By Their Honoraria Ye Shall Know Them

(A number of friends have asked me to make this article–published originally in the Canadian journal ChristianWeek–available in this form. So here it is.)

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The way some Christian churches and other organizations pay their speakers, it makes me embarrassed to be a member of the same faith.

A friend of mine is a gifted staff worker with a well-known Christian organization on a university campus. He is married, with three young children, and works hard and long at his job. Frequently he is asked to speak at churches’ youth retreats or special events sponsored by other groups. Rarely is he paid well for what is in fact overtime work–for audiences other than the one that pays his regular salary.

One weekend, he left his family to speak at a retreat for more than 100 young people, each of whom paid to go away to a well-furnished camp for three days. My friend gave four talks and participated in a question-and-answer session—a typical, and demanding, schedule. But his work didn’t end there, of course. Retreat speakers are “on call” all weekend: for impromptu counseling, offering advice over mealtimes, and modeling what they preach on the volleyball court or around the campfire. Make no mistake: There is very little relaxing in that role, however restful the retreat might be for everyone else.

So at the end of this tiring weekend, at the close of the Sunday luncheon, the leader of the group thanked him profusely at the front of the dining hall (he had gone over very well). Then he tossed the speaker a T-shirt emblazoned with the group’s logo while everyone clapped. It took my friend several minutes to realize that this shirt was his total payment for the weekend’s work. He got in his car, without even a check for gasoline, and headed back to his waiting family.

An isolated and extreme example? Not at all. Every professional Christian speaker has stories like these.

A widely-respected author was asked to headline a fundraising banquet for a women’s organization. She prepared a talk on the subject requested, left her husband and children at home, drove herself in the family car across the city to the site of the meal, chatted with her tablemates, and then delivered her speech. Again, it was apparent from the applause and the warm remarks that greeted her when she took her seat that she had done her job well.

The evening ended, and the speaker was saying her goodbyes. The convenor then appeared in a gush of appreciation. “Your talk was just excellent,” she said. “Exactly what we wanted. Thank you so much for coming!” Then, by way of payment, she grandly swept her arm over the room and said, “Just help yourself to one of the table centerpieces.”

We Christians have two problems in this regard. One might be remedied by an article such as this one. The other can be fixed only by the Holy Spirit.

The former problem is that most people who invite speakers are not themselves professional speakers and so honestly don’t know how much is involved in doing this work well. So let’s price it out straightforwardly, and consider whether we pay people properly in the light of this analysis.

A speaker first has to receive the invitation, work with the inviter to clarify and agree upon terms (usually this takes correspondence back and forth), and confirm the date. Then the speaker has to prepare the talk. Sometimes a speaker can pull a prepared text out of a file, but usually at least some fresh preparation is necessary to fit the talk to this particular group and its context. (And let’s remember that the speaker at some time did indeed have to prepare this talk from scratch, so the inviting group does have a share in the responsibility for that preparation since they will be benefiting from it.) The speaker concludes her preparation by printing out her notes, and perhaps also prepares a photocopied outline, or overhead slides, or PowerPoint presentation for the benefit of the group.

Next, the speaker must make her travel arrangements and then actually travel. Most of this time is not productive: Airports and airplanes are not designed to aid serious work (unless the inviting group springs for first-class seats and airport lounges—an uncommon practice), and driving one’s car is almost entirely useless time.

The speaker arrives, and then has to wait for her particular slot. She finally gives her presentation, waits for everything to conclude, and returns home. If she is out of town, normally she will have to spend at least one night in a hotel room, probably sleeping badly in a strange bed and, again, spending time in transit that is largely unproductive.

Count up all of those hours. Not just the forty minutes she actually spoke at the banquet, or the four hours she was actually in front of the microphone during a weekend conference, but the many, many hours spent in the service of the inviting group from start to finish. Divide those hours into the honorarium, assuming her costs are covered (as they sometimes aren’t–for shame!), and you have the true wage the group paid her.

One speaker I know was asked to speak at a weekend conference requiring of her three plenary talks plus a couple of panel sessions. She would have to travel by plane for several hours and leave her family behind. The honorarium she was offered? Expenses plus $300. Her husband heard of it and replied with a rueful smile, “I’ll pay you three hundred bucks to stay home with us.”

Here’s yet another way to look at it. A speaker was asked to give the four major speeches at the annual meeting of a national Christian organization. He was also asked to come two days earlier than the staff meeting in order to address the national board twice. In return, he was offered travel expenses and accommodation for himself and his wife at the group’s posh conference center—of which they were extremely proud.

So the speaker asked for an honorarium of $2000: for the five days he would be away plus all of the time he would spend in preparation for this large responsibility. The group’s president immediately withdrew the invitation, saying he was charging too much.

Now, let’s think about this. Transportation to this remote facility entailed the speaker and his wife driving their car part of the way, then taking a ferry, and then perhaps a float plane. The group clearly had no trouble covering considerable traveling expenses. The group also was covering similar expenses for two dozen board members and well over a hundred staff. The conference center was advertised in its glossy brochures as deluxe, and it looked that way in the photos.

So what would be the total budget for a weekend like this? Figure on, conservatively, 150 people with travelling expenses of an average of $600 each (allowing for airfare across the country for most) plus accommodation expenses of at least $200 each for the long weekend. This comes out to a total budget of at least $120,000. Let’s assume that the group would offer the speaker some sort of honorarium—surely at least $500. This means that on a total budget of $120,500, this group disinvited its speaker because of a difference of $1500—slightly more than one percent of its conference budget. Is this good stewardship by a Christian nonprofit corporation? Or is it something else?

One wonders about the “something else” when one looks closer to home and examines the typical honoraria given to preachers who fill pulpits when pastors are on vacation. Most churches now pay $100 or so, although I know of many, including both mainline and smaller evangelical congregations, who still pay less.

Let us ask ourselves, before God, how we can justify paying a guest preacher a mere hundred bucks. He has to accept the invitation and get clear on his various duties from the person who invites him. He has to prepare the sermon—again, even if he is going to preach one he has preached before, he still has to decide upon which one to preach and then prepare to preach it well on this occasion. He has to travel to our church and take his place with the other worship leaders. He has to preach the sermon, and greet people afterwards. Then he has to drive home.

Time it out, and it’s likely ten hours or more that he has invested in our church. We offer him a hundred dollars, and that works out to ten bucks an hour—a little more than minimum wage. He has to pay all of the taxes on that, so now he’s taking home between fifty and sixty dollars. Is that what we think our preachers are worth?

Let’s look at this from another angle. The average congregation isn’t large, so let’s suppose that about 200 people are to hear that sermon. By offering the preacher even $150 (which is more than most churches pay), we’re saying that his sermon is worth less than a dollar for each person who hears it.

Those who would invite speakers to their events should do this simple bit of division: Take the proposed honorarium and divide it by the number of talks, then divide it again by the number of people in the audience. The result is the price per talk per person. So ask yourself: Is the talk you want your speaker to give worth less than an ice cream cone? Much less than a Starbucks coffee?

Let’s look at it still another way. Many Christian speakers have expertise that is in demand from secular agencies as well. Invariably those agencies pay better, and sometimes a lot better. A Christian psychologist I know has told me that he is paid at least a thousand dollars per full day of consulting with government agencies. He counts himself blessed if he is offered even half that much by a Christian group. Flip it around, and we observe that even we cheap Christians routinely pay high wages to our physicians, lawyers, plumbers, airline pilots, and other skilled people whose work we want done for us in an excellent fashion. Why don’t we pay Christian speakers accordingly?

Some of us even self-righteously think that we shouldn’t pay such people at all because they’re doing “Christian” work or “spiritual” work and therefore shouldn’t charge for it. (I was once asked to speak to a national convention of Christian lawyers whose president inquired as to what was my fee–“if any.” In reply, I was sorely tempted to ask him to draw up my will, arrange for the sale of my house, and defend me on my next parking ticket, and then ask him what his fee would be–“if any.”)

The notion, however, that spiritual, or theological, or other “Christian” expertise should not be paid for is utterly foreign to the Bible. From the Old Testament requirements that generous provision be made for the priests to Paul’s commands in the New Testament that pastoral workers are worthy of their wages and should be paid such (I Corinthians 9), the Bible believes that people in such occupations are worthy of both esteem and financial support. Indeed, we show our esteem precisely in the financial support we give them. We think our physical health matters, so we pay good money for good physicians. How much does our spiritual health matter? Well, let’s see what we typically pay for it. We are, in fact, putting our money where our mouth is.

One speaker put it this way: “I’m not in this line of work for the money, but for the ministry. All I want is not to be insulted by the people I’m serving by them paying me less than they pay their kids’ piano teachers or their own hair stylists. They can say all the nice things they want when I’m finished. But when they hand me a paltry check, what are they really saying? What do they expect me to conclude about how much they value my work?”

Thus we encounter the latter problem, the one that only the Holy Spirit of God can address. It might be that we pay Christian speakers badly because we were unaware of all that is involved in preparing and delivering an excellent speech. Okay. But now that we know better, we should pay better. The latter problem of simply undervaluing such Christian service, however, is a problem in our hearts, not our heads. And the Bible is plain: We undervalue our spiritual teachers at the peril of undervaluing the divine truth they bring us. God frowns on such parsimony.

Indeed, God has threatened one day to mete out to each of us our appropriate wages for such behavior. And those wages will make even a T-shirt or a table centerpiece look pretty good.

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An earlier version of this article appears in the book Church: An Insider’s Look at How We Do It
(reprint edition available from Regent College Publishing). This article may be forwarded or otherwise distributed as long as these credits are duly included. Copyright John G. Stackhouse, Jr., 2005.

0 Responses to “By Their Honoraria Ye Shall Know Them”

  1. Matt Wiebe

    Great thoughts here. I think that we expect our professional minsiters to be some kind of spiritual supermen/women who don’t actually need money. Bollocks.

    My prof told a great story just yesterday: he used to be a pastor, and some debate came up at a church business meeting over the item about his raise. Exasperated, he finally said, “I’ll take the average of everyone in this room.” Things got real quiet, real quick, as they realized they were holding him to an entirely different standard than they held for themselves.

  2. Gerry Bowler

    It’s sad but true. However, it’s not just Christian organizations who stiff their speakers. A provincial home and school organization once gave me a broken ball-point pen for a whole day’s attendance at their out of town convention.

  3. Brian E.

    An interesting article, especially since I’ve always thought of people in the ministry following a different standard of measuring value and benefits in comparison to other “worldly” professions.
    Some questions that came to mind while I read your article:
    Do the famous Christian speakers only show up if groups offer acceptable honoraria?
    As it stands now, are there major-league Christian speakers that only megachurches/organizations can afford to invite and minor-league speakers that the smaller churches/organizations can afford?
    If the speakers don’t get a great applause then can we cut their honorarium in half?

  4. Scot McKnight

    John,

    Good piece here. For me the problem is this: I don’t like to be asked what my “fee” is. And I like to adapt said fees to various groups — some can hardly pay and others have plenty of funds — so it becomes even more of a song and dance at times.

    Any advice?

    • Kunle

      Hi,

      The point here is we don’t want to run into the error of Balam. Though scriptures says the labourer is worthy of his hire, when invited, the principle that has worked for me is to know that I am a minister and no price can be placed on the annointing, other aspects like travel and accomodation, I make those plain as discussion for what might be provided. Then when asked about honorarium, the thin line is can you pay for the annointing? No. Paul instructed those who had reserved a honorarium for him to keep it there till he comes, so it surely very important, but we can indicate “What ever the Lord lays on your heart” give to me that would lead away from the error of Balam in which for a gain I have come here.

      If the Lord puts on his heart to pay me 50$, I will gladly take it, if he gives 50,000$ I will take it with the same spirit and attitude.

      If he gives less than than the Lord instructed, we have to be trusting to know the Lord will meet the rest and not work our own miracles.

  5. John Stackhouse

    Thanks to Matt and Gerry for these poignant stories that make the point well.

    In regard to Brian E.’s comment, I’d say that the issue is not so much what professional Christian speakers’ attitude toward payment is so much as what Christian audiences’ attitude is. Money is a powerful symbol of esteem, and if we pay badly, I think it’s an inescapable conclusion that we’re placing a low value on what we’re paying for.

    If we want to say to Christian speakers, “Hey, don’t worry so much about money,” I’d reply, “Then triple what you pay them, if you’re so unconcerned about money yourself….”

    And I have no problem with paying speakers less if they do a bad job. I’ll just tell you what our college’s legal counsel told me on this matter, however: You’d better have a contract specifying just how you’ll compute any reduction in pay, or you will leave yourself open to litigation and a lot of bad feeling all ’round.

    Scot McKnight resists having a set fee–rightly, in my view, since he doubtless is asked by a wide range of groups to do a wide range of things. At the same time, however, speakers do have to have some sort of multifactorial equation, however informal, in order to make sure they are charging similar groups similar amounts. This helps us avoid hard feelings when various leaders compare notes, as they often do. And it helps us say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t come down any farther, since this is what Group X and Group Y recently paid, and it wouldn’t be fair to charge you considerably less.”

    So I try to take into account the two sides of the equation: the cost to me (and my family) of my taking the job, and then also the nature of the invitation. I consider the sort of group it is (I have charged groups of lawyers and physicians a lot more than I have charged groups of students, for example), the number of people who can be expected to share in the cost (sometimes charging more can drive churches to cooperate with others, which is hardly a bad thing!), the amount and kind of service they’re asking for, and any other factors (such as whether the site is a Caribbean island or a freezing campground–as a Canadian, of course, I prefer the latter).

    My wife has given me starkly wise advice on this question: “Don’t accept a fee that you will then resent the group for paying. If you can’t serve in a good spirit, don’t go.” None of us can serve properly if we feel devalued and unappreciated.

    One more thing. Negotiation is something “the world” simply expects, but Christians sometimes freak out over. Instead, we should simply use a vocabulary of mutual respect in which we recognize that we might have different values, different expectations, and so on, and we will not imply that the other side is cheap, or greedy, or whatever.

    I’m reminded finally of Malachi’s warning about offering to God what you wouldn’t think of offering to a secular official. Don’t pay Christian speakers a fee less than you pay secular professionals, unless you really do think that getting good plumbing or getting good dentistry is more important than getting good teaching.

  6. kbartha

    Hey John, just stumbled across your blog… Hmmmm. I’ll have to drop by for a taste of dry wit now and then.

  7. Randy Davis

    I recently found your cite. I hope you don’t mind me jumping into this discussion. I have a slightly different view on this. I am a pastor in south Louisiana and have served my church for 19 years. I have the Th. D. from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Our church runs about 150 in worship on Sunday. Certainly, we are not a mega church but it is larger than about 80% of churches in the U. S. I am educated, I work between 50-60 hours each week. It is very hard for me to get a day off where I am completely free to be by myself. And I make less than $800.00 per week.

    We don’t have many outside speakers come to our church simply because we cannot afford it. I have a hard time paying someone 3 or 4 times more than I will make in my 50 hours and they will come and speak 3, maybe 4 times and most often, it will a sermon of a talk that they have done several times in the past.

    My own income and work ethic form one boundary. But the other boundary is that I am embarrassed by the fact that we can’t pay more for the visiting speaker. I do understand that if one is going to be a conference speaker or free lance preacher who goes to churches and conferences, has to make a living. This a lot of expense that goes into this kind of work. But, please don’t think traveling speakers are the only ones who are separated from their families or who are under appreciated. Pastors often just pass through the house going from one meeting to the next emergency.

    The bottom line is we do not have high caliber speakers come to our church. They are stuck with me. However, if speakers only go to large conferences and large churches where they are willing to pay large sums, it makes me suspicious that they are in business and not ministry. As a pastor, I am not interested the religious business. I am, however, keenly interested in those whose passion is to further the Kingdom of God.

  8. Conrade

    Great articulation, Dr Stackhouse.

    There is actually a lack of education in this area of fair giving. Very often, religious related speaking engagements are marked a few pay scale levels downwards with reference to other profit making industries, simply because it is ‘market practice.’ Latest statistic I heard is that 80% of seminary graduates will leave the ministry within 5 years.

    Sometimes the issue is not whether the board or decision makers are willing/not willing to pay more. They simply lack educational voices from within. Perhaps, we need more Joshuas to be ‘strong and courageous’ to help lead the church from the wilderness of “misguided sense of stewardship” into the promised land of “sacrifical faith-giving”.

    conrade

  9. Danny Courson

    As a minister for 18 years I’ve been on both sides of this issue. I’ve done my share of retreats and conferences for which I was paid nothing or offered very little. I’ve also organized events where speakers “handed us the bill up front.”

    I have mixed emotions. I believe the church should be fair in compensating leaders for their time and talents, but I believe many speakers today have gotten excessive in their demands for compensation.

    I have had to turn some speakers and musicians away simply because their financial needs were so excessive. I’m not opposed to anyone making a living. But look at some of the sites on the internet that list Christian speakers and examine the fee charts. The ranges will be anywhere from $500 (very few)to over $100,000.

    I spoke with a famous athlete and well-known Christian in my state a few days ago. He was very friendly to me. I asked about his availabililty to come and speak to my congregation. He immediately referred me to the website that handles his bookings and the name of his agent. He said he speaks 4 or 5 times a month and this is in addition to his full-time job. His fee was in the lowest tier (less than $3000).

    Several full-time coaches who make hundreds of thousands of dollars were listed on the site as well. All fine Christians, they will come speak if the price is right, $30,000, $20,000, $10,000.

    Mark Richt recently spoke to a group of students in Valdosta, Georgia. They had just finished a 1-9 season. He encouraged them with an inspirational message and refused to accept any honorarium. The money they were going to pay him with instaed went to the boys and girls clubs.

    That’s what the Kingdom of God is about. If you need the money, then by all means ask for it and God bless you, but if you’re in it for selfish gain, the stop abusing the church. It goes both ways.

  10. John Stackhouse

    I’m not sure how much good it does to judge how much someone ought to charge for his or her services. Before his or her own Master he or she stands or falls.

    I think the practical question instead is how much his or her services are worth to us, on this occasion, to get a particular job done. Some speakers deliver a lot more than others: a lot more content, a lot more inspiration, a lot more provocation. And some exactly fit a particular need we might have right now.

    Celebrities tend to ask for, and get paid, wages that reflect their celebrity status–not necessarily what they will do for you once they arrive. I’ve endured conferences with high-profile speakers who clearly were going through the motions, barely restraining their contempt for the podunk audience that were foolishly paying big bucks for a canned speech they could have read out of one of the speaker’s books. So if we just want to enjoy seeing a Famous Person, then fine: pay rock star rates.

    But if we want high quality, we should try to seek it out and then pay for it. Again, let the speakers worry about whether they’re charging too much. We should think about what we need and how much we should try to spend to get it–just as we would if we were considering hiring a lawyer, or an engineer, or some other expert.

    I don’t think we should put “spiritual” professionals on another plane here–a plane that makes it mighty convenient for us to pay them less than “secular” professionals. We’re all just Christians, doing different kinds of work.

    At the same time, we should expect of them the same integrity and quality we expect of others who are good at their jobs, too. So pass the word to others when you have heard a particularly good speaker. Only this way will we all be better informed and have options besides the good old speakers who are always around and the Big Names who couldn’t care less.

  11. Robert

    Another side of the issue. John, I feel that I have had similar experiences as a professional musician. My friend asked me to play at his wedding. I did so. No pay….
    A woman at church asks me if “I still play the guitar”……now I don’t judge her because we hardly know each other, but it still felt odd.

    A Christian university sells audio mp3’s and two of them that I bought have pretty much the same information on them. 5 bucks a pop.
    I remember going to see M. Scott Peck speak and he gave the exact same speech both times. Rip off.

    God grant me forbearance. i need enlightenment about forbearance….

    Robert

  12. Dayo Israel

    This is a very sensitive issue and we need real divine guidiance. I am a preacher, at the same time a professional public speaker. Now these are two different services that could be sourced by the same audience especialy faigth based group.

    I have resorted that I would not place any financial demand for Preaching but would expect an honourarium and the bible says not giving the honourarium makes you a thief – A labourer is worthy of His meat and those who live by the temple eat of the temple…witholding such is denying the man of God His meat.

    However if a Church requires me to come and run a training or facilitate a session or a motivational speaking engagement – although I might refer to the bible, this is clearly Speaking not Preaching and as I would charge Bank of America, I would also charge them because its a different service.

    Now back to the Pastor, the Bible commanded that the best of the offering be left for the priest and the levites, even Paul said that if we share the word with you, should be be a partaker of your materials gift, He went on to say in Gal 6: 6 6Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.

    I.e if I preach to you and you dont share your materials (include money) with me then you have disobeyed the word.

    Paul even said in 1 Cor 9: 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

    Verse 12 interest me, if you pay your gym, airplane pilot, piano lesson teacher…..shouldnt we preacher have it all the more….

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