5 Reasons Why Underpaying Pastors is Poor Stewardship for Congregations

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.

Does your congregation adequately pay your pastor? Do you have horror stories of being underpaid? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik


16 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why Underpaying Pastors is Poor Stewardship for Congregations”

  1. In the Rocky Mountain Synod ELCA all salary/benefit packages are approved by the bishop and if the offer is inadequate according to Synod guidelines then the parish is unable to issue the call. I guess they go back to the drawing board and come up with an adequate offer in order to make the call. In my parish, in our current call process for a lead pastor, we fortunately don’t have that problem. Good,thought-provoking read!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It seems this is a practice in most service professions. In my own field of education management, there is a tendency to expect most of those who are most committed, and pay them less, presumably because they can live off passion, and public servants should be about serving, not pay. Some of us become disillusioned because not only are we dealing with politics we didn’t expect in this environment, but we don’t make enough to live in our expensive city. I was in this situation once and after I’ve had enough decided to resign. the organization had to hurry up and significantly raise the pay not only to try to keep me, but to ensure someone would actually accept the position if I left. It takes a while to do increases in public institutions and I chose to cut my losses and move on. It was probably harder on them, because the position wasn’t marketable for a few months until the increase was approved. I believe it took 1.5 people to replace me, cutting corners and all. Good as we may be, we live in a materialistic society, and no one is going to be happy on a meager salary when they can’t afford to help their own family. I’m sad to hear this happens to clergy, too.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. This goes for staff, too. I have seen congregations brutally undervalue and underpay staff using the excuse, “Well, we’re just a church, they should be willing to work for less.” And then wonder why [stuff] hits the fan.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. This hits it – the church members and elders are often made up of people in the business world (I was on the board of a church for a while – and I work as a manager in my day job). We are almost encouraged to ‘minimize’ the pay of employees for the ‘good of the company’. It becomes ingrained – and so we play it with church. The world’s values creep in and guide us at the highest levels, and it is just sad.

      Really, (to expand on your post), we need to take God’s values – that ever person is valuable, and apply that to our workplaces. But that is off topic 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  3. It is! I have a friend currently in this situation. These are the people who should be valued and rewarded. When we learn to value those who give most, we will actually get somewhere as a society.


  4. I’ve been involved in five congregations over my life time. The problem is that how do you measure if clergy are doing the job they are payed to do? I haven’t confided in a pastor for thirty years, I find they are lazy, over fed, find they lack basic wisdom, don’t have a very deep understanding of the bible, and don’t understand how hard some of us work to make a living.

    Australian poet Henry Lawson says it best.

    With eyes that are narrowed to pierce
    To the awful horizons of land,
    Through the blaze of hot days, and the fierce
    White heat-waves that flow on the sand;
    Through the Never Land westward and nor’ward,
    Bronzed, bearded, and gaunt on the track,
    Low-voiced and hard-knuckled, rides forward
    The Christ of the Outer Out-back.

    God’s preacher, of churches unheeded—
    God’s vineyard, though barren the sod—
    Plain spokesman where spokesman is needed,
    Rough link ‘twixt the bushman and God

    By his worth in the light that shall search men
    And prove—ay! and justify—each,
    I place him in front of all churchmen
    Who feel not, who know not—but preach!


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