A Quick Question
Are you paying your pastor enough?
The quick answer: Probably not!
The longer answer: Society may hold pastors in high regard, but when it comes to salaries, churches pay their clergy less than public school teachers. That’s one of the conclusions of a study on pastor pay by Becky R. McMillan, a United Methodist minister and economist, and Matthew J. Price, an executive with the Episcopal Church Pension Board. The study finds that in 1999 the median salary for Protestant ministers, including housing, was $40,000 a year. The median salary for teachers who hold a graduate degree was $45,000.
In large part, low clergy salaries are a consequence of churches using free market approaches to determine clergy compensation. It boils down to supply and demand. Since there’s a large supply of small churches across the country and a large pool of candidates to fill them, the corresponding salaries are low. Conversely, the nation’s largest churches pay the highest salaries and are most in demand.
Concerned that low salaries might discourage talented people from going into the ministry, the study urges that churches reconsider how they set clergy pay. Instead of turning to the free market for guidance, they should act collaboratively with other churches to provide pastors a salary sufficient for a middle class life, including benefits such as healthcare, retirement and educational debt repayment.
The study, titled, “How Much Should We Pay the Pastor? A Fresh Look at Clergy Salaries in the 21st Century,” suggests that Connectional churches, or those subject to some degree of centralized authority, may provide a solution for keeping clergy salaries competitive with middle-class incomes. The study finds that in all but the largest congregations, pastors serving in Connectional churches (such as Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians) earn 15 percent more than pastors serving in Congregational churches, (those with local autonomy, such as Baptists, Pentecostals and United Church of Christ). While the median full-time salary for Connectional pastors was $46,000, the median full-time salary for Congregational pastors was $39,000. Connectional churches pay for health-care coverage too, while some Congregational churches do not.
Though the study finds that Connectional churches are larger, and their members wealthier than those in Congregational churches, the main reason Connectional churches pay more is the centralized decision making among those denominations. In contrast, market forces drive Congregational churches to pay larger salaries at bigger churches. At the nation’s largest churches, pastor salaries in Congregational churches begin to surpass pastor salaries in Connectional churches. “Church size, the authors write, “translates directly into market power. To attract entrepreneurial clergy, some very large churches are paying entrepreneurial salaries.”
But the free market approach may be harming the church and distorting its mission. For one thing, it may be forcing smaller churches to grow for purely economic reasons. Instead of focusing on their mission to the community, many churches might feel compelled to attract new members so they can pay more gifted pastors. Furthermore, it forces clergy to find appointments in larger churches if they are to pay back educational debt and save for retirement. (Among African Americans, it is common for pastors to take lower salaries and work second jobs — one reason why black pastor salaries are two-thirds of white clergy salaries.) This approach, the authors feel, may lead clergy to view their job as a career, rather a calling.
Finally, the authors suggest, low pastor salaries make it difficult to offer leadership that challenges and transforms congregations. This is because clergy who are financially dependent on a congregation may not be able to speak the truth as they see it if their words risk losing members and dollars. A collaborative effort among churches and denominations to pay pastors higher salaries would free pastors for prophetic and mission-oriented ministry, the authors conclude.
Read the executive summary of this project titled "How Much Should We Pay the Pastor?" A Fresh Look at Clergy Salaries in the 21st Century on the Pulpit and Pew website.
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