The topic of clergy pay is a touchy one at best. Churches, pastors, denominational bodies all have vested interests in how clergy are paid… but sometimes those interests aren’t always aligned.
Determining what is appropriate pay requires that a number of questions be answered: How is professional ministry measured when it comes to compensation? How do you compensate someone who is fulfilling a calling? How do congregations balance shrinking membership and budgets with the need to keep clergy pay increasing, if even with just the cost of living? How do denominational bodies recommend guidelines that congregations can meet and that adequately provide for clergy?
Lately, I have heard a number of troubling comments and stories from colleagues about clergy salaries. Money troubles, like in marriages, can often be the straw that breaks the camel’s back between a congregation and pastor, and result in separation.
Unfortunately, clergy often end being underpaid for a variety of reasons, which ultimately ends up hurting the congregation just as much as it hurts the pastor who is not being adequately compensated. Going by the stories and comments I have heard from friends and colleagues surrounding pay, there are reasons that I see as being problems that will haunt congregations when they choose to underpay their pastor.
Disclaimer: The congregations I have served have always paid me according to the guidelines provided by the Bishop’s office. In my view these are fair and adequate, for the most part. I am grateful to the churches I have served for not making my compensation a big issue.
The reasons that are often given for keeping clergy underpaid, might sound reasonable on the surface, but dig deeper and they become truly problematic:
1. “Pastors work for God, not for the money.”
It is absolutely true that almost no pastor packs up to attend 4 or more years of seminary in order to hit the jackpot as a parish pastor. Other than the handful of mega church pastors and televangelists who are making millions, most pastors earn modest, if not meagre wages.
But it is a false notion to equate working for God meaning that clergy are fine with working for free. All the clergy I know genuinely want to serve God’s church and God’s people. And they want to serve knowing that they can pay their bills, put food on the table and perhaps enjoy a meal out or a holiday away from home once in a while without breaking the bank.
The work that clergy do is NOT supposed to what earns their salary. The compensation is supposed to allow clergy a comfortable living so that they can attend to their work without having to worry about earning their pay.
2. “Pastor, the denominational guidelines are too high. You can accept less.”
I have heard of congregations negotiating one salary with the Bishop and Pastor in the call process, and the asking a pastor to accept less once they have settled into their new charge.
I cannot express how offensive this is. Clergy salaries are designed to be fair to both pastor and congregation. Asking a pastor to take less is effectively declaring that a pastor is not valued by the congregation, which is basically a non-confidence vote in the ministry.
3. “Oh, pastor ‘so and so’ never asked for raise”
This particular practice of some of my clergy colleagues infuriates me. I have heard of a number of pastors not asking their congregations to keep up with clergy pay guidelines. If this were simply a matter of the effect on one’s own family, then I wouldn’t care so much.
However, not insisting that congregations keep up with guideline salary is bad for your successor, and even worse for the congregation itself.
A congregation told me a story of how one their pastors had accepted a pay freeze during a period of renovations. The agreement was that once the renovations were complete, the congregation would “catch the pastor up” to guideline pay. I was told this was so difficult for the congregation to catch up in the end, that they made a policy never to fall behind guideline minimums again.
When a pastor accepts less than the minimum guidelines set out by a denominational body, it means the congregation becomes accustomed to a lower salary burden. And what happens when that congregation needs to call another pastor? They have to, all of a sudden, come up with thousands of dollars in their budget in order to pay the minimum. And congregations are really good making large year by year increasings in giving, right?
Worse yet, a new pastor might be asked to take a pay cut or accept less than what is supposed to be the minimum. (see point 2).
4. “Pastors get a housing allowance which is like a bonus”
Housing allowances are very misunderstood things. They originated as a means to allow congregations to provide a house that clergy could live in, without paying taxes on the benefit. Another way of looking it at was that the small salary or stipend that clergy earned (sometimes paid in chickens and garden vegetables) would be further taxed if the parish provided housing was considered a taxable benefit.
Once clergy began purchasing their own homes, there needed to be a way to make tax system equitable, regardless of the housing option a parish could provide – a home or an allowance.
In Canada, housing allowances can only be for the fair market rental value of a house up to 1/3 of total compensation.
But really, housing allowances are not benefits to clergy. They are benefits to congregations because they allow congregations to pay clergy less. If housing was taxable, congregation would have to make up the difference in take home pay by raising wages.
So to those who object to clergy receiving this benefit, I would argue that tax free housing is small price to pay in exchange for the virtually free civil services that clergy (and therefore churches) provide to their communities by performing legal marriages, by providing free chaplaincy care to many health care institutions, and by providing inexpensive or free counselling services to the community among other things. Not to mention the fact that studies show that people of faith are also the most likely to volunteer in communities and to donate to non-religious charities.
5. “Pastors should be poor and we are paying them too much already”
Another argument that makes me mad. If pastors should be poor, then so should anyone else who calls themselves a Christian. Really this is about controlling a pastor, where s/he lives, what car s/he drives, what clothes s/he wears, all in an effort to make the pastor the symbol of modesty on behalf of the congregation.
Still, a pastor who cannot afford the necessities of life really isn’t going to be effective in ministry. This argument makes no sense when considering that in many denominations, pastors have graduate degrees and as much education as doctors and lawyers. Pastors are expected to have the skills to administrate like a CEO of a small non-profit, to provide care and counselling like a social worker or secular counsellor, to teach children, teens and adults like a professional teacher, to provide event planner level organization to things like weddings and funerals, to oversee staff like middle managers, and then to provide spiritual leadership, guidance, and formation to a faith community.
The reality is most pastors could earn two times, three times or four times as much in a similar professional field with a similar education. But instead most clergy have chosen to forego that kind compensation in order to serve God and God’s church, to serve the people of God.
Ultimately, finding reasons to underpay pastors is poor stewardship
Underpaying clergy stems from a stewardship ethos that asks one person to bear an unequal share of the burden of providing ministry. It is shortsighted as it puts a congregation into a position where it won’t be able to keep up with minimum required to pay for a pastor when it is time to call a new pastor. And this poor stewardship assumes that pastors aren’t already making a huge sacrifice in order to follow a calling by taking on the burdens of student loans, of reduced pay compared to secular work and by working all overtime for free, most major holidays for free and being ‘on call’ 24/7.
When congregations underpay their pastors, it isn’t about saving money or stretching declining resources. It is about the value that congregations place on pastoral ministry. It is about the value that congregations place on their own work and following God’s mission.
The reality is that finding a way to pay a pastor less is really the first step in choosing to kill a church. Because the things that pastors do need to be done by someone in order for congregational ministry to go on. And as congregations who have been forced to make do without a pastor can attest, it is not an ideal nor a viable long term option.
But perhaps most importantly, adequately paying a pastor recognizes that ministry costs time, resources and money. It recognizes that ministry is worth the time, resources and money that is costs us. It recognizes that God’s mission for us in the world is worth our time, our resources and our money.