Were it not for the skyrocketing cost of gasoline this past year, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the high cost of speaking during the same time—or at least I wouldn’t have written anything about it. But reality is reality, and I don’t believe God allows anything into our lives without purpose. Here’s the bottom line: speaking costs me money.
Please understand, I do not think that speakers—especially women, pulpit supply, college students ministering with youth, and even missionary speakers—are shortchanged intentionally, nor are they always shortchanged. But inadequate giving does occur, and I believe that people do not understand what happens before and after individuals speak. Churches are not paying them $100 for the hour they speak; that $100 (or whatever the amount) must stretch to cover everything, including the hours spent in preparation, the cost of gasoline, and other travel or speaking expenses.
In a passage addressing elders, 1 Timothy 5:18 says, “ ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’ ” I do understand that this verse refers to elders, not guest speakers, but isn’t it a principle to which we can refer? The one we ask to minister to us is worthy of an honorable recompense. First Corinthians 9:14 also supports adequate financial provision for those who minister: “Those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel.”
Let me refer, as well, to Galatians 6:6: “Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches.” The idea in this verse is that the teachers teach, giving out of their spiritual giftedness, and those receiving the teaching share from their material goods to enable the teacher. The verse is emphasizing the community involved here—the unity of the Body—with each individual doing his or her part.
How far an honorarium goes
Now let’s focus on the labor involved when a speaker is invited. First, there is message preparation. After polling several female speakers, I can testify that those women spend no less than ten hours and generally much closer to twenty hours of study in preparation. This is especially true when those speakers are preparing for an event such as a Mother’s Day banquet, an evangelistic outreach dinner, a retreat, or a day-long seminar in which they are given a theme or passage to address. So the speaker invests a significant amount of time.
Second, the honorarium is not “free money.” The speaker must report every honorarium as income and must pay taxes on it; generally a speaker must set aside a minimum of 30 percent to cover the taxes on an honorarium. So a $100 honorarium quickly becomes $70.
Third, we must reckon with the price of gasoline. The IRS currently recognizes 44.5 cents per mile as the amount an individual should be reimbursed for travel. I recently made a 320-mile round trip to speak at a function. I was given a $100 honorarium. My travel expenses, as calculated by the IRS, were $140. That might seem outrageous until one considers that every mile a vehicle travels costs the owner not just gasoline but wear and tear and depreciation—the basis for the IRS figures.
On my 320-mile trip I used up sixteen gallons of gasoline. At $3 a gallon, it cost me $48 in gas to make the trip. So, out of my $100 honorarium, I set aside $30 for taxes and $48 for gasoline, leaving me $22. This speaking engagement was on a Friday evening after a long work week and required nearly three hours of travel one way. I was not physically prepared to drive home afterwards, so a hotel stay became necessary—at my expense.
Unusual? In practice, no. Consider the college student who is invited to become a youth leader or youth pastor or music leader at a church fifty miles away. Let’s imagine that this particular student drives a car that gets twenty miles per gallon, as my car does. If the student makes only one trip a week, this ministry costs him $44, according to the IRS, or $15 in raw expenses, given that twenty miles to the $3/gallon gasoline price. (Thankfully gas prices have come down, but no one knows how long the downturn will last.) And the college students I know in this situation not only make more than one trip weekly, but they own or drive vehicles that don’t get that kind of gas mileage.
We have not addressed other expenses: meals while traveling, coffee breaks on the road, computer ink and paper used, and books and supplies purchased in preparation. If the speaker has a family, as missionary speakers often do, those expenses multiply quickly.
Honor God and the speaker
When asked if I charge for speaking, I always say no. I don’t charge. I consider speaking as an opportunity to serve God through the gifts He has given me. I know also that this policy is true of the majority of the men and women like me who are called upon to fill a pulpit, speak at an event, or lead or work with a local church. But I also know that God takes care of His people through His people, and when that is not happening, it matters to Him.
I do not believe that the people who write the check, those who are responsible for the honoraria, are deliberately acting unjustly. I believe it is out of ignorance or simply not thinking—they are unaware of the expenses a speaker faces. However, God will bless His church when it functions as a body in the way He designed, with each one ministering out of his or her role in the Body of Christ.
If you have a part in deciding the amount of your church’s honoraria, let me lovingly encourage you to consider your part in sharing with the man or woman who teaches, doing so in a way that truly honors God.
Elizabeth Hay is a pseudonym.