What Should We Pay Our Pastor? : Part 3 – Systems That Work


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There are many possible systems a church can use to determine how to compensate their pastoral staff – some are good some are bad.

Systems that don’t work

Denominational Guidelines

It’s not that denominational guidelines *can’t* work, it’s just that they usually don’t.  The problem is that most existing guidelines aren’t really kept up to date, nor are they based on coherent compensation principles.  The result is that they can be quite arbitrary and the difference between one denomination and the next can vary widely.

Denominational Surveys

Some denominations base their salaries on a salary survey conducted by their member churches.  This seems like a good idea, however the results are inherently arbitrary and here’s why:  When you conduct a survey you merely find out how things are, not how they should be.  When a denomination surveys their churches what they do is ask the churches what they’re paying their pastors, and then recommend that churches should pay their pastors what they are currently paying their pastors.  Are pastors overpaid?  Underpaid?  Who knows?  Just keep doing what you’re doing is all this method can possibly advise.

“Free Market” Methods

This method could work very well – in a very different reality.  The truth is that there are huge barriers that prevent any kind of a free market approach from ever working.  For example, we don’t bid on our pastors.  Pastors generally don’t negotiate for their own salaries.  In fact, 50% of the time if a potential pastor even asks what the salary is, he will be disqualified from the position because he will be perceived as “just in it for the money”.  There is no union or advocacy group that negotiates on pastors behalf either.   Basically, all the necessary elements of a functional free market system are missing.

Systems that can work (sometimes)

Board Salary Surveys

A board salary survey is when the principle leaders of the church give their own personal incomes and then offer their pastor a package comparable to the average.  The advantages of this system is that it will usually give a salary that fits with the approximate cost of living in the area where the church is located and places the pastor as an approximate equal with the lay leaders of the church.

There are several weaknesses with this system to keep in mind.  1, it doesn’t give much insight on how to compensate the rest of the pastoral staff.  2, it makes no allowance for the Biblical “double honour” for a pastor who does his job well.  And 3, it can result in a very underpaid pastor in some circumstances.

The Cost of Living Approach

This method works very well to compensate pastors who live in areas with varying costs of living.  What a church needs to do to make this method work is to find the value of a respectable middle-class home in their area, factor in the pastor’s student debt, loan on the mini-van, etc. and then figure out what kind of salary he needs to make to qualify for the mortgage on that home.  I’ve seen this method work well on a number of occasions.

It really only has a few weaknesses.  It doesn’t offer much on dealing with associate staff, or with the exceptionally skilled pastor.

Professional Equivalence

The idea behind professional equivalence is that while a free market approach doesn’t work with pastoral compensation directly, it can work indirectly.  The suggestion is that a church look at a secular profession that is most similar to pastoral work and pay accordingly -most of the time this will be the high school teacher.  What a church has to do is get a copy of the local teachers’ salary grid and then look up education level combined with years of experience and then pay accordingly.  If your pastor manages a number of staff, then pay him on the principals’ salary grid rather than the teachers’.

The advantages of this system are many.  All pastors (not just senior pastors) receive a decent middle-class salary that is directly comparable to the people they serve who are in similar professions.  All pastors are fairly compensated according to both their education and their experience.  All pastors will receive proper benefit packages.  Those pastors who pastor larger churches also receive additional compensation in line with their expanded responsibilities.

The weaknesses of this system are few.  There is no allowance for the “double honour” compensation taught in Scripture for those who do their job well – though it is possible to use this system as a base to build from.  This system doesn’t work as well in the United States as it does in other industrialized countries.  While I will refrain from speculating if there is a correlation between the lowest educational performance and the lowest teachers’ salaries in the western world, the fact remains that American teachers are generally underpaid and if and American church decides to use them as professional equivalents then this can result in underpaid pastors.

Whatever system your church decides on should ultimately be decided by having the best attitude.

Attitudes that don’t work

Envy.  On more than one occasion I have encountered an “I don’t believe the pastor should make as much/more than me” attitude.  I spoke with one church elder who worked in a job his whole life where he set up and took down chairs at a summer camp.  He was also adamantly opposed to the idea that a pastor should make more than he does – which wasn’t much.  I asked him if he thought teachers or nurses deserved their salaries, to which he replied yes, they do important work.  “Is a pastor’s work so much less important than a teacher’s?”

It’s important to remember that not only has a typical pastor invested over $50,000 in tuition to receive his pastoral training, but that he has also given up nearly a decade of time where he could have been earning a salary elsewhere.  The best case scenario is that he has given up a half of a million dollars in income before he has spent his first day behind a pulpit.  When you consider this, plus the staggering student loan debt he now carries, an attitude of envy is quite inappropriate.

Attitudes that can work


Galatians 6:6-10

Those who are taught the word of God should provide for their teachers, sharing all good things with them.  Do not be deceived—God will not be mocked. You will reap what you sow. Those who live only to satisfy their own selfish nature will harvest decay and death from that nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit.  So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith.

God will bless those who bless those who come in His name.

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