The Choice to be in the Middle Class

Recently I came across a thought provoking blog post written by Chris Lehman, the principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, entitled “Making Teachers Rich”.  The article deals with the hot-button issue of merit pay for educators and the notion among education reformers that higher pay for the best teachers  is a key to attracting the best teachers to the profession.  Lehman begins by reflecting on a statement by Jason Kamras, the Washington, DC district’s chief of human capital, who says, “We want to make teachers rich”.  Lehmen then says,

“We shouldn’t.

Economically, teaching should be a wonderfully middle-class career.

You should be able to buy a house in the district you teach in.

You should be able to afford to send your own children to college.

You should be able to teach for a career and then retire with a pension.

You should not feel like teaching is unsustainable economically.

I don’t think teachers should aspire to riches, and I worry that someone who is running the Human Resource department of a major urban district would think we should.”

Lehman continues,

“To me, that speaks to so much that is wrong in our country. Right now we have a disappearing middle-class… and those of us left in the middle class are made to feel that our grip on it is tenuous at best. I worry this creates a dichotomy where there is only “rich” and “poor” – and that is no good for our country. I make more money as a high school principal than I ever thought I would when I went into education…. and I make about 125% what a teacher at the top of the pay scale in Philly makes. That should be enough. What bothers me is that making a teacher’s salary (or even a principal’s salary) doesn’t feel secure. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for Jakob and Theo’s college… and I worry a lot that the pension and social security that should take care of me when I’m retired won’t be there. I worry that the house my wife and I bought could lose value – although Philly has held value much better than most places in the country. Dealing with those issues as a society would go a long way toward making teachers feel much more financially secure than a raise based on test scores ever could.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be economically secure. But thinking that we are going to somehow find the “best” teachers and make them rich is to set teachers off on a chase for something that makes the kids a mere means to an end that we shouldn’t be chasing in the first place.

Let’s make teachers feel secure economically. Let’s make sure there’s a middle class for them to belong to. Let’s make a life of service honorable and secure. But let’s not forget that service doesn’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — “make you rich.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

As a retired pastor and as a teacher, I agree with Lehman completely; and I can’t help noticing that a parallel controversy is happening in the United Methodist Church.  Greed has infiltrated both systems. In the church we think that we will attract bright young people to seek a career in the ministry if we dangle the prospect of a high salary. We try to recruit the brightest and the best young adults to be the future leaders of our congregations.

Somehow, the United Methodist Church has forgotten that Jesus did not seek out and call the best and the brightest folks to be his disciples. He chose rugged fishermen, a despised tax collector, and other ordinary people to be the leaders of his movement.  Jesus did NOT promise  his followers wealth, fame, or adulation.   In fact, he told them right up front that he was headed down a difficult road that would culminate in a cross. As we seek to develop a “culture of call” I am concerned that I am hearing recruiting pitches and I am NOT hearing preaching that asks young adults to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.”

I don’t think we should become a denomination anchored by mega-churches.  I believe we should adopt a new vision of recreating the middle class in the United States, and CREATING a middle class in areas of extreme poverty.  Historically, the Wesleyan movement is credited with preventing a bloody revolution of the poor in England.  Methodists cared for the poor, set up schools, and reformed the nation through their emphasis on spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.  That is a worthy mission for us now in the 21st century as well.

Instead of enticing young men and women to enter the ministry with a promise of wealth and super-stardom, I believe we should be planning to work toward the restoration of the MIDDLE class.  It will take hard work,  personal sacrifice,  and a lofty vision of staying contentedly in the ordinary middle to make it happen. I believe my petition to General Conference on creating a More Equitable Salary may be a step in the right direction.

Do you agree? Or do we need to appeal to greed  and ambition in order to become a healthy church?


Filed under Christianity, Education, Education Reform, General Conference, middle class, Public Schools, Reading, Uncategorized, United Methodist, wealth

29 responses to “The Choice to be in the Middle Class

  1. Very interesting post. Providing the necessary ingredients to a quality life is a good goal for any organization, community or society. A good salary that supports ones need for adequate basic needs, health care, education and some fun in return for good work is important. Just as important is the need for society to create and maintain safe communities, parks and other recreational facilities, efficient affordable energy, clean environments, and beauty w/respect to planning, architecture and maintaining public spaces. As we move into the election year, it’s important for American citizens to choose candidates and leaders create processes that develop and maintain quality living and personal responsibility for all citizens.


    • Dear Maureen,
      Thank you for your helpful insights. I really wasn’t thinking in terms of the elections when I wrote this post; however, I do think you make a good, and relevant point. Restoring the middle class should be our first priority as we cast our ballots next Novemeber.


  2. Holly:

    What would you say to Wesley’s famous quote: “Make all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.”



    • Excellent question, Sky. Thanks for asking. I have subscribed to the Wesley Works series since it first began in the 1980’s; and as the volumes arrived at my door, I have actually read them. I’ve read all of his journal several times (I find it to be riveting reading), and all four volumes of his sermons. But I admit that I haven’t made it through the volumes of his letters. The key to understanding Wesley’s comment is the definition of the word “save”. He was using this term in a way we would consider to be archaic. He meant “be FRUGAL”; not put money aside for a rainy day, or into your pension account. He meant don’t fritter away your money on luxuries. His own lifestyle was extremely modest. He practiced fasting twice a week for most of his life. His breakfast was routinely a simple bowl of porridge. He GAVE most of the money he earned away for the relief of the poor. He chose to live an extremely simple lifestyle. I forget the exact amount, but as a young man, he made a commitment to live on a certain amount of money each year—the same amount he lived on as a young student. And he told people that if he died with more than 5 pounds in his pocket he could be called a hypocrite. He would have been a wealthy man from the money earned through his publications; but he gave most of that away. I also do not see where he was ever paid for preaching. I may be wrong about this, but as I read it, he did occasionally preach “charity” sermons. The offerings would be given to some designated charity–not to the preacher. If I am wrong about this, I invite my readers to correct me. One area I am unclear about is how he supported his family. He married a widow rather late in life (I believe he was in his 50’s. But he does not write much about his marriage in his journal. My guess is that his wife had some of her own resources, but I am not sure.) Wesley did not object to Christians earning money through honest means. But he was very wary of the accumulation of wealth. (See the sermon on The Dangers of Riches)


  3. No argument about save all you can. But what about make all you can?


    • He was pretty clear about listing many immoral ways to earn money. Personally, I think earning money by preaching is a bit spurious. How can a pastor who is dependent on the good will of the congregation preach some of those texts boldly? We have become pretty tame in our preaching. (You will notice that I am retired.) John W. himself did not mince words in preaching. He offended people and people were convicted of good ol’ fashioned sin and the need to flee from the wrath to come. I think he might support my wacko theory. I honestly can’t think of ONE Biblical preacher who was paid to preach. Can you?

      The reason for MAKING money is so you can give it away and aid the poor. According to Wesley..


      • Brian Kent

        Actually, every Biblical preacher I have known has been paid to preach.


        • I have no doubt that is true, Brian. However, there are many who willingly preach without pay. Certainly, preachers in the Bible, like Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus did not receive a salary. St. Paul received some support for his work from the church, but no payment for preaching. In today’s church I know of a number of pastors in Nigeria and Kenya who receive NOTHING for their labor; and their ministries are fruitful.


  4. Interesting post. I would take exception to most of what Lehman wrote, especially the idea that we should be trying to make people (teachers) economically secure. There is no security in this world. Wesley, as noted, lived a simple life. His security was in his faith. He didn’t live beyond his means. He didn’t think it necessary to pay college tution for his children. He didn’t have a 401k. Encouragiing everyone (pastors, teachers, lay peaple, and students) to live more simply would make an enormous difference in our world.


    • Point taken, and appreciated. However, I think the ultimate goal is to recreate (or create for the first time) a middle class in this world… I would like to see EVERYONE be economically secure.


  5. Spot on, Holly. As a pastor married to an educator, this resonates with me. We struggle to live in the community where I work (and living where he works is economically impossible). That’s just silly. On the other hand, if housing and living expenses are provided for, and if we have “enough” to sustain a reasonable lifestyle, then anything else is unnecessary. We don’t need mega churches and pastoral cults of personality. We need faith and hope and transformation in Christ.


  6. I agree 100%
    especially with: Historically, the Wesleyan movement is credited with preventing a bloody revolution of the poor in England. Methodists cared for the poor, set up schools, and reformed the nation through their emphasis on spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land. That is a worthy mission for us now in the 21st century as well.
    Now, as to sustainability of “MEGA” churches — also agree. These and other huge facilities are usually not the work of the people — but rather a very few. Not grassroots. Not “earned”. Gifts — IMHO out of a sense of guilt.
    AND — since the majority of Methodist congos. in N. America are SMALL (+/- 100 members) we have an excellent “platform:” from which to spread the Gospel of Balance, Frugality, and Accountability — using Wesley’s guidelines.

    So, I’m in. Where does the line start?
    and — who are you?


  7. I think the line starts with each one of us.


  8. There’s a prevailing notion that Wesley’s admonition to earn all you can had to do with his fear of indebtedness. Aside from the fire that almost took his life, his worst childhood memory had to be the imprisonment of his father. And Samuel’s debt was not a large sum. The thirty pounds he owed was a transparent ploy to influence and control him. He had more trouble with his parishioners than some of our modern colleagues.

    All that is to say that Wesley was fine with “enough.”

    Well said, on all accounts. Thank you for sharing your perspectives!


  9. Holly-

    I love the idea of a world where preachers don’t have to worry about competing for salary. The notion of a flat salary is very appealing to me because I see it as a move towards a more monastic way of living and doing ministry.

    However, I do have an issue with your reasoning that I want to question a little. Why is being middle-class considered a virtue? I’m not at all saying it’s a bad thing to be middle class. I’m just saying that you’ve got a wonderfully monastic concept where we could end the idea of a salary and create a stipend to be ministers. I’m just not convinced that we should do this so that we can have more middle class pastors in America. We have plenty of them now and the idea of a “shrinking middle class” is not solely based on salary but also has to do with debt load that middle class folks carry. So please help me understand how this petition, while excellent in principle, is being sold as a way of saving a middle class of pastors in America?

    [Note: I do see your point for pastors in Africa and other poverty-ridden areas of the world]

    Thanks for all of your passionate work!



    • I am not advocating a “more monastic way of living.” I AM advocating that The United Methodist Church choose to adopt a BIBLICAL standard of pastoral compensation (see 1 Timothy 5:17-18) rather than simply adopting the standards of corporate America as our way of doing things–especially since we are transitioning to being a more global church.

      I do not consider being middle class a particular virtue. However, I DO believe that wealth is spiritually dangerous and poverty is often a sign of injustice and exploitation.

      Likewise, “saving middle class pastors in America” is not my goal–only the blood of Jesus can do that. Perhaps we CAN, however, officially endorse the idea of living according to scripture and recapture our original mission of spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.


      • So let me press a little more. How does regulating salaries to a middle class standard better ensure that we’re able to “recapture out original mission of spreading scriptural holiness across the lands” (actually read: “continent”)?


        • First, by subjecting the compensation of pastors to a BIBLICAL standard.
          Second, by reducing the inclination of pastors to preach a skewed “Gospel” message in order to please a congregation so they may receive continuing salary increases, recognition, and power in a church that equates high salaries with effectiveness.


          • How does this mesh with the problem of exorbitant debt “so as to cause embarrassment,” as Wesley put it? Can we be expected to wave off decent compensation AND carry student loan debt, manage a mortgage (in this day of dwindling parsonage numbers), and dress the part, as so many bishops have put it to me?

            I’m all for getting the rats out of the race, but the costs have to be considered as well.


            • First of all, I suspect that a number of conferences would choose to raise the minimum compensation level for clergy under this plan. Student loan debt is another issue. Perhaps the church needs to offer additional financial support to seminary students so they are not overburdened by debt. My proposal seeks to offer “decent compensation” to all full-time clergy. As for “dressing the part” I’m not sure this means spending a lot of money. Wesley wouldn’t approve of spending a lot of money on clothing. Frankly, I think parsonages are a good arrangement in an itinerant system—there are some great tax perks with a parsonage too. If a pastor wants to purchase a house, that’s fine with me. They are currently a bargain. Frankly, I think you need to read Matthew 6.


              • I was with you up until you implied that I needed a refresher on Matthew 6.

                The rest of what you say makes sense. I find that the system expects too much of us in terms of how we take on debt for seminary and for homes (which often lose money for those who have to sell because of a move). I’ll grant you that a suit and tie don’t break the bank if you do it right, but they still cost more than the “dress casual” that many pastors are seeking.

                I also support the parsonage system. But I disagree with you on the notion that purchasing a home is a bargain. Ask those who carry two mortgages because they are still trying to sell the last house near the last appointment while paying for the next house at the next appointment. No thanks.

                Overall, I would much rather see the money spent on ministry than the minister.

                Perhaps you had specific verses of Matthew 6 in mind?


              • I’m sorry if I seemed flippant. The questions you are asking are all a bit “down the road”, in terms of getting my petition heard and considered. If my idea is adopted, there will be plenty of time to deal with the exact salary range an annual conference decides on, policies about housing, etc.Those are specifics, that are certainly important, but down the road. This legislation establishes a principle of proportion. As clergy who are in a covenant together, we should be concerned that ALL of us receive adequate provision no matter where we are appointed.

                I refer to Matthew 6:25-34—-the lilies of the field text telling Jesus’ followers not to worry about what they will eat, or wear, culminating (in my opinion) in the great text “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”


              • Those points are down the road. But they deserve consideration and foresight. The parsonage situation is a fine example. In our conference, well meaning real estate agents convinced church after church that we needed to move away from the parsonage system. The results have been less than favorable.

                I agree with your every sentiment regarding equitable salaries and appropriate clergy financial lifestyle. I’m merely asking questions that are better approached now than later when new clergy are staying away in droves because they cannot afford to enter ministry.

                Perhaps I do not have the faith in our system to work these details out that others do. Honestly, I haven’t been given much reason to think that this is the case.


  10. Megan

    As a pastor under 35 who regularly interacts with young seminarians who are very bright, I can honestly that most of them/us are not looking for a higher paycheck. What we really want is a place to do real ministry, make disciples, bring others into the abundant life Jesus offers instead of working to keep the doors open.


    • I have no doubt that that is true. The problem I see lies in the “HR department” of the church—essentially on SPR committees and the CEO pastors of large congregations who want to buy “the best” pastors rather than trust that a bishop inspired by the Holy Spirit can make the right appointments.


  11. Peter Stuyvesant

    Why wouldn’t you want the best and the brightest. You’d want the best and brightest doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer or any other person serving your needs why not the best and the brightest in the pulpit. When you have the best and the brightest you increase your chances of making disciples. Jesus picked common people who became the best at what they did. Aspiring to and recruiting average is not done anywhere else why should it done in the church?


    • So who defines “best” and “brightest”? I am reminded of the story of the annointing of King David. Saul was sent to Jessie’s household to annoint one of Jessie’s sons to become king. From an human/cultural perspective David was the least likely one to be chosen. But God did not view things as ordinary people would. God “looks upon the heart” as he decides who to raise up as a leader. I suspect the least likely person is still called into ministry now and then.


  12. Bill


    The intent of your submission is honorable. Please allow me the honor of a reply.

    I am the eldest son of my family. Our family business was a small dairy farm, something that is no longer an economically viable business, but that does not impact my story.

    I had the high privilege of attending college, paid for by my father and mother (a teacher whose salary helped pay tuition for my education and that of my siblings). I returned home, married and began work with my father. We eventually entered a partnership with the intent that I buy him out to help provide part of his retirement. My wife died too early leaving me with young children to raise. I sold the dairy animals and a year later returned to school for my first graduate degree in counseling.

    I was elected four times to local office in my town and some were encouraging me to consider a run for county or state office. Instead, I answered my Call to ministry. That was nearly 20 years ago.

    Since then I have completed my MDiv and am now working on my DMin, mostly out of pocket. You see, as a mid-career change into ministry with farm background I have been appointed to small, rural congregations. I seem to have been “type cast” when it comes to appointments.

    The congregations I have served (8 of them, mostly as two-point charges- five parsonages by the way) have been through some tough times. Their towns are in decline and their economic base eroded by the collapse of the farm economy and the out-sourcing of jobs through NAFTA and now the globalization of our economy. Now, the population decline is following the local economic trends as people move away, particularly young people.

    Since the 1950 US Census the two largest metropolitan areas within a three hour drive have both lost well over 50% of their population. Despite this, 5 of 8 congregations have been stronger when I left than when I arrived. I helped organize two Sunday School programs and two VBS programs in churches that had nothing when I arrived. One two=point charge doubled in attendance. Another had an established youth praise choir. We went on several mission trips. I led two successful capital campaigns along the way, one that purchased a new parsonage (with cash, no debt).

    The folks I serve are generous, some practice the tithe, they care for one another and are proportionately more active in mission and ministry than any other congregation I know of any size. But they are still small.

    I gave a substantial contribution to Africa University when the Bishop asked all clergy to set precedent for their congregations. I cover a few small expenses without submitting the bills to the congregation. I drive a used car and have taken three years to catch up on deferred dental work. Though I was able to help my children through high school there was not enough to help them with college expenses. None have completed college. I contribute a little extra to my retirement because my ministry pension will be all I have.

    I cannot afford to contribute much, regardless how strongly I agree with your premise. I have remarried but health issues mean we are a one income household. I now have two graduate degrees and am working on a third, 18 years of ministry with years of strong leadership experience before ministry. I have mentored three local pastors and now serve as mentor to a candidate ready to interview for Elder’s orders.

    I am what some call “a good soldier”. I serve God and my neighbors below Conference minimum because this is where my Bishop has appointed me.

    Where would I fit in your proposal?


    • It might help to provide some equitable salary support so you could receive the conference minimum salary. Your annual conference would decide how to use the additional money the equitable compensation fund would have. Other decisions made at this general conference will probably impact this however. The proposal to eliminate the guaranteed appointment will probably mean there will be many more elders serving God for less than full salary. They will be defined as “part-time” and not entitled to full compensation—even though you and I know that serving two small churches may entail just as much, or MORE work than serving a church with an average worship attendance of 125 (I think this will become our new standard for full-time appointments). Frankly, I think the loss of the guaranteed appointment would be a serious mistake. But my opinion is based on the conviction that the content of preaching will change as pastors will be obligated to “please” the congregation in order to keep their job. Pastors will choose NOT to preach sermons that may offend their congregation. Part of the genius of our church has been the reality that the guaranteed appointment supports prophetic preaching.

      Anyway, I wish I could answer you with a more definite response. I think I can say that this proposal would give annual conferences more money to work with as they decide who is entitled to equitable compensation.


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