A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a relatively new church member. They expressed shock about what they had recently learned (not from me, by the way, since am not privy to those numbers) of the level of Pastoral salaries and benefit. Their dismay also extended to the secrecy that surrounded these facts within the congregation at large. This got me to considering how many other ‘pew peasants’ might quietly feel that same way to one degree or another. A somewhat informal survey indicates quite a few.
In a similar vein, I had been musing lately about the Pastoral leadership model that most major denominations adopt, as opposed to that used by some smaller denominational groups, such as parts of the Brethren.
These considerations jointly brought these related issues more to the front burner.
Having always attended major denominational congregations (both now and in childhood), I have taken the model of a professional clergy pretty much for granted. However, I have been slowly changing my mind about this for a variety of reasons, and the related feelings of others from the pews helps to convince me. I also realize that I am very likely to tilting at a sacred cow here, but…
To keep the playing field level, I will artificially limit consideration for now to congregations and assemblies that have a physical infrastructure in place. That is, they have a house of worship of some sort, with all the administrative and resource requirements that accompany even a minimal facility. Later I might get to the house or non-facility-based church scenario, but that brings a different set of considerations and it is not a fair comparison to those with a facility to support. Additionally, I have to admit that I like the idea of the concrete focus provided by an at least minimal church building.
In most established denominational churches, professional clergy fill the key preaching and management roles. Historically, these positions have been regarded as being in the Lord’s service, by implication sacrificial, and thereby not high paying is relative terms. In more recent times, with recognition as professionals and a corresponding demand for ever increasing minimum academic degree levels, these positions have developed substantially escalated salary expectations. This is not to suggest that a professional does not merit a fair salary, but the historical (and not so historical from what I have gleaned lately) congregational perception of the poorly paid pastoral position is no longer a global reality in North America, especially in established congregations. Many congregants seem unaware of this reality of present day church resource allocations, even in their own churches. In many evangelical denominations today, members of the pastoral staff are likely to have salaries and benefits that eclipse those of the majority of the congregation. This is not widely acknowledged, and in recent times many churches have exacerbated the situation by moving to the secular tradition of salary secrecy (which would have been unheard of only a few years ago). Moreover, the perception and common presentation by the clergy of themselves as holding low-paying, high requirement, service positions, is completely at odds with the current reality.
Let us begin by considering the church budget in relation to today’s higher salaries. On the assumption that congregation size most often determines the number of pastoral staff, the percentage of the budget allocated to salaries and benefits is likely to be somewhat constant, scaling up or down with the congregation size. This would yield a relatively constant salary allocation as the congregation size and number of staff varies. Anecdotal evidence appears to show that today 50% or more of the overall budget is often allocated to pastoral incomes (salaries + benefits). Over even the short term, and barring an anomalous jump in contribution levels, this percentage could reasonably be expected to slowly rise. In addition, there may be incentive plans such as interest free or interest reduced loans in place. This in itself may shock some people.
Although I was going to cite an example here, I think it more prudent to simply suggest that the reader apply the suggested paradigm to the church budget of their choice. Bear mind that in the case of congregations with several pastoral positions they are usually graduated in relative salary (eg. senior, associate, etc.). This should allow the reader to approximate salaries if they are not published. Moreover, ordained staff benefit from a substantially lower income tax rate (in Canada at least), so that any salary must be increased to allow comparison to secular employment numbers. It is likely to be an eye opening exercise for many.
Although pastoral responsibility profiles vary, pastoral staff are expected to perform a number of basic functions in most churches, including regular preaching, congregational oversight, program or organizational administration, and visitation. Hours are seldom fixed, and most work largely on their own time and schedule. It must also be born in mind that there is an element of being ‘on call’ for congregational incidents that comes with the territory. There are also occasionally some at least informal expectations of continuing education. None of this would seem drastically out of line, however, with the salary levels, compared to secular employment.
What of various types of review and accountability?
In a secular corporate position, most employees serve within defined lines of accountability and reporting, including some sort of external oversight. The objective performance and evaluation bar in congregational service would appear to be quite a bit lower. Accountability, particularly in denominations with no external hierarchy, is normally through a locally elected board of some sort (usually Elders), to whom the pastor is also the defacto spiritual adviser or even mentor. Intentions notwithstanding, this is a clear conflict of interest, and makes true objective accountability and performance evaluation very difficult, and likely limited. Even when there are no actual problems, the lack of transparency in the situation can erode confidence. This does not discount that fact that the pastor is actually accountable to the Lord. However, some form of transparent, temporal accountability is also surely necessary for as long as we remain in the world, as it is for all within the body of believers.
For salary accountability the lines are even more hazy. Salary increases are rarely tied to measurable, reported objectives and performance. Although usually approved in some forum by the congregation, increases are implemented as an entitlement of the position, with great potential for guilt attached to any questioning from the congregation. After all, who is going to propose that the pastor does not deserve a raise unless the pastor was to suggest holding the line themselves? Even then, anecdotal evidence would indicate that it would be unlikely. So we have, when examined objectively, a situation with questionable accountability, limited performance evaluation, and stable increases in a better than average income.
In some post-reformation denominations there is some sort of over-riding administrative body. In that case there may be some more object review, but I have no experience or knowledge in that area.
In summary, how many within the average congregation have the privilege of that level of income, with that level of limited organizational review and accountability? Likely very few.
Next, an alternate model…