Visit our new site at

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — What's fair?

This week, our question centers around fair compensation. I was struck, while reading this question and the answers that came in, by what it means to work for a private employer who makes a serious point about keeping salary information confidential -- and how that's impossible in the church context.

Our congregation had their annual meeting recently to discuss pastoral salaries. Many folks in the congregation feel the senior pastor is making too much money. When questioned during the congregational meeting, the Personnel committee folks said something like, "We've polled similar churches in our area, and our SP is making a salary in line with the other SPs." But the Personnel committee neglected to mention is that the average years since ordination for the SPs at the other churches is around 20-25. Our SP has less than 7 years experience since ordination.

What do I do with this information? I feel the congregation was misinformed during the annual meeting. Is it my responsibility to bring this up with someone? It is hard not to feel a little resentful that the SP is making so much money, especially because the reasoning behind his high salary is not sound.

The matriarchs (six of them, actually) answered resoundingly:
FULL STOP NOW. Ann, within moments of the question going out this week, responded with, "Danger Will Robinson!" But why, you ask?

Point the first: While experience is one factor in determining compensation, others include retention, inflation and cost-of-living. As Peripatetic Polar Bear notes, "Salary is a complex issue. Factors going into it include not only how long someone has been at a particular place, but also 'how much does it cost to get someone to do this particular job in this particular region?' It may well be that to get someone to take on that particular type of job takes a minimum of X. And your pastor gets that. In most regions, the salary bands are rather narrow. The difference between senior pastor A with 10 years and senior pastor B with 30 years is often slight, though pastor A has only received a 10 percent increase in 10 years, but pastor B has received a 60 percent increase in his 30. It's most likely, actually, that senior pastor A is earning what she deserves, and pastor B is underpaid."

Point the second: But even if it is unfair, injecting yourself into the situation leads to a no-win scenario that you could lose big in.
  • PPB: My strong advice to you is to stay out of it. By running interference not only are you discrediting your SP, you're also discrediting the work of a committee of lay volunteers who came up with the budget figures. Neither situation bodes well for a productive, mutually supportive ministry.
  • Earthchick: Even if there is reason to think the congregation wasn't fully informed, or fairly informed, of all variables, I think it is unwise and potentially dangerous for you to step forward to inform them. I think it would be very easy for that to be interpreted as your being jealous or resentful (which, as you've indicated, you are). What purpose is served by bringing this up with someone, other than allowing you to vent your resentment and concern to someone within the congregation? There is no way for you to come out of this in a good way. If you bring it to someone's attention, and the congregation decides you are right, the SP is overpaid, then you have helped deal your SP and his family a very difficult blow. If you bring it to someone's attention, and the congregation decides you are wrong, the SP is rightly paid, then you have potentially cast yourself as a malcontent (and potentially made yourself even less content by raising the issue and having the decision still go another way). Unless a colleague is being grossly mistreated or underpaid, I don't think it's appropriate for staff members to meddle in personnel issues that aren't ordinarily their purview.
  • St. Casserole: I'm not sure who would benefit from your sharing this information. You step right across the boundary if you tell the congregation that the Senior Pastor, as far as you know, makes more money than area pastors who've served longer. If the congregation wishes to pursue lowering or increasing or researching the SP's salary, they will. I'm concerned that if you participate in this discussion you will be seen as either jealous of the SP's salary or conniving. I'm sure you are neither, but it could be difficult to defend yourself from either label.
  • Karen: Chances are high that the Senior Pastor would perceive this as a direct attempt to undermine his/her leadership and the Personnel Committee would perceive this as an "end run" around their work. Neither situation will make your life and work in that congregation a great experience. Plus, you'll want to be careful about throwing too much support (explicit or implicit) to the "we're paying the pastor too much" faction. In my experience, the same folks who get up in the congregational meeting and proclaim, "We are paying our Senior Pastor too much," often go on to ask, "And why do we need a full-time Associate Pastor anyway? Why--back when my children were small we had a volunteer Sunday School Superintendant who did all the same stuff s/he does. It didn't cost us a dime and we had three times as many kids in the Sunday School then as we do now ..." Anyway, proceed with caution.

Now, as for what to do:
Karen says: If you feel that your own compensation is unfair or not in line with your responsibilities and experience, you can certainly take that up with the Personnel Committee directly, or with regional denominational leaders if the Personnel Committee is unresponsive.
Jan says:Can you talk honestly with the personnel chair and share your information? Can you talk with Sr. Pastor about the equity/lack thereof? (less than 7 years out of seminary? Yikes.) Granted, most pastors want to make as much $ as possible, and yet there are some who have a strong sense of fairness a la Ben & Jerry's (where the highest paid ice cream employee never made more than a certain percentage higher than the lowest paid employee.) Does the "Senior Pastor" really have that much more responsibility than other pastors at the church? (Maybe he does.) Does the staff/programming/church truly revolve around the leadership of the SP or is it more like a team in reality? For these answers and more, it sounds like an honest discussion is needed. Your frustration will only add up if you feel unheard/unfairly paid/unappreciated.
Ann says: If you're being approached for information about the relationship between length of service and pay, perhaps you can neutrally suggest that they ask for that information from the judicatory or diocese. And you might want to look into a peer group to talk over what is going on for you. Are you receiving less than comparable salary and benefits? It couldn't hurt to start looking around for something more fulfilling for you, as well.

It's going to be a real challenge to step back from your own emotions on this, but know that we're all pulling and praying for you. After all, that's one of the things our community is best at. And, we're curious as to what other difficult situations we might be able to help our readers with. Send your questions to


  1. When I accepted my new call a few months ago, I had to negotiate what would likely be considered a fairly high salary for someone nine years out of seminary. Not out of greed, but simply because the cost of living here is almost prohibitively higher than where I had come from.

    Someone seven years out of seminary might also have student loans to deal with.

    I'm with the matriarchs: stay out of other people's salaries. If you are dissatisfied with your own, deal with that directly.

  2. Indeed, years experience and years in a current call are only contributing factors - of which there are many to consider - when talking about salary.
    What about education?
    What about experience outside of the ordained ministry?
    What about talents in the congregation's areas of need?

    There is just too much to consider for the 7 years experience to be the determining factor - and it is not worth stirring up the hornet's nest.

  3. Our regional governing body publishes changes in terms of call every year as part of a committee report. You can watch every minister member of said body turn directly to that page as soon as the meeting papers are distributed (At least that's what I saw when I briefly looked up from that page myself!)

    Every year I find out that I make more than so-and-so who has a smaller church but a longer tenure, or maybe its the other way around some years.

    It's complicated. I find that in the end,the only person I can really stand up for is myself. Fortunately I fall squarely around the middle of the pack, so not too many people have hurt feelings over my terms of call.

  4. we do have something of a handle on this issue, with a diocesan "grid" for the priest's stipend, based upon years in ministry. Parishes MAY pay their clergy up to 5% more than the gridded sum without penalty; above that, they are expected to raise their apportionment (remittance to the diocese) by an equivalent amount to subsidize clergy stipends in "mission" or non-self-sustaining parishes.
    But we had a related hoo-hah at last year's AGM...we had two clergy and two music ministers, as well as secretary on payroll, so in the budget the "Personnel and related costs" were reported "en bloc," not broken out by individuals' remuneration. Some really crass and nasty feedback ensued, but fortunately lawyers in the parish rose up and cited our provincial regulations on freedom-of-information vs. personal-privacy issues, and prevailed.

  5. What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?

    I think all pastors (along with teachers, child care workers, firemen, policemen and others) are underpaid.

    I generally find the folks who begrudge the pastor's salary are not loving, generous, gracious people and I for one wouldn't want to be a part of a bloc with them.

    As others have said, getting involved will not be good for your relationship with lots of folks at the church. It might be bad for your career as well. And, of course, besides the "why do we need an associate pastor" fall-out there could also be fall out directly on your own salary: she thought we were paying SP too much, how much does she deserve?

    I have a different salary discrepancy. Our pianist/choir director who works as far as I can tell not more than 6 hours a week (2.5 hours on Sunday morning: choir practice half an hour before church; choir practice an hour after church, the rest is for planning and preparation, but I don't know how much time she actually spends) is paid 40 percent of my full time salary (not counting my pension and health care). Substitute organists recieve $200 a Sunday; substitute preachers receive $150. I pointed out the discrepancy in the substitute's salaries (I'm not going to touch the discrepancy in my salary) and the session said they thought they should pay the least amount that it costs and if an organist costs $200 and presbytery minimum for preachers is $150 that's the way it should be. Besides, music is as important as the Word and the Sacraments. (Just sitting there with jaw hanging open) Oh, the pianist emailed me that she would be singing at another church (in a different state) for Maundy Thursday and Easter and she would try to find an organist for us. And she won't meet with me to do worship planning. Of course, she is beloved by the choir. I know who loses in a conflict between the music director and the minister.

    Thanks for listening to me.

  6. In addition to all the other excellent reasons given NOT to become entangled in this issue, it seems to me that this is an issue that would/should have been addressed at the time of the call, not later. Once a salary is set it's hard to imagine cutting it except for severe financial exigencies.

    We have recommended diocesan minimums but congregations are free to pay more than the minimum, and often do for rectors (not so much for assistants).

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I just hate typos.... This is what I said...

    As a pastor, if my pay were cut for any other reason than a church's serious financial distress, I would walk. I think most pastors would agree.

    In reality, you're not asking for a pay cut. You're asking for the SP to resign.

  9. I agree with Cheese - the only one we can stand up for is ourself. And Joan is spot on when she says that we are all underpaid!

    Past experience and the wisdom of hindsight tells meI would stay away from this one.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.