Church Staffing and Justice: Two stories, some numbers, and some questions

Two stories

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.

Some numbers

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.

See a larger breakdown of those numbers here.

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.)

The problem

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.

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pastor salary

*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.

29 thoughts on “Church Staffing and Justice: Two stories, some numbers, and some questions

  1. Teddy:

    Your student loan numbers may be a little out of date — we have more and more seminary graduates coming out of school with $50k-60k of student loan debt… which makes your monthly note more like $450-$600.

    Other than that, good article.

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  3. Great post, Teddy! When I started out in ministry at minimum 30 years ago, I almost did qualify for food stamps (including housing). However, your larger point here is valid, and things have changed in 30 years. Part of the push for licensed local pastors is that churches have to pay them less than ordained elders. Financially struggling churches do strange things, not always rational. I always tried to compare staff salaries to the teacher salaries in the community and pay commensurately with those for similar education and experience. Not a perfect yardstick, but something that’s more objective.

  4. Deacons in The UMC are clergy and thus qualify for the conference’s minimum compensation and housing requirements (and insurance & pension too). However, many deacons and churches don’t understand this factor in negotiations. Also, there is a vast discrepancy in the salaries of deacons and elders who have the same education, experiences, and ordination process. Thank you for your efforts in raising awareness of the injustices within staffing of our churches.

    • Thanks Mary. I’m interested to get more information here. In my former job, I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with my conference treasurer making sure that we were doing things properly, especially concerning confusing clergy benefits. Our full-time deacons received clergy pension benefits, but not housing or health insurance. I was told this is because elders are itinerant, thus the church must be able to provide them with housing. I was told (and have seen) that deacons have to fend for themselves quite a bit more.

      • According to ¶331.10b and c of the Discipline, deacons are to receive conference minimum compensation and conference mandated benefits (however, the Discipline is unclear as it relates to housing, and so deacons do not always receive the full housing allowance).

        In most conferences, though, the health benefits only apply to a deacon who is full-time. Local churches will often hire a deacon full-time in terms of expectations of hours, but have the conference appoint them as part-time so that they are ineligible for the full complement of benefits. A part-time deacon would still be eligible for pension and disability, but even when deacons are eligible for pension benefits by conference and general church rules, local churches will also very often require them to opt out of the pension plan (technically this is supposed to be the choice of the clergy person, but I’ve never encountered someone who opted out who did so without the church pushing for it).

      • Very helpful, Wesley. Thanks. For what it’s worth, I had a full-time deacon who wasn’t receiving health insurance benefit, and the conference treasurer told us that was okay. Not sure how that was happening with ¶331.10b and c.

        Also for what it’s worth, I opted out of the pension plan without pressure from the church. So you know one now. That was largely motivated by things along the lines of this post. My total package was just over $50k (this includes business expense account — I keep forgetting to include those in the calculations above). It seemed unjust for me to take another $4k when we had several staff members making far less.

    • The problem is that if a Deacon holds tight to those disciplinary requirements in negotiations with local churches, they are often not hired and a lay person is given that position that doesn’t carry those requirements and we just shift the injustice a notch further down the path.

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  6. In the Greater New Jersey AC elders and deacons have a minimum compensation of $41,122. The only ones without minimum compensation are part-time local pastors. And if the youth ministry or children’s ministry position is full-time they would be entitled to health benefits under the conference insurance program. They can enroll in the pension program if they work 30 hours per week. I doubt there’s that many full-time lay employees.

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  8. Thanks for your thoughts, Teddy. I agree that it is unfair to simply compare the pastor’s cash salary, as housing benefits are incredibly significant.

    Here’s a couple of thoughts, though…I think that some of your numbers are inflated. You are including the full cost that the churches pay for health insurance as part of compensation package for clergy; much of this payment is being sent towards unfunded liability for retired clergy. My wife’s health insurance costs here employer about $350 per month for a comparable health plan to mine as opposed to the $1000+ that the church pays for me. This is a cost to the church, but it is not necessarily a significant financial benefit to current clergy.

    Recently a couple of folks in my community took new jobs. They are younger than I am with less education and experience than I have and make significantly more money than I do, even when I include the housing benefits. While pastors are paid better than they would lead someone to believe I don’t think they are paid as extravagantly as you might be saying.

    As a side note, I make much less than many of my colleagues with similar (or less) experience than myself. As a church planter I have not received a raise in several years. I am cared for well, so I’m not complaining. I think that many of pastors gripes are focused around the idea that compensation is not handled in an appropriate and fair manner across a conference.

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for your response. A few of my responses:

      - You may be right that the clergy package is a bit inflated because of the health insurance. I’d point out, though, that it’s higher because they’re paying for continuing health benefits for retired clergy. So in some ways, what you’re receiving in package now isn’t just for now, it includes some assumed benefits post-retirement. (Benefits that I’d again note your lay staff don’t receive.) Let’s assume, though, that those don’t count. I don’t think any of the other numbers distort reality. If the health plan only has a $350/mo value, that still puts our minimum at $62,000. This is nearly double what I’ve seen other full-time church staff receiving as full compensation package.

      - Note that I’m not comparing clergy to people working in other businesses here. (I’ve done that in other places — our minimum compensation puts a clergy household in the top 40% of KY; our average puts them in the top 15% [those numbers assume no income from a spouse — a spouse earning $40k puts the average clergy household in the top 7% of the state].) Here I’m comparing to other workers in the church. My point here isn’t whether clergy are paid too much or not. My point here is that it’s surely hypocrisy to say that our clergy need raises because it’s hard for them to pay the bills, meanwhile we compensate our lay staff at levels that don’t even compare.

      - What I’ve written here probably doesn’t pertain to you (a church planter without any other full-time staff) as much as it pertains to larger churches — and perhaps to you later on down the road. I hope you might see these things now and fight back someday later when your DS is telling your church that your $80k salary/housing allowance + benefits isn’t enough, while no one is saying anything about the youth minister who makes $35k with no benefits.

      • Teddy,

        Thank you for your thoughtful post. I agree we do not take care of our staff persons as we should within the church. Thus far, the biggest blow up in a church meeting I have experienced was while requesting a 3% COLA for a few staff persons. I do compare the church to the rest of the world quite often, especially, when it comes to finances, and I think we should be better, and in many cases pay more (I worked in/managed restaurants & retail prior to being appointed). In the particular case I mention above, I am talking about staff persons making $5,000. I currently have a person working with youth and children I would love to pay full time, but paying them an equivalent what they currently or make, or even getting in the same ball park of their current position is nearly impossible.

        In regard to my own pay I do not feel slighted by what I earn (My mother-in-law doesn’t like it, but I think that is her job :). And there is a nice pension program in my future. I am grateful, for both, and it makes me want to be more generous (I have had people say to me, if we give staff person xyz a raise they will just give their raise back to the church, to which I say, “Great! I am glad, but we are still giving them the raise).

        I am a fan of Methodist history, and often think about how far our clergy have come from the days they had to beg for salary at their annual conference. When I teach Methodist history classes in the church I always make a deal with those I am speaking with, “I will go back to the way it was as long as they will agree to let me come stay in their homes like the clergy of old used to do.” They quickly offer me me a raise to not come live in their homes, maybe I should be offended 🙂

        Lastly, I replied to this particular part of the thread to coincide with Matt’s post. Some of the numbers mentioned above, as well as in your post “How much do Methodist Pastors Make” do appear slightly inflated. I not at the minimum, but, not far from it, at 36,000, which as a point of reference as to where I come from on the economic scale is more than my families combined income for much/most of my childhood/youth (as a side note and to add a bit of contrast, at age 17 I made $30,000 working at a small mom and pop Italian restaurant).

        In addition to what Matt is saying about the Health Insurance, I live in a parsonage; the utilities are fully paid, but the house would not rent or sale for $1000 a month (at least not when I moved into it), nor do we spend $4,000 a year in utilities. I run around the house turning lights off like a crazy person (when my wife is home to turn them all on :). And to your note at the end of this post, we do pay self-employment taxes (15.3%) on the Fair Market Value of the Parsonage, and Utilities, but get a generous exclusion for everything that goes into making a home in hopes off setting the former (I think the same would apply to the housing allowance).

        I must confess as I started to write I wasn’t sure I had a point, nor at my conclusion am I sure I made one, my hope here is to add my two cents into this discussion, because I have asked myself “how much is too much.” I liked to this post from a FB post about Steven Furtick’s new house, and the question “how much is too much” pops back in my head, and I keep coming to the same conclusion, and that is it depends. I don’t want to dismiss justice issues, and what could be done with 1.7 million, however, many who make the case about pastors having or spending too much money are among the the US average in their own giving at around 2% of their income (I also recognize that we are not judged next to other people, Jesus is the “plumb-line”). While some, including pastors like, Furtick, are giving 20% of their income or more, (he talks about how much he gives in his sermons, he claims to have been a tither even when he only made $25 to speak at a youth rally). A quick Google search seems to be in favor of about 30% of one’s income being spent on housing costs, to which my point here is 1.7 million may very well be within a reasonable amount of money for Furtick to spend on a house assuming he is making $400,000 to $500,000 a year : / and, or perhaps he has been saving? : )

        🙂 Thank you for your time 🙂

      • Hey William,

        Thanks a lot for your thoughtful reply. I’ll admit I had thought only the medical insurance costs may be deceptive (and I’m still not sure about that given the lifelong benefits it entails), but I think you’re correct about the housing numbers. Many clergy at the lower end are in a parsonage that doesn’t have a $1,000 monthly rental value — even with any furnishings — and doesn’t consume $4,000 per year in utilities. Our pastors near the minimum may have an actual housing value closer to $8,000 than $16,000. My intent has never really been to suggest that our minimum-level people make too much. Only that I think our treatment of lay staff makes a mockery of our statements that the clergy minimum isn’t enough to survive on.

        I would say that most of our pastors at “average” are either receiving housing and utilities at the rates I listed (indeed, they’re required conference minimums), or they’re in parsonages that meet the values I listed. So it’s when I hear that our “average” pastors talk as if they’re just scraping by that I get a bit perturbed.

        You may have seen my post about Furtick’s situation. I agree with you — if we’re going to assume market standards for pastors’ pay, there’s no room to criticize for him being able to afford that house. Though I think there’s still the discussion about extravagance — and whether a market economy is the right economy for the church to adopt.

  9. My wife is a full time Elder in the Mississippi Conference with 26 years of experience who does not make what you say is the MINIMUM compensation in your Conference. I am “half time” (my and our children’s health insurance are deducted from her pay) and don’t make quite $20,000 from the chruch. Not sure how that compares nationally.

    • Hi Jon,

      I’m pretty sure that Mississippi has the lowest pay in the nation, though I’m surprised to hear that the difference is this much. The numbers I quote on my “How much do Methodist Pastors Make” post are the required conference minimum for full-time elders. And all of our leaders keep fretting over being second-to-last in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Sounds like Mississippi is in last by a long difference.

      • We had minimal seminary debt (graduated in 1986) and it’s long since been paid off. There is a health insurance apportionment, which pays PART of the monthly premium for her. The “family” portion (for me and our two children) comes out of her check. Pension is “direct billed,” though there is also a pension apportionment (for Conference Staff, District Superintendents, Campus Ministers and, especially, pre-1982 pension claims). We pay the parsonage utilities out of her check (though those are not subject to income tax). The “rental value:” of the parsonage is not $16,000 here. Some of our larger churches do housing allowances. Last I heard (about two and a half years ago) the plan was to have incoming seminary graduates make $35,000 plus a parsonage to live in. The parsonage system is really a way to facilitate the itinerant system. It’s not that much of a “benefit” to the clergy.

      • I don’t remember our spending time “fretting” over the pay of pastors during our Conference sessions. Health insurance has taken up a great deal of time and angst over the last ten to fifteen years. The move to “Direct Bill” on pensions consumed MUCH discussion time over the last five years or so.

      • Also, a church that would fire an (apparently) effective youth minister just so they could pay his successor less has MANY more problems than an imbalance between the pastor’s compensation and that of the rest of the staff. For one, they will eventually end up treating the pastor badly. For another, youth and their parents might leave and “continuity” in effective programming is lost.

      • I’ve been in both situations (housing allowance and parsonage) Each has its pluses and minuses, but most people I know who can choose would choose the housing allowance.

      • Jon,

        I think Teddy’s point here is that 99% of the US population doesn’t get an option for a housing allowance OR a parsonage. Most of us simply pay this out of our own salary/pocket (including the utilities), and in this respect, a parsonage is a huge financial benefit IN ADDITION to one’s salary. Sure, I would probably choose having a housing allowance over a parsonage as well, but that doesn’t negate the fact that a parsonage should be monetarily included in a minister’s finanical compensation package.

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