How Not to Compensate Your Pastor

When I converse with church members who have responsibility for overseeing pastoral compensation, I can expect a few typical reactions. First, the members speak in hushed tones, as if the subject of compensation is a forbidden public topic, only to be mentioned in the confines of need-to-know and confidentiality. Second, I will run into one or more misconceptions about pastor’s pay. Third, I often hear from at least one person who has a very unreasonable attitude about the topic.

In that context, I hear six very common negative themes about pastoral compensation. I wish they were not repeated, but they are. See if you have heard any of them. Let’s look at the six ways not to compensate your pastor.

  1. Don’t use “pay” and “package” synonymously. A pastor’s pay is salary plus housing allowance. That’s it. Nothing else. The pay is not health benefits or retirement benefits; those are, obviously, benefits. The pay is not automobile expenses reimbursed. That is an expense reimbursement. Let me give you an example in the secular world. An employee gets a paycheck of $50,000 a year. The same employee gets $4,000 in medical benefits and $3,000 in retirement benefits. And the employee was reimbursed $4,000 for a conference in California. How much does the employee make? $50,000 of course. You don’t add benefits and expenses and call it pay. That’s the total package, but not the paycheck. Articulate your pastor’s pay with that same vernacular.
  2. Don’t keep the pastor’s pay low to keep him humble. I’ve heard that excuse too many times. It’s a fake spiritual way to justify low compensation. If any of you church members like that approach, try lowering your own compensation for the sake of humility.
  3. Don’t count the spouse’s income as part of the pastor’s income. I did a consultation with a church a few years ago where the pastor’s compensation was lower than two other staff members. I asked the obvious question regarding the strange discrepancy. The chairwoman of the personnel committee told me the pastor’s wife had a good paying job as a nurse, so they did not need to pay the pastor much. I almost choked on my Chick-fil-A sandwich.
  4. Don’t fail to contribute toward retirement for your pastor. Too many pastors have insufficient funds in their later years. Too many churches neglect contributing toward their retirement.
  5. Don’t fail to find sources that have pastor and staff salary data available. There are a number of such studies published annually. You have no excuse not to find the information that will help you compensate your pastor fairly. Here is an annual study by LifeWay for my denomination.
  6. Don’t neglect raises. Inflation may be low, but it’s still present. When you fail to give a raise to your pastors every year, they are actually falling behind in purchasing power. Insist they take an annual raise, even if it’s only cost-of-living increases. And, hopefully, it will be even more.

As a postscript, don’t let the abuses of money by a very few pastors give you a false perspective. More pastors are underpaid rather than overpaid. And most pastors would rather not broach the topic of their compensation. It’s just too uncomfortable for them.

So, please, take the lead and take care of your pastors financially.

That will be one less burden they have to carry.

Posted on February 11, 2019

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Carrie Toliver says on

    What legal recourse does a Pastor have if a church decides to cut his salary to match with giving/budget?

  • lislet bernard says on

    Good day,

    Reading your comments, the one thing you all miss out was affordability of the church. Is it that all the comments made the church could have done better? Personally the way things are, i believe if possible pastors should have a secular job to ensure their family are taken care of. Thats my view.

  • Robert Withers says on

    Dear Tom, thank you for this post. I think that while surveys showing current compensation levels for pastors are helpful, a downside is that if they are already beneath a reasonable compensation level, and if the compensation survey is the driving force in a church’s thinking, that the compensation survey perpetuates lower than reasonable salaries. How might we work to overcome this? It seems to me that if we can first establish what a reasonable compensation range should be, that at least we have a benchmark to work toward, and at least the congregation can think about any gap between what the pastor is paid and what the pastor should be paid. Thanks for all you do.

  • How common is it for churches to attempt to lower your starting salary if you aren’t married and have no kids?

  • I might add to the previous post, in that 7 year period, the church almost doubled in size – from 140 or so members to about 275.

    The income doubled as well, but the pay was the same.

  • After having gone for 7 years without a pay raise of any kind as a bi-vo pastor, I finally spoke up about not having a raise.

    Two of the members of the finance committee were retired and very vocal.

    They both said if a raise were given, it should not exceed 1.77% “because that is all social security was giving them.”

    One was a wealthy property owner and the other bragged about having saved more than a million dollars and was a land owner.

    If that is the typical stingy attitude churches have these days, young men (and women) planning to be in the ministry should be warned about those kinds of poeple in churches today.

  • As pastors, we struggle to bring up our finances, to ask for raises, or to ask for our benefits to be re-examined. I think this is because it’s such a personal request that we can’t help but feel like maybe we’re being greedy. That’s why an agreed-upon yearly review of all parts of your contract, including the financials, at least gives a window of opportunity to talk about it without the pastor having to be the one to bring it up.

    I will give this encouragement though: if you’re on a staff with multiple pastors, don’t be afraid to go to bat for one another. When I was a Student Pastor, my Lead Pastor always was willing to do that for me when it was warranted, and I returned the favor(although my words didn’t carry as much weight as his, they were still respected.) Now that I’m the Lead Pastor, I consider it part of my job to make sure my staff members are fairly compensated and that leadership is aware of things they may not be fully comfortable bringing up themselves. There is confidence in knowing someone has your back.

  • My first paid position (as a youth pastor) was at a church that tried to avoid paying deductions by considering me a contract worker. The government wasn’t happy when they found out. Thankfully the church paid all the past deductions (which the governments was going to make me pay).

    • The same thing happened to me, Stephen. Me and my young family got killed by taxes. I stayed there less than two years and moved on quickly because it wasn’t worth paying that much in taxes for such a small salary!!

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