It’s often the elephant in the room. The pastoral candidate is anxious. He doesn’t want to ask, because he doesn’t want to come off as presumptuous or espousing a subtle prosperity theology.
How much are you willing to pay me?
In my first full-time ministry position, I waited until the church had elected me to even bring up salary. I was relieved when the figure they gave was in the ballpark of what my family needed, but I’ll admit to being squeamish, even fearful, of the whole conversation. As a result of the (unbiblical) notion some churches have—“God will keep our pastor humble, and we’ll keep him poor!”—far too many pastors are grossly underpaid. This creates anxiety that, in turn, can create burnout, and eventually leads some godly men to leave ministry so they can make a living for their families.
Sam Ogles and the ministry he serves, ChurchSalary, want to help fix that problem. We discussed the mission of ChurchSalary, and poked around the assumption that pastors shouldn’t be paid a living wage like others who do “real” work. ChurchSalary is a ministry of Christianity Today.
What was the impetus behind ChurchSalary? In your research on pastors and church staff members, are you finding that most are under-compensated?
A significant portion of ministers are under-compensated, yes. This is especially true in smaller churches, rural churches, and bi-vocational ministries.
The National Association of Evangelicals did a 2015 study of more than 4,000 ministers nationwide and found that half make less than $50,000 per year. More than three in four knew someone who left ministry due to financial stress. I’ve talked to denominational leaders who found that many millennial pastors, a few years into ministry, had significant doubts about continuing due to inadequate pay.
So where are pastors feeling the financial pinch?
Across denominations and geographical regions, the top two stressors are retirement and debt. Pastors may be able to pay their monthly bills, but they struggle to save for retirement or to pay down seminary debt or medical bills.
How will ChurchSalary help?
Pastors generally don’t have investments, so they live or die on their paycheck. To help that paycheck be as fair and generous as possible, we’ve been gathering compensation information from churches for years. Now we’ve put it in a digital tool so both church leaders and church staff can know what’s fair.
When interviewing with a church, it’s often awkward to initiate a conversation about pay and benefits. How would you encourage a pastoral candidate to approach this without coming off as “overly concerned about money,” as I’ve heard some church people accuse?
That stigma certainly exists, and it’s a shame. The Bible tells us “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7), so it’s only right to expect fair compensation for one’s work.
My advice is, first, do your research ahead of time. Have some objective data on fair pay for similar roles in churches with a similar attendance or budget. Based on that information and your personal budget, know your target compensation and the minimum you will accept.
Second, wait to bring up the subject of pay until you’ve learned about the job and built rapport with the search committee.
Then, ask a safe question to move the conversation in that direction: “Can you tell me about the cost of living for this area?” Once they answer, you can say, “That’s interesting. In light of that and the ministry expectations you’ve described, what do you think is fair compensation for this role?” I like framing it as “fair compensation.” Bringing a ChurchSalary report can bring an objective standard.
Okay, what about the other side of church salaries—you’re on a search committee. How should you think through compensation when hiring a new pastor?
There can be legal ramifications for things like misclassifying employees, excessive compensation, paying below minimum wage for the hours worked, and so on. Even apart from those serious issues, you’ll want an objective standard. Fair pay in staff compensation—the largest portion of the church budget—is good stewardship.
We built ChurchSalary around some of the most important factors in determining fair pay: the role, the church budget, church size, the candidate’s years of relevant experience, education level, and benefits. On top of that, we include both a cost-of-living tool and also a median household income tool for your specific ZIP code.
Explaining how pay is determined in your church is important. People are less likely to think they’re getting an unfair deal if you can show them how you determined the fairness of their paycheck.
What about non-pastoral church staff members? Are they typically underpaid? Is this project seeking to address that as well?
Yes. ChurchSalary provides data for 18 common church roles—including for part-time staff. As to the question of underpayment, whatever the church’s lead pastor makes sets the level for other staff members’ compensation.
Anecdotally, what are the best and worst-case scenarios you’ve seen with church compensation?
Oh boy! I think the vast majority of churches seek to get compensation right, even if they make mistakes. But two serious issues come to mind:
- Paying hourly staff for X number of hours but expecting them to put in even more hours “off the books.” While this may come from a place of expecting a servant’s heart, it’s illegal.
- Thinking that because a pastor is called, he should do the job no matter how low the pay. It’s short-sighted to underpay staff. People have to have enough to meet their needs. Like sleep, you can go without, but not without a cost.
One of the best examples of handling staff compensation came recently. I spoke with a pastor in a medium-sized church looking to hire a youth pastor. He worried that the salary might be too low; what the church could afford was below the 25th percentile for youth pastors. I suggested the church could get creative to make the overall compensation package more attractive. It turns out they could offer paid vacation, access to professional development, a 1 percent match on a 403(b) plan, and completely paid-for premiums on health insurance for the entire family. Depending on the candidate’s qualifications and the area’s cost of living, that might be not just a fair compensation package; it might be a great one.