Becky McMillan, a researcher with Duke University-based Pulpit & Pew: Research on Pastoral Leadership, received a rather revealing answer to this question when she asked a megachurch pastor what he would do if the congregation paid him less, and used the excess for missions and other causes: he replied that they would lose him and most other staff members.
On the other side of the coin, Jackson Carroll, Pulpit & Pew research director, comments, "Sometimes, the hidden question behind the question of ministerial compensation is, 'How little can we pay the pastor and get away with it?'"
The end result of these two extremes is that the church loses its prophetic platform. Pastors are too complacent in their positions of power and wealth to confront the issues of the day. Or, they are fearful of losing the meager salaries their congregations use as a mechanism for expressing approval or disfavor with their pastors' performance.
A CHANGING SCENE
While most pastors do not live on the fringes of wealth or poverty, recent research would suggest that the gap between the lowest paid ministers and their more successful counterparts is steadily widening.
A recent survey by a firm whose annual compensation handbook is used by more than 5,000 congregations found average pay packages for Protestant pastors averaging $73,000.
The 1,050 participants in Christian Ministry Resources' [CMR's] study are subscribers to its bimonthly newsletter. This is a highly educated group and mostly full-time pastors, compared to the national average of one-third serving in bi-vocational roles.
Still, executive director James Cobble says respondents represent a wide spectrum of denominations and educational levels.
Sixty-eight percent of senior pastors surveyed earned between $43,000 and $103,000. Among Pentecostals and nondenominational charismatics, they ranged from a low of $51,497 for Pentecostals to $74,631 for charismatics, with the Assemblies of God at $70,926. The highest average was Episcopalians at $95,386.
Most also have benefits: 94 percent get paid vacation, 77 percent have health insurance, 70 percent receive a retirement allowance and 54 percent have continuing-education stipends. Two-thirds received a raise during 2003.
Of course, "average" varies widely. For churches under 100 in weekly attendance, CMR found packages averaged $44,000. They rose to $60,000 for churches of 100 to 300 attendees and for megachurch (more than 1,000) pastors, salaries hit $108,000.
Cobble thinks many pastor salary surveys are misleading, saying they don't include a full range of benefits. For example, one pastor his firm polled had a compensation package of $108,000 but only $64,000 in salary.
"There is no doubt in my mind that pastors are better paid today than a generation ago," says the former pastor and district official with the Assemblies of God.
"I think the stereotype of poor pastors is outdated and misleading. My general impression is pastors typically are about at the level of their congregation. That was not true in the church long ago."
CMR's director partially attributes the improvement to increasing educational levels, reflected in Bible schools transforming themselves into colleges and universities in recent decades.
A parallel development occurred with more awareness of the need for retirement income, as many denominations added benefit boards to establish pension programs. Not only is participation in such programs healthy, but Cobble also says many fuel expansion via church-construction loans from those investments.
The status of pastors in the 3,000 Protestant churches averaging more than 1,000 worshipers a week is even more noteworthy. A 2003 salary survey of 100 of those congregations showed average pay and housing allowance of nearly $125,000 for senior pastors. A third of those churches come from Pentecostal or charismatic traditions.
Megachurches often set salaries based on what businesspersons and other professionals in the community earn, according to Dave Travis of Leadership Network, the Dallas-based parachurch organization that conducted the survey.
Not only do their salaries set them above smaller churches, but staff benefit packages also tend to be more liberal. An example: membership in professional staff organizations, which offer attractive retirement and insurance options and financial counseling.
However, that doesn't mean smaller churches can't offer benefits. Although Travis attends an Atlanta-area church of about 200, it offers its senior pastor a $3,000-a-year educational benefit. Allowing more vacation and leave time is another way to compensate for a lower salary.
"There's not as many good pastors out there as you think," Travis says. "You have to pay to get a good person. If you encourage generosity in all things--pay, budget or whatever--it breeds generosity. Cheapness breeds cheapness. It will be reflected in the life of a church."
With the growing disparity in salaries and the difficulty of distinguishing salary and fringe benefits, it's not surprising that the conclusions of these two reports differ substantially with three other studies--including one by the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
The Southern Baptist Convention is currently compiling its latest salary survey. However, its last study in 2002 found pay packages among more than 5,800 full-time pastors of just over $52,000. Yet, that figure sinks to about $15,000 for bi-vocational pastors, who represent an estimated 35 to 40 percent of approximately 42,000 congregations.
In addition, researcher George Barna completed a study in late 2003 that pegged senior pastors' total compensation at a median salary of $40,413, including all benefits.
In his 2002 study, charismatic and Pentecostal pastors were earning 16 percent below average, but the well-known demographer was still analyzing data at deadline time for this issue.
However, Barna notes that the latest figures show the average Protestant pastor received a pay increase of less than 1 percent last year. One factor behind this failure to keep pace with inflation was church donations decreasing during 2003.
"I think that's a reflection of the fact we're going to wind up reporting there was a decline in the typical church's annual revenues last year for the first time in a number of years," Barna says. "So if you want to get rich quick, being a pastor is not the route to choose."
Like other studies, the Barna Research Group's latest survey reveals that church size and education play strong roles in determining compensation.
The median salary for churches with less than 100 worshipers a week totaled $32,500. That figure increased to $40,750 for churches between 101 to 250 worshipers and reached $66,000 for attendance of more than 250.
Meanwhile, pastors with seminary degrees averaged $45,490 in compensation, compared to $31,500 for those without a degree.
Barna's more modest figures coincide with a salary survey released last year by the nation's largest pastoral-leadership research project. The report was among a series of studies conducted by Pulpit & Pew, based at Duke University's divinity school.
Written by Becky McMillan, a senior research associate with Pulpit & Pew, and Matthew Price, of the Church Pension Group of the Episcopal Church, How Much Should We Pay the Pastor? says only a small percentage of pastors earn a professional-level income.
"Generally, pastors' salaries are going down," says McMillan, also pastor of a small United Methodist church near Oklahoma City.
"If you look at full-time, fully-ordained pastors, the trend has been keeping up and moderately outpacing inflation. What that misses is the large number of pastors who aren't full time or fully ordained. Those [salary] numbers are declining and there are more of them."
Pulpit & Pew surveyed nearly 900 pastors during a series of interviews in 2000, about one-quarter of them coming from Pentecostal, evangelical/conservative or independent (including charismatic) backgrounds.
It found that median salaries for pastors--including housing--in the congregational world populated by mostly conservative Protestants totaled just over $22,000 for churches of under 100 parishioners. For those between 101 to 350 parishioners, it increased to about $41,000. Significantly, those two groups represent 95 percent of churches in this category.
The 2003 study laments the tendency of many churches to look for a good person and pay him or her a prevailing, market-based wage. It concludes this phenomenon has created two worlds--smaller-sized churches where most pastors struggle to pay clergy even a modest stipend and large ones paying highly competitive salaries.
"Inadequate compensation is inadvertently transforming ministry from a calling into a career," the report says. "To accumulate savings, provide for their families and pay off educational debt, clergy feel compelled to move up a career ladder to larger congregations.
"Local churches are also adversely affected by market approaches to clergy compensation. Rather than focusing on mission to the world around them, congregations must focus inordinately on church-growth strategies to increase the market power needed to attract 'good' clergy.
"Clergy who are financially dependent upon a congregation are less likely to lead in prophetic ways, since such leadership risks losing members and dollars."
It contrasts this approach to the Catholic world, where bishops set clergy salaries at relatively equitable levels across a diocese. This helps smaller parishes find clergy and frees priests from financial constraints, allowing them to serve where needed.
A year after the report's release, McMillan says there has been some resistance to its conclusions, particularly from those who like a market-driven approach.
Reversing this trend will call for a change in the cherished principle of local-church autonomy. Still, McMillan says that is possible if churches involved in local or regional associations or other networks pool ideas and resources.
She says the Seventh-day Adventist Church offers the best prototype; its congregations tithe to a regional headquarters, with all pastors in that area paid equitably from that fund. The report mentions some Baptist congregations have forged cooperative ventures, too.
"The goal of a pastor's salary should be to provide a modest, well-lived life for a pastor and his family," McMillan comments. "A well-lived life is different in New York than it will be in Oklahoma."
Pulpit & Pew's report calls pastors' salaries a contentious issue. Study director, and a former pastor, Jackson Carroll notes that he has received numerous calls from lay leaders through the years asking for guidance.
McMillan believes that the contention surrounding compensation stems from a pastor's salary touching on so many issues, such as theological, stewardship and personal.
She thinks neither laity or pastors have been well-informed on how to approach pay scales. Without the tools for proper reflection, most are left with inappropriate models of large churches or "gut" feelings, McMillan adds.
"[These methods] aren't grounded in an understanding that the pastor's salary is hospitality from a congregation to a pastor for being compelled to proclaim the gospel of God in their midst. This lack of reflection has led us to incorporate--whole hog--marketplace values.
"With how much to pay the pastor, the answer is not a number, it's a process of discussion. It's the same thing churches do with any decision. Look at what God is calling you to do and look at the resources you have."
Another reason setting salaries can become divisive originates with congregational politics. Edward W. Wood, executive director of stewardship for the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, saw this while serving as a district superintendent.
While providing guidelines to local churches and helping them determine pay scales, Wood detected underlying motives at work. If the congregation was largely pleased with its pastor, they generally were willing to do everything possible to satisfy him. If disgruntled, they could exercise power in setting raises.
"If people are saying, 'We have funds, but we don't think we should be giving the pastor a raise,' he better be checking up on his ministry," Wood says. "If they have the money, most church boards want to help the pastor."
However, Jim Scott, a senior supervisor for the Church of the Foursquare Gospel in Bedford, New Hampshire, doesn't think pastoral compensation is as difficult or contentious as some make it sound.
Scott recommends the churches he oversees use a five-point process. They include the congregation's funding ability, a community's costs of living, a pastor's unique needs (such as a disabled child) and other income options. Finally, it recommends between 25 and 40 percent of the church's budget go to the pastor's salary.
Generally, where a pastor is leading well and the church is growing, salaries in his denomination are increasing, Scott says. But he rarely sees a penurious spirit at work: "As a [district] supervisor, almost every conversation I had about salary was councils wanting to pay more. I never got a letter complaining about paying a pastor more."
Green With Envy?
With the rising cost of urban life, most country pastors won't find greener pastures in a city church.
While researcher George Barna says urban clergy salaries average one-third more than their rural counterparts, Pentecostal pastor Bill Akers isn't complaining about the disparity.
In the last 28 years, the southwestern Virginia resident has passed up inquiries about moving to larger congregations affiliated with the International Pentecostal Holiness Church.
"I am very satisfied with my salary," says Akers, the pastor of French's Chapel, located about 10 miles from Dublin, Virginia. "I think they're very fair for a country church. We just don't have the [population] to pull from."
While his 2004 salary and housing allowance total about $34,500, vacation pay, retirement allowance and educational stipends boost the total package above $42,000. That sum looks princely compared to his starting pay of $35 a week and gas-mileage reimbursement.
Toiling at Kroger's grocery and then as an inspector at a fabric mill, Akers was at the church for almost a decade before it offered him a full-time position. Current rolls include 240 members, with average Sunday attendance of 150.
Despite his present satisfaction, that doesn't mean Akers hasn't faced struggles. He admits in the early days it would have been difficult to pay for college educations for his two children. However, his son never sought higher education and his daughter became a licensed pharmacy technician.
It was also difficult approaching the board about pay raises, a duty that usually fell on the pastor's shoulders.
Then, in the late 1980s a new conference superintendent started sending letters prodding churches to provide annual pay and benefit increases--and if they weren't giving one, to explain their reasoning.
"It certainly takes a lot of pressure off the pastor," says Akers, who looks to the treasurer to lead salary discussions at board meetings.
Historian Vinson Synan agrees compensation levels have changed dramatically since his father made $6 a week as a Pentecostal pastor during the Depression.
Commenting in reference to compensation for Pentecostal pastors, he says, "Since World War II salaries have risen till they match most pastors in other denominations. And the pastors of megachurches make megabucks."
Still, he says clergy who make six- or seven-figure salaries--like a friend of Synan's whose lucrative salary comes from receiving 50 percent of the offerings--are the exceptions.
The theology school dean at Regent University thinks most pastors will continue to be underpaid in comparison to other professionals.
"Pastors going to graduate school for three or four years, and even getting doctorates, can hardly get jobs that pay more than an average worker in a factory," Synan says.
When Terry Gyger was director of home missions for the Presbyterian Church in America, he lived in a 3,500-square-foot house in Atlanta, with a mortgage payment of about $900.
Today he pays $3,300 a month for an 800-square-foot apartment in midtown Manhattan, where the cost of living makes it tough to attract new staff members to the Northeast mission field. In addition to staggering housing costs, Gyger's congregation of 4,000 pays a steep price to lease worship space at four different sites.
"It's not higher than I expected because I have traveled to the city quite often over the last 12 years," says Gyger, an executive pastor who also oversees a church-planting center. "But it's still a shock at how much you pay for how little you get."
However, with no more children to raise or future educational expenses, Gyger admits he isn't as pressed financially as other staff members.
Singles often team up, sharing the costs of a one-bedroom apartment. But expenses are particularly challenging for a pastor with two or three children. In such cases, families are fortunate to find a tiny, three-bedroom home and eke out a living on a $90,000 to $110,000 salary.
"Our goal is to have as many people as possible live here, because this is where we work and minister," says Gyger, who moved to New York in 1999. "Our first goal is to raise up people here. But all the people we bring here are shocked, after searching the Web, at how little they get for $3,000 or $4,000."
The Money Factor
In tough times, a fair salary may help a pastor stick it out.
Such Scriptures as 1 Corinthians 9:9-14 and Luke 9:3-5 address the need for God's messengers to be given adequate compensation for their work, while 2 Corinthians 9:5-9 establishes generosity as a Christian principle.
James Cobble, executive director of Christian Ministry Resources, lists another practical reason that congregations should avoid stinginess: decent salaries retain pastors for longer periods, promoting stability.
A pastor himself for seven years, the author and consultant sees clergy motivation coming from three areas:
**Transcendence: the sense of a divine call and commitment that draws a person to ministry.
**Intrinsic rewards: the sense of goodwill, satisfaction and happiness experienced in service.
**Extrinsic rewards: salary, vacations and other benefits.
As long as transcendence is present and intrinsic rewards high, externals are not as important, Cobble says. A pastor who feels appreciated and cared for is willing to make sacrifices. But if clergy feel taken for granted, intrinsic rewards will only carry them so far.
"When you have congregational dissension, unhappiness and low pay, you've got all the things in place for ministerial burnout," Cobble says. "But if he has dissatisfaction with high pay, a minister is more willing to stay and fight it out. Either he has debt and doesn't want to move, or he couldn't replace his compensation if he moved."
Yet, the pastor may not be the best person to point out such truths. Dave Travis, senior vice president of Leadership Network, says in most megachurches his ministry works with, the pastor will share concerns with a board member. That person becomes the pastor's advocate in salary discussions.
The same principle works in small churches, Travis says.
"Would I go directly to the board and say, 'You need to pay me more'"? asks the former pastor. "No. I would go to a [board] member I had a good relationship with and say: 'This is what I'm feeling. Can you check this out?' And then trust him to investigate and take it to the rest of the board."