind, let’s negotiate a price that is fair and just for both of us.


  • Roger Wolsey  

    Darwinism, if understood as the scientific theory of how life came about and evolved on this planet, is in no way incompatible with Christianity. God created life and did so via the means of evolution.

    Agreed, the derivative application of that theory to public policy is clearly problematic and more in sync with Ayn Rand’s hyper-individualist philosophy than Jesus’ self-sacrificial love for the sake of others teachings.

    Roger, author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

  • Dayanandan Paul  

    Darwin is completely misinterpreted and misrepresented in this article. Darwin neither proposed a theory of survival of the fittest nor sympathized with anything close to domination and oppression of the weaker people by the stronger. His views on slavery speaks volumes. He and his great grandparents were all strongly opposed to slavery and even campaigned against it. I suggest reading the following excellent article to fully comprehend who Darwin was and what his contributions are.

  • dora Vandenberg  

    Toward the end of each month I visit
    other blogs then my regular ones and this time I decided to stop by
    some of lacking a better word “religion” ones

    Ben Franklin use that quote “God
    helps those who helps them self” I would have to say this is
    true…but some people takes it a little far then they need to.

    Take a look at present time how
    capitalism is gobbling up others’

    If you have time stop by and coffee is

  • Ted Baldwin  

    The concept “Survival of the Fittest’ was not used by Darwin, it was used by Herbert Spencer in his ideas about social Darwinism. This article should not chastise Darwin it shoud chastise Spencer. The idea that only the strong survive was an idea espoused by Spencer and Lamarck and has little to do with the idea of advantageous genetic traits that are passed on in natural selection.

    • Mallory Pickering  

      Okay, but does that really change the message of the article?

  • Kristin Zeller  

    You make excellent points about too big to die institutions that are impeding new life. It’s hard to think outside the box when those great big boxes are squeezing us flat and squishing all the creativity out of us.

    I agree with you, too, that great wealth is not the goal. My pastor preaches that the most important things in life are our relationships with God and each other. Wealth and materialism and the quest to achieve success and stuff (among other things) are major distractions to those relationships.

  • Barbara Kellam-Scott  

    I’m afraid it’s not just formally trained Ministers. This kind of forum opens up the field to those of us called but self-trained, but we have a hard time even being heard. It’s the entire structure and how we think about ministry that has to change. 

  • Jane  

    As a free-lance small congregation consultant ( this is absolutely RIGHT ON. Thank you, Teresa, for being so articulate.

  • Amanda J  

    As a professional myself (however in the secular sector) I have to say I totally agree with the blogger. In my opinion you get what you pay for. So while Rev. Joe Blow may do a wonderful job, it is likley a wonderful job under the circumstances as opposed to the job the church could have gotten if they expended the money on someone whose living depends on performing the act.

  • Flafan  

    This is a discussion that we need to have. Why should the CPA serve as church treasurer for free? Why should educators teach Sunday school for free? Why should anyone work for the church without compensation? Ultimately, we are headed toward the death of small- and mid-size  churches that can’t afford to pay people to do most of the work.   

    • Amanda J  

      what is killing churches, imho, is a decline in tithing and/or otherwise asking the membership to support its church, not persons who have a travelling ministry and no home church asking to be compensated for their time.

      Flafan, you are comparing apples to oranges. Rev. Blythe is not asking her home church to pay her extra when she travels for them to do a retreat. Unlike a member of a church who teaches sunday school or the CPA who acts as the Treasurer, the churches she visits are not her home church where she owes a tithe of time as well as money.

    • Teresa Blythe  

      I am not opposed at all to people volunteering to work in their own church. That’s part of church life. When you pull someone in from the outside and ask for their services, that’s another situation. 

  • Robert Julian Braxton  

    Points well made and I agree. Perhaps it is time to change the terminology and call it Feelancer / Feelancing and leave out the “free” part (I know that is not what the “free” of freelancer means).

  • stacey  

    Your column was wonderful.  The same can be said of clergy (generally retired) who preach in small congregations for free.  When they leave, the congregation often gets a “sticker shock” when it tries to contract with a Sunday preacher.  

  • Cathy  

    Very nicely said.  Thanks for speaking up for all us free-lancers!
    Cathy DeWitt, touring musician/speaker

  • Stephanie  

    Timely posting, as I was working on my own reflections of being in a season of freelance ministry…

  • Mark Baker-Wright  

    Very much appreciated, and begins the discussion of actually discussing what an alternative to the traditional situation might really look like. I’ve seen a lot of folks (including myself!) identify the problem, but this is actually one of the first concrete steps I’ve seen towards a solution that doesn’t just say “the pastor has to get paid somewhere else.”

    • Teresa Blythe  

      I am all for even more creative solutions for ministers getting paid. The “content for free” tradition must change! Thanks.

  • ed  

    Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

  • Kerra English  

    As someone who is in the process of leaving the pastoral job with salary and benefits for the ministerial free-lancing track, this is an IMPORTANT article to share. You are correct that it is happening – not tomorrow – but RIGHT NOW. My husband is a well-paid educational consultant, and I would hesitate to think that many churches would pay me what he makes in a day. I hope someday, they will see the benefit of having trained spiritual directors supplementing all that pastors these days are expected to do. Thank you!

    • Frank  

      Spiritual direction must come from someone who is invested in the community and there for the mid to long term. You cannot outsource that so it sounds like a dead end profession.

      • Amjarratt  

        Actually sometimes someone without a vested interest in the community can offer a fresh opinion, new ideas, and even criticisms that someone with a vested interest cannot.

  • Julie Craig  

    Teresa, this is terrific! (I don’t know if you remember me from SFTS, but I was in your TV class.) I’ve recently become a bit of a free-lancer myself, and last year had to turn down a “please do this for the free lunch” workshop gig. My explanation was not very well received, I’m afraid. Hopefully if more church bodies hear this, the message will get through.

    • Teresa Blythe  

      Julie, of course I remember you! Welcome to the world of itinerant ministry!! I wrote this precisely because our explanations are not very well received. I can’t imagine the church’s plumber having to explain why he/she needs to be paid when the church called and asked for plumbing services. 

  • Mieke Vandersall  

    Thank you for this. We have a major divide to cross around attitudes that do not pay our bills. Thank you for speaking out.

  • Gary (NJ)  

    As a gay person, I can assure you that most of the *hate* comes from the right, not “Socialists”. And it was Darwinism that was tacitly used to justify the crimes of the robber baron class in the 19th and early 20th century.

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