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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Funerals for Free?

Dear Matriarchs,

Is it customary to give the pastor an honorarium for funerals?  Most of my pastor friends receive some compensation for the work they put into that.  However, where I am-- it seems to be just a given that the pastor does funerals for anybody who needs them--even if they haven't been a member of the church for 30 years.  Families will gladly pay any musicians. (Including my husband who sang at a service for a church member a few months ago-- paid him a nice sum and told me "Thanks so much! That was such a lovely service." Umm...he spent 15 minutes getting ready for that.  I spent nearly 15 hours by time it was all said and done.)  Now, I've just learned that a family who came to our church years ago wishes to have a memorial service on Saturday.  Not only is that adding to my work week considerably (especially since I'm a one-woman band-- no secretary or anything) and taking up one of my days off, but the family is out of town and thus is not working with a local funeral home.  The family seems to be under the impression that I am a funeral director who is happy to make calls to arrange for bagpipes and musicians as well as working out the military honors with whomever does that.  And they would also like me to be available on Friday (my other day off) to receive flower deliveries.  "You only live two doors down from the church, right?  Can I give them your cell phone number for deliveries?"  I have set boundaries and indicated that I would not be in town to receive flowers and have given them numbers where they might make arrangements for bagpipes.  However, I am feeling taken advantage of-- and am getting generally grouchy about the matter.  I recognize that it is to late to handle this situation by asking for an honorarium, but I would like to be proactive in the future and have a policy in place--especially since my church does not.  I'm not as grouchy about people that are active members of my church, but the expectation that I am happy to do funerals for people I've never met because they once came to our church seems a bit ridiculous to me.  I would appreciate any wisdom you have to offer!

Fuming in Fayetteville

First, from Jennifer, who blogs at An Orientation of Heart:

If you have a governing body, like a council or a Session or a vestry, do get them involved in formulating a policy that feels acceptable to all. Would the fee be the same for members vs. non-members? Is there a difference in the fee if you’re conducting the funeral from the church or at the graveside or a funeral home?

Good stuff for a group to talk over, I’d say.  

With a policy in place, you can offer the policy up front to folks who need your services.

Best to you

From Martha, blogging at Reflectionary

When you say "where I am," do you mean in your church? Or are there other pastors in town not being paid? An honorarium for the pastor is absolutely customary in my area. Occasionally I hear of pastors who always give the money to the church, but most modestly paid colleagues--which is to say most colleagues--don't do that. (A predecessor in my first call told me that he was always grateful for the way a funeral would come just when both his boys needed new gym shoes!)

The easiest way to determine local trends is by asking the funeral directors in your area what their "usual and customary" honorarium for the pastor is. My church has a rate sheet on file with the funeral homes, and in the event we end up working with someone other than our two "usuals," I have a copy to send out via mail or email. This includes what the musicians are paid, and the Sexton, and what it costs to rent the hall for a reception after the service, and what it costs to use the Sanctuary and the services of the pastor for a non-member funeral. 

It's fairly typical in this area that church members do not need to pay to use the sanctuary, and I used to say the same about my services for church members. An experience with a demanding family made me fume, too (I didn't have to find a bagpiper, but there were other frustrations). I didn't like being upset about it when they paid everyone except me, but I was. After complaining to everyone appropriate who would listen, and getting the feedback that it was not unreasonable to be upset, I changed the policy. I also raised my rate to match the usual and customary for the up-market town in one direction instead of the downward-trending town in the other (a difference of $50). If a church member's family really couldn't afford the extra expense, I would be likely to know that and would of course gladly waive the fee. 

I have concluded that some people will believe our services are worth nothing if we don't ask for something, and they will then treat us accordingly. 

In your corner,

From Dorcas, who blogs at The Owl’s Song

I absolutely agree that it seems a bit ridiculous to expect that you would be happy to do a “free funeral” for someone who came to church once upon a time.  An honorarium is absolutely expected.  I discovered the hard way (some really difficult funerals and crazy family) that I had to come up with guidelines for funerals.  (Weddings too, for that matter.)  What I thought was common knowledge apparently wasn’t, and after receiving nothing but a thank you, or maybe not even that much, I came up with a set of guidelines that specified that an honorarium was expected (I gave a range of $50 to $150).  But I also included other things.  For example, I reserved the right to review musical selections, etc.  And no photographs during the service.  That one got added after a cousin came up to the open casket during the service and snapped a flash photo.    I’m very flexible about that sort of thing, but there are limits and many people these days seem to have no idea that certain things, songs, etc.  are just not appropriate in some settings.  Anyway, when contacted about doing a funeral, particularly for someone I did not know, it doesn’t take long for me to say, “I do have guidelines I’d like to send.  This is a difficult time to make decisions, and having some things clear in advance will likely make it easier on everyone.”  Hopefully most people at least have email so you can attach it and it can be quicker that way.  I also gave a copy to the local funeral directors who sometimes called for a family looking for clergy.

And from Muthah+, blogging at Stone of Witness 

As I get older and know that someone will have to do my funeral at some point, I am listening closely to your comments.  I am to be buried in the graveyard of my first church and I will have been gone from there for years. So this is rather an important issue for me too.

There are several things that you can do to help yourself:
·  Check with your lay leadership and explain the amount of time you are putting into the funerals and discuss what kind of remuneration you should receive.  Then they can support you as you put into place some good guidelines for your congregation.  And most likely they will use them long after you leave.
·  When you meet with the family, you should provide them with the cost of the funeral--the use of the building, the the bulletin prep., the time of those who prepare the sanctuary, those who clean up afterwards and those who do the flowers etc.  Have a little tri-fold on "Funerals at St. Swithen"  For out of town folks, send them an e-copy of the pamphlet.  Your fee should be just a part of what the parish should receive for having the funeral in the parish.
·  You should also have a funeral/wedding committee or altar prep group of lay folks who make it their ministry to do such things as receiving the flowers and preparing the church for the funeral. That should never be the pastor's responsibility.
·  Talk with your funeral home directors.  I was in small town ministry and I worked with the funeral directors and they often gave me the check for those who were not regular members of the parish or from out of town.  I would tell them a fair amount for the preparation that I did and they then negotiated my fee.  I was in one town, though, that I didn't trust the funeral director.  So you need to know your territory.  The people in your town or city know who the honest guys are.  So do other clergy in your area.
·  It was understood that members in good standing of the parish did not need offer an honorarium and that was fine with me.
·  You are always going to get stiffed by a minority--I don't know why people think they can get away with it.  But I have found that when I make my expectations known, someone will mention it to the family.  People who are not church folks do not know how much planning a funeral takes.  They truly think we can do it out of our hip pockets--or they have no notion of how we are paid.  
·  If you are in a large parish where the business model is normal for your parish, you could send them a bill.  But first talk to those around you to see what the going rate is and what is the local norm. 
·  I was in the North for much of my career and throughout the winter internment was separated from the actual funerals and so all of those internments had to be done usually before Memorial Day.  I always had to find a way that my Saturdays were clear the weekends in May so that I could get those done.  
There will always be some funerals where you don't want to receive payment.  Just let the family know that this is your gift to them given whatever circumstance it was.  I often did funerals for the poor in our communities for nothing simply because the cost of the funeral home was often more than they could handle.  

I am sorry you were ignored at this funeral.  You aren't the first and won't be the last and it will happen enough times in your ministry for you to notice just how people who are not part of the congregation respect the clergy.  It is one of the down sides of doing this work--but at the same time it is often at those service that people find the Church after being away for years.  I always felt that the ministry expended always came back to me or the congregation some how even if I personally wasn't paid.  

Now it's your turn...share your experiences, insights, suggestions below.  And then help fill up the question queue again.  Send your ??? to us here.

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. I think that the idea of creating a little handout/pamphlet is a wonderful one, and I speak from both sides.

    I picked up much information on the practical aspects of funerals from making plans for my grandmother's, stepmother's, and son's. The latter was the first in which I was introduced to the financial end, which I had not known a thing about -- which tells me that most people don't until they are the responsible party. A year later I helped a friend whose husband was about to die make plans -- and financial matters were very much on her mind. Like me, she had absolutely no idea how funeral home and funeral service matters were paid for, or how much; unlike me, she had had a long time to anticipate and prepare questions. The funeral home took care of everything in our case, but later I happened to find the funeral brochure for my home church and realized that probably too little had been given to the pastors and music director. I was so completely crazed at that time that I really don't know, but I would not have been at all offended had someone brought the brochure to the planning session.

    I recently did my first funeral as a pastor. The deceased had not been to our church in decades and died the day before Easter, which meant that I met with her family on Sunday right after church, on Monday, and did the funeral on Tuesday. Everything worked out, the funeral home paid the honorarium, and the family then sent a little extra, but I would have had no idea how to proceed otherwise.

    It's certainly vastly easier to be the pastor than to be the deceased's parent or other relative, but if you are in the latter category, a pastor or funeral director who provides explicit guidance is a great ally.

  2. I have worked for college chapels that just have a set fee--one for "members" and one for "non-members (ie not students, alumni or staff) and that fee included organist, sexton, pastor, etc. We were then paid by the bookkeeper out of that set fee. It was a very low honorarium--$25 for members and $50 for non-members, but at least it was guaranteed, and we didn't have to deal with it at all. We found that it was much easier for family members to just write one check, to the church, and not have to pay multiple persons separately. (In my case, rather than deal with the taxes on extra money, I just had all honorariums go into my book fund.) Susan

  3. In my diocese, clergy are not allowed to accept fees for doing services for active members of the parish, but the family may make a donation to the church or the rector's discretionary fund. But if the family or the deceased are/were not active members, a fee is appropriate. It is up to the clergy then to either keep it or put it in his/her discretionary account.

    It really helps that the funeral homes in the community include clergy fees in their planning with families. When I began here, that was already standard practice. I think it is a good idea to have discussion with the local funeral directors and/or a brochure or guidelines in place to cover clergy fees, musician fees, building use, etc. What I've learned here is that funeral practices vary widely from region to region and I need to be clear about my expectations with regard to what a funeral director or family may or may not change or do in the church (for example, one funeral director came in and starting moving the font and paschal candle which is NOT ok; funeral directors also need to know that we don't have open caskets in church and that military honors take place outside...things like that.)

  4. In the community where I served for several years, the traditional, family-owned-and-operated, ties-to-the-community funeral home that I dealt with for 80% of the funerals I did handled the honorarium. The funeral director handed me a check as soon as he arrived at the church.

    However,the cafeteria-style, "budget" mortuary did not. This often led to an awkward conversation with grieving family members in which they asked me what I charged for funerals. The first time this happened I just told the family to consult the funeral director, and they responded that they already had, but that the mortuary charged a separate (nickel and dime) fee for cutting a check. In order for this not to devolve into a discussion of "budget" mortuaries, let me just say that I prefer the full-service style and leave it at that.

    If I'd had the wisdom to anticipate this and have a fee sheet, that would have been very helpful. And in my next call, I will pay more attention to this before it becomes an issue. If only Ask the Matriarch had existed early in my ministry... :)

  5. Responding as a congregation member, not clergy...

    If you have a leadership group (vestry, session...), I agree that the idea of setting fees should be their responsibility. It should also be their responsibility to designate someone who will coordinate flowers, bulletins, ushers - whatever is needed that is not directly related to the content of the service.

    Like Robin, I have been in the position of being the planner for the family. So many things are happening inside and outside that person's head at that time that there are probably quite a few details that just don't occur to him/her. Having written guideline/suggestions/requirements would be a tremendous gift!

    For the funerals that I have been involved with, there were never any fees because the family were active members of the churches involved. In each case, we made a contribution to the church, modest gifts to the pastor and other worship leaders, and wrote thank you notes to those who had managed the other stuff (parking, ushers, etc.). I hope we included everyone.

    If I were not an active member, I would expect to be told what the "going rate" is. If, however, I were an active member, it would be disconcerting to be told that this particular worship service came with a fee. Then, IMO, the minister is not really functioning as my pastor on this occasion, but rather as just another service provider - like the funeral home director. It would make me re-evaluate whether there really is a pastor/congregant relationship as opposed to a vendor/customer one. If there's an expectation that other members pf the community will offer their time to receive flowers, prepare food, usher, direct parking, etc. because they are my brothers and sisters in Christ, what does it say about the role of the "pastor" if there is a price tag attached to her/his participation? Just MO.

  6. We have a pamphlet. Very helpful. As others have said, the suggestion for church members is "discretionary," but the non-member fees are clear; for myself as for the musicians.

    We have a stipended position (the same person who does this for weddings) for someone to be our 'funeral hostess.' She is the one who opens the building for flower deliveries (which we only accept day-of, florists can deal with that) and the family. This works well and saves me a great deal of arrangement time.

  7. I agree with all the suggestions that you should talk to whatever governing body you have about writing up some sort of policy/fee sheet. Especially in the "one person show" churches, having something like that on file can also help to ease transitions when the time comes for you to move on.

    Another thing I would encourage you to consider and to then discuss in the process of writing this policy is the possibility of taking some sort of "grace days" or "comp days" for when one (or both) of your regular off days is taken up by a funeral or any other type of church-related business to ensure that time to care for yourself is maintained. I'm also in a "one woman show" situation and while my church was supportive of this when I brought it up, it took my mentioning to make it happen because they had just never even considered it!

  8. Great topic - this is also really up for me at the moment.

    Of the many annoying things about the DIY movement (maybe a rant for another time and place) the most damaging seems to me the notion that people must come to a situation like this ready and able to "do it" themselves. I have found that most of my work with grieving families - often unchurched boomers returning to a church setting for the first time in years - is to assure them that we know what to do, and that the church is staffed by professionals who have a plan and program in place.

    The fact is, most people really have no idea what to do, or what services we can provide at and it helps them to receive directness and clarity about it. I used to be much more like "we want to do whatever we can to make this a healing experience for you," which sounds nice, but actually didnt help the families because they didnt know where to begin, and it led to unnecessary resentment on my part when they asked for more than I thought they should. Now that I tell them exactly what we DO do, then we at least have a jumping off place.

    I found a brochure to be invaluable in this process. (I can send you one I put together recently - let me know if you are interested at rev dot brownell at gmail dot com.) I do have office support, but part time, so I am often the first contact with the family and I email it to them right away - often before we meet. That way, if they have questions, they can have time to prepare them.

    As for the actual question about payment, in my setting this is a pastoral service for the members and a paid service for non-members. I also add in writing that some members choose to give a gift either to the pastor or the church, and they are welcome to do so.

    The problem in my setting (and it sounds like, in yours) is that many people consider themselves members of the church who haven't darkened the door in years or even decades. So, in your brochure and other opportunities for boundary setting it's important that you know what you mean by member. We say "active member" in our stuff, which has a very specific meaning for us internally that can be easily conveyed if people have questions.


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