1 - A friend of mine was recently offered a full-time children’s ministry position at a United Methodist Church in North Carolina. She was offered $24,000 and no benefits. No one seemed to blush at that. It’s what they had available.
2 - In another situation I heard about from a few different angles, a youth minister was let go by the UM church where he had worked for nine years. No poor performance was cited. Actually, they believed in what was going on. They just thought one of his assistants could be elevated to the top position and the church wouldn’t have to pay that person nearly as much. After nine years, the released youth minister had one of the higher salaries in the church (though his compensation was still less than 1/2 of the Senior Pastor’s, and without nearly the same benefits).
That was troubling to hear. I was aghast, though, to hear that the church compared his dismissal to the Methodist itineracy process. “Nine years is a long time. We believe in bringing in new leadership and letting leaders move on to other things.”
The not-insignificant difference: when a United Methodist pastor is told “nine years is a long time; it’s time to move on…” that pastor goes on to another guaranteed position, likely with even higher pay. This church kicked their youth minister to the curb and compared it to itineracy. That’s just shameful.
The argument I’m wanting to make here is that we have set up a considerable two-tiered disparity between how we treat Elders and how we treat church staff (often including deacons or part-time local pastors), at least in the world I see most often — the United Methodist world.
The average United Methodist elder in my state has a total compensation package of $101,780.
The minimum compensation package for UM elders in my state is $71,031.
I’ve heard no small amount of grumbling that our pastors don’t make enough. People have talked about how difficult it must be to get by for for any pastor who only receives the minimum compensation.
Some annual conferences are telling people that their minimally-compensated clergy qualify for food stamps if they have a family. A presentation at my last Annual Conference lamented that teachers in the state make more than our pastors. (Both of these statements ignore the minimum $16,000 in housing benefits that pastors receive.)
Here’s the problem, though: if we are really so concerned about our under-paid clergy, why is there not absolute outrage over the rest of the church’s employees?
At least from the people I’ve asked and the churches I’ve seen, a typical compensation package for a full-time youth or children’s worker may be between $30k and $36k. It’s quite likely that these positions will have no benefits. If they do, the benefits usually amount to less than $10,000. That makes for a total compensation package (including tax & Social Security payments) somewhere between $36,000 and $48,000.
Let me be quick to say that I’m not convinced that a $48,000 compensation package is bad. Not at all!
But if our leaders really believe that life is barely affordable on our clergy minimum compensation package, why aren’t they horrified that most of our other full-time workers aren’t making anything close to that level? Can it be anything short of hypocrisy for our leaders to lament (based on deceptive data) that some clergy qualify for food stamps, all the while knowing that nearly all of our non-clergy staff are compensated even less?
This is happening with lay employees, and it’s also happening routinely with deacons, since churches are not required to pay for their housing.
And I should mention that most churches opt out of state unemployment and disability programs. This means that the youth minister in story #2 above ended up without a job and without unemployment help. Meanwhile, the Sr. Pastor who laid him off and compared it to itineracy has a guaranteed appointment and a great disability insurance plan.
A Call to Church Leaders
Dear local church leaders, can I urge you to ask some honest questions and consider what would be truly just in these situations?
How about this: if any of your full-time employees have a compensation package that equates to less than “minimum compensation” as defined by your conference, why don’t you worry more about those employees than you worry about your far more highly-compensated elders? What if you were to require that all employees be brought to the conference’s “minimum level” package before you would consider giving anyone else raises? That’s package, not just salary. Children’s ministers need health insurance and housing, too!
Dear leaders within the larger United Methodist Church, can I urge you to consider these issues a bit more honestly, too? If you believe it’s difficult for your minimally-compensated clergy to survive on $34k + full housing benefits + medical insurance + a really nice retirement plan + a great disability plan, you surely must agree it’s difficult for a full-time youth minister to survive on $30k and no benefits.
Every time you go to a local church and pressure them to raise the salaries of their clergy, you squeeze the church’s personnel budget. When a church has constant pressure to give clergy raises, it’s hard for that church to help the youth minister whose compensation package is half of your approved minimum. What if you stopped focusing on how you can increase clergy salaries and began to look at how the church is treating everyone who’s not an elder?
What’s just in church staff compensation? Perhaps our minimally-compensated clergy really are struggling to provide (though that’s hard for me to believe). But if they are, we should be mortified by what we’re paying everyone else. Seems that there’s a much bigger issue of justice there.
Did you find this helpful or challenging? I write quite a bit about the Church, money, and Methodism. If you’re interested in any of those, click here to subscribe. I’d love to hear from you and continue some conversation.
*Note: this doesn’t take into account that our elders pay self-employment taxes. But it also doesn’t take into account that their housing is exempt from income tax. And I include taxes paid on an employee’s behalf in any “total package” numbers. This also doesn’t take into account the cost for schooling. But I’m talking about disparities much greater than your typical student loan payment [edited after the helpful comments below]. Not to mention that many other church staff members have gone to school, too.