|Study finds clergy pay issue poses challenges for churches
Low clergy salaries are making it difficult for pastors to be true to their calling, according to a study by researchers at a United Methodist- related theological school.
By United Methodist News Service
Researchers at Duke University Divinity School have determined that clergy compensation is harming the church and distorting its mission. Their findings are detailed in "How Much Should We Pay the Pastor: A Fresh Look at Clergy Salaries in the 21st Century," part of the divinity school's Pulpit & Pew pastoral leadership project.
The study found that the competitive approaches used by most Protestant denominations in determining pastors' salaries leave clergy members financially vulnerable and also change ministry from a "calling" to a "career."
Those approaches also encourage congregations to grow for economic reasons, while hampering pastors in offering the leadership needed to transform a church, according to the study. "Low clergy salaries make it difficult for pastors to be true to their calling. And this lack of income is causing many talented seminary graduates to enter other professions or other forms of ministry."
The study determined that the salary and benefit situation is especially problematic for African-American pastors, and its findings raised concern about the mobility of women clergy. Concern should be given to the "excessively low African-American clergy salaries and fringe benefits" and to clergywomen's restricted opportunities to serve larger churches, the researchers said.
"How Much Should We Pay the Pastor" contends that the clergy salary issue is about how a congregation views its pastors as well as its money. Researchers surveyed 883 clergy serving local congregations of 81 denominations in 2001 to obtain the data on compensation.
"We are not saying that churches necessarily need to run out tomorrow and pay their clergy more, although that may be the case," said the Rev. Becky McMillan, a labor economist and associate director of Pulpit & Pew. "But it is time for them to step back and think purposefully about how they're paying their pastors and why."
McMillan, a United Methodist, co-authored the study with Matthew J. Price, director of analytical research at the Episcopal Church Pension Group in New York.
The study recommended that Protestant churches reconsider how they set clergy pay by narrowing the gap between pastors of large and small congregations and by providing all pastors with a "living wage." While regional differences in salaries are not large, the differences in salary by church size varied greatly throughout the country, the study found.
Researchers accumulated their data using salary figures from a 2001 national clergy survey and by examining church "polity" or organizational structure, paying particular attention to the amount of independence local congregations have in setting clergy salaries.
With the exception of the very largest Protestant churches, they discovered that pastors' salaries in "connectional" denominations such as the United Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches are consistently higher than clergy salaries in "congregational" churches.
That's because the connectional churches have more centralized authority, whereas the congregational churches Baptists, Pentecostals and United Church of Christ, for example have more local autonomy.
The study revealed that nearly 60 percent of Protestant pastors serve in small churches with fewer than 100 in average Sunday morning attendance. The median compensation, which includes housing, is $36,000 for pastors in connectional churches and $22,300 for those in congregational churches.
Results showed that the median salary at churches with average weekly attendance of 351 to 1,000 people is $66,000 for connectional pastors and $59,315 for congregational ones.
But the study also found that only a small percentage of pastors, regardless of the church structure, earn what most Americans would consider a professional-level salary. The median salary, including housing, was $40,000 for all full-time pastors in the study.
In the United Methodist Church, the denominational average compensation for pastors in 2003 is $45,717, according to the General Council on Finance and Administration, the financial arm of the United Methodist Church.
Researchers suggested that U.S. congregations and denominations should consider other factors in determining the price of pastoral leadership. Despite the affluence of most U.S. church members, most clergy earn a bare minimum salary and have few fringe benefits.
The study indicated that competition and ladder climbing determine the call process between clergy and churches. While the United Methodist Church uses an appointment process for placing pastors in congregations, many other Protestant traditions rely more on a call process in which the local church directly hires the minister.
Another consideration is church size. Researchers found that the size of a church determines its market power and the quality of leadership it attracts. Church size "puts undue emphasis on increasing membership for economic reasons rather than for mission-driven reasons," they said.
McMillan and Price suggest that churches should also consider the fact that clergy who are financially dependent on a congregation are less likely to risk losing members and dollars by being prophetic leaders.
& According to Mississippi Bishop Kenneth Carder, who provided a response to the study, "the results challenge the church to look deeply into the factors contributing to the calling forth, formation, sustaining and deployment of clergy in the 21st century."
He said the free market ideology influences significantly the salary structure of the United Methodist Church and the deployment of clergy, even though the itinerant appointment system began as a missional strategy.
In his response, Carder noted that a church as centralized as the United Methodist Church is well suited to examining the role of the free market in its mission, but he cautioned that it would take "creativity and courage to both recover a missionally based itinerancy and adequately compensated clergy."
He offered four proposals: Engage in theological reflection on the role of money "and the church's mission in a world dominated by the free market"; develop a compensation strategy beyond providing a minimum salary; recover the "circuit rider" as a means of deploying adequately compensated clergy to serve parishes or clusters of small-membership churches; and yoke medium- and large-membership churches to rural and innercity churches with shared staffs.
Carder said one of the most challenging tasks before the church is "wrestling with the free market in light of the church's mission." The mission of the church is jeopardized when the free market determines leadership and decisions, he said.
McMillan agreed, saying that clergy salaries are based as much on how congregations perceive their pastors as about money. "The fact that we use the free market to determine how much we pay clergy suggests that we view them as paid employees who compete for the position, and not as people who are called and compelled by God to spread the gospel," she said. "Our study suggests that looking at clergy as paid employees is a problem."
The Rev. Scott Wilson-Parsons, pastor of Pilmoor Memorial United Methodist Church in Currituck, N.C., called the study an important contribution, but he expressed the need for recognition and consideration of "more subjective matters" related to clergy compensation. He noted the emotional aspects of compensation beyond and behind the paycheck.
Compensation in American Protestant churches seeks to accomplish two goals a "living wage" for pastors and a tangible source of encouragement and affirmation, Wilson-Parsons said. The goals are viewed differently, and it is the second that gets honored by church personnel committees, he said. Pastors, on the other hand, relate compensation to appreciation and performance.
For the United Methodist Church, the results of the study indicate the strength of the connection, which enables local congregations to provide a minimum salary that is above the average of what nondenominational groups are paying, said Craig This, director of research at the denomination's General Council on Ministries. "The connectional system also allows churches to pay pastors better and keep them around."
The results of the clergy compensation study must be examined thoroughly to determine what it means for the United Methodist Church because salaries are affected by both economics and increasing health care benefits, This said.
"Annual conferences are saying that health care benefits are challenging the notion of small churches having full-time pastors because they cannot afford to pay them, he said. The study notes that two-thirds of United Methodist churches have fewer than 200 members, he said.
"Churches need to take a serious look at the pay of clergy and look at how strongly they want to be in mission and ministry in their communities," he said. "You pay a part-time salary, you get a part-time minister."
The entire study can be found online at the Pew & Pulpit Web site at www.pulpitandpew.duke.edu.