“Our church believes in keeping the pastor humble,” said the deacon, regarding my poverty-level salary. “Humble…or humiliated?” I asked.
I was a struggling twenty-two-year-old seminary student, pastoring my first church. My second child was on the way. I drove a broken-down car and rented a creepy, creaky haunted house from the turn of the 20th century. (Think the Michael Myers house from Halloween.) With the meager amount the church paid me, I could barely keep food on the table. We supplemented my salary with donations from the Baptist association’s food pantry. Yet, the church was sitting on a bank account that staggered my young mind. Like Scrooge refusing fair pay to Bob Cratchit, this deacon chairman (who basically ran the church) believed it his duty to make sure the pastor didn’t start feeling too good about himself. “We believe in keeping our pastor humble,” he said. I’m afraid I have to disagree. I think he believed in keeping the pastor humiliated.
Humility vs. Humiliation
On the surface, it might seem like humility and humiliation are similar. Yet, they couldn’t be further apart. In a society that values aggressiveness and self-promotion, humility comes as a breath of fresh air. Humility is a virtue. Many pastors strive to be humble—but humiliation is a different matter. In this article, I’ll discuss the difference between these two ideas. I’ll give some ideas to help keep your pastor humble (in a good way), and how to keep them from being humiliated.
Humility is a Virtue
Humility involves having an honest estimation of yourself. It is the ability to see your strengths and weaknesses without the need for self-aggrandizement. Ministers of the church who embody humility often display genuine modesty, a willingness to learn from others, and a sense of gratitude for the contributions of those around them. Humility fosters a healthy self-awareness that leads to personal and interpersonal growth.
The Bible says a lot about humility. Colossians 3:12 says, “Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Jesus frequently told his students that if they want to lead, they must become servants of all. He modeled this when he washed the disciples’ feet. Paul writes in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” All of these verses indicate a healthy self-estimation, without arrogance or a feeling of superiority. This kind of humility is good for a person to develop in themselves. But it cannot be imposed from the outside—it must be nurtured from within.
Humiliation is a Destructive Force
Unlike humility, Humiliation is a painful experience involving feelings of degradation or embarrassment. Humility is a chosen attitude. Humiliation is often imposed upon someone by others. It can result from public ridicule, criticism, or intentional shaming. Humiliation is a destructive force that undermines a person’s sense of self-worth and can lead to long-lasting emotional scars. It can hinder personal development and erode confidence. While my deacon said the church wanted to ensure its pastor’s humility by keeping me in poverty when they had the means to provide adequately, they humiliated me instead.
My deacon was guilty of schadenfreude, a German word that means “joy over some harm or misfortune suffered by another.” The Bible condemns this attitude in believers. We shouldn’t want anyone—not even adversaries—to feel humiliated when they fail. Proverbs 24:17-18 says, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble, lest the Lord see it and be displeased….” If humiliation is something we shouldn’t wish on our enemies, why on earth would we want to keep our pastors humiliated?
Why Would Some Churches Want Humiliated Pastors?
Perhaps you attend a healthy congregation, and it’s beyond your imagination to understand why some churches would want humiliated pastors. I hope that’s the case—I will like you much better if this is true. I’ll give you five reasons why church leaders might want humiliated pastors:
- A History of Abusive Pastors – Some churches may have had abusive ministers in their past. Certainly, there are some clergy who dominate their congregations. Spiritually abusive ministers often create reactive church members who feel the need to take their frustrations out on subsequent ministers, years after the abusive pastor is gone. Some churches try to keep their pastors down, so their ministers don’t squash them.
- Fear of Future Shortage – Miserliness generally comes from fear that there won’t be enough in the future. As in, “We couldn’t possibly cash in our savings bonds to pay the minister fairly—what would happen if we needed the money in ten years?” Some churches refrain from paying adequately, even when it’s within their power because the future is scary. The result is keeping the pastor in a state of complete dependence upon a miserly church.
- Fear of Change – When the world changes at a fast pace, the church is often slow to adapt. Parishioners often stifle growth, saying, “Sure, we have the resources, but we couldn’t think of going from being a part-time church to full-time! More might be required of us!” That fear of change often means the difference between a full-time and part-time ministry, or full-time vs. part-time income for clergy. The result is a pastor who remains in poverty, and thus, humiliation.
- Power Dynamics – In some Christian traditions, church members believe that the pastor is their “spiritual authority.” Some passive-aggressive parishioners may believe this teaching yet resent its implications. Thus, they may try to prevent their clergy from “having something over them” by “keeping them humble”—or, rather, humiliated.
- Codependence – Related to the power dynamics above, some codependent church members may feel the need to amplify their own importance by keeping the pastor dependent on them. If a pastor is poor, then individuals often supplement by slipping some cash into their hand, clothing the PKs in hand-me-downs, or “giving the preacher a pounding” (a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, etc). Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful for those who helped my family out over the years. But in time I found that the more fairly I was paid, the less individual parishioners felt they had to offset my poverty. Fair pay prevents codependent church members from keeping the pastor dependent on their individual generosity.
How to Help Your Pastor to Be Humble
If you really feel it’s your job to help your pastor to be humble, here are four ideas. They may be different than you’d think:
- Encourage your pastor’s education. Some parishioners might be afraid of an educated pastor, thinking that too much learning might turn their preacher into a know-it-all. Yet, a quality theological education should produce humility in a good student. The more you learn, the more you learn how much you have to learn. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and can puff someone up. But quality education should lead to humility.
- Compensate your pastor generously (or at least, adequately). As stated above, when pastors are well-paid, there’s no need for hand-me-downs and handouts from parishioners. It’s easier to hold your head high when you can afford to repair your vehicle rather than having to drive the church van for a while, or when you don’t need a pounding to feed your family. And this isn’t pride—it’s simply self-esteem that makes a pastor humble before God instead of humiliated in front of their church members.
- Give genuine affirmation. Tell them you appreciate their ministry. Say you got a lot out of their sermon. Compliment their robes, their tie, or their haircut. Send a thank-you card after they have gone out of their way. Remember Pastor Appreciation Month/Clergy Appreciation Day. These things won’t make them egotistical. They’ll make them feel like their work is worthwhile. They’ll be grateful to God for their calling. They’ll be humbled that they get to do such valuable work and serve such an amazing congregation.
- Encourage homeownership. If your church has a parsonage (manse, rectory), this prevents your pastor from gaining the same equity you do, if you own your home. When you pay your mortgage, you’re paying the bank, but you’re really paying yourself. You should pay your pastor enough that they can afford a mortgage. And if they can’t afford a down payment, the church might consider an interest-free loan for this purpose. Deduct it from their paycheck and offer a sabbatical if they remain at the church long enough to pay off that down payment. Homeownership won’t make your pastor prideful. It will make them feel equal to their parishioners. It will make them feel humble before God rather than humiliated because they can’t afford a house.
The Church Needs Humble Pastors—Not Humiliated Ones
The truth is that you can’t keep your pastor humble. Humility is voluntary, a conscious choice not to see yourself as better than others. Humiliation, on the other hand, is usually an involuntary experience thrust upon a person, often causing distress and emotional pain. Humility empowers a person, while humiliation disempowers them. Humility builds bridges between people by promoting understanding, empathy, and cooperation. Humiliation burns bridges, creating barriers between people and hindering positive relationships. It fosters resentment and can lead to a breakdown in communication and collaboration.
A church that believes in keeping its pastor humiliated won’t keep that pastor long. There’s a reason why I left that church after eighteen months—and why it took me three years to return to the ministry. A pastor at a poor church might choose poverty for the sake of ministry. But when a congregation can afford to support its pastor better yet chooses not to, this breeds humiliation. A humiliated minister isn’t going to stay very long.
You Choose Your Church’s Culture
If you’re a member or a leader in your church, keep in mind that you get to choose your church’s culture. You may have been at your church for years, or decades before your minister arrived on the scene. You might just outlast your pastor’s tenure as well. So, it’s up to you to decide what your church’s culture will be.
Humility and humiliation are divergent paths that clergy often navigate in their personal and professional lives. While humility is a virtue that contributes to a pastor’s personal growth and positive relationships, humiliation is a destructive force that can negatively affect their well-being. Recognizing and understanding the difference between these concepts is essential for fostering a church culture of empathy, compassion, and mutual respect. Embracing humility allows us to build bridges; avoiding humiliation ensures that we do not unintentionally burn them.