Equal Work for Equal Pay?

Post Author: Carol Howard Merritt

This article is one in an occasional series called "All About the Benjamins," running this fall on Fidelia's Sisters. As many congregations and organizations are running stewardship campaigns and lining up budgets for 2012, we'll be taking a look at the sometimes-taboo topic of money, and the role it plays in our ministries. 

When it comes to salaries, women clergy are hit with a double whammy. On top of the regular socialization that most women face—you know, the encouragements to “play nice” and not make a big deal about our pay or inequitable treatment—we’re also smacked with a massive dose of spiritual guilt.

Whenever our discomfort about pay comes up, we’re told, “You really didn’t go into the ministry for the money, did you?” People question our personal commitment to our calling or they wonder why we don’t have a servant’s heart. We’re told that we should be more like Jesus, Paul, or Shane Claiborne.

Meanwhile, as young clergywomen, many of us face difficulties that generations before us didn’t. With the increase in education costs, we have student loan debt. With the mortgage bubble, we have higher housing costs. With the economic crisis, we have salaries that are often scrutinized and cut. And, no matter how hard we try, Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac won’t take our servant’s heart or our call to ministry as payment.

So we stagger along. We use credit cards to keep up with the high expectations that our congregations and colleagues have of our appearance (you must have a good haircut, nice clothes, and decent shoes). Or we use them just to make ends meet. But we don’t talk about what’s really going on, because if people knew, then they would think that we are irresponsible or not spiritual enough.

So how can we support one another in all of this? How can we make this system better for the next generation of women? Here are a few suggestions that I have:

1)   Be clear about what you need. You know why that guy straight out of seminary made more than I did? He negotiated his salary. Churches provided the lowest amount of money in their information, and I always accepted it. Instead, I should’ve taken a good look at my own financial situation and told the church what I needed.

How much money you will need is often difficult to determine. If the committee who is structuring our salary is from an older generation, they may not have any idea what sort of student loans or housing costs we have to consider. It’s so easy to sign on to a job, thinking, “God will provide.”

And it’s all too easy for churches to look at a woman pastor and think, “Her husband will provide.” Or, “She’s single. She doesn’t need as much as a man who’s supporting a family.”

But sometimes we need to rely on our negotiating skills (as well as God) to provide.

2)  Do your homework. There are different ways to compare your salary. You can compare it to the other staff members, to other pastors in your area, and to the people in your congregation. Comparing your salary to the people in your congregation is harder (especially if they’re mostly retired), but it’s important. You don’t want to get all riled up about your salary if you’re getting paid three times more than most of the people in your congregation.

A healthy rule of thumb: If your church wants to keep you, then they should pay you at least 10% above the median salary for your position.

3)  Support your colleagues. When I had a friend who was going to new call, she asked me to help her negotiate her salary. I called another woman in order to get the facts of how much pastors in the area were making. The three of us were able to get the information.

If you see that a woman is stepping into a job where the man before her made twice the salary for the same position, let her know about it. If a female pastor is making less than the male pastor in our governing body staff, make sure the injustice is rectified. Write parental leave policies, even if you’ll never need them. We’ve got to keep working for each other.

4)  Stop the guilt. We can slip into spiritual platitudes to make us feel better about the injustice we find ourselves facing. Then we use those words on each other to induce guilt. But the truth is—God doesn’t want us to be making less than men. It’s not spiritual. It’s not just. We shouldn’t be candy-coating our own situations or heaping shame on other women who struggle with their pay.

So, what do you think? And what would you add to the suggestions?


Carol Howard Merritt is a Pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. She is the author of Reframing Hope and Tribal Church. She blogs at TribalChurch.org and the Huffington Post, and she co-hosts the God Complex Radio podcast.

5 replies
  1. Shawn Coons
    Shawn Coons says:

    I agree that this is a greater problem for female clergy, but agreeing to a lower salary than deserved happens to many younger clergy.
    Here are several tips I suggest:
    1) In the Presbyterian church churches have a form on an online matching system. The form gives the minimum salary the churches are offering, and if you do some creative searching you can also figure out their maximum. Don’t sell yourself short. Ask for a salary above their minimum, and name all the reasons you are worth it.
    2) In my experience, ministers don’t get raises. Hopefully a cost of living adjustment each year, but usually what you agree on to start will be your salary for your entire career there.
    3) Negotiate family leave upfront. 8-9 paid weeks for mom, 3 paid weeks for dad. Even if you have no plans for kids for years. Putting it in writing when hired avoids a headache later.
    4) IMO, Associate Pastors shouldn’t be paid as much as the Senior Pastor, but there also shouldn’t be a huge discrepancy. I served a church where the Senior Pastor was paid twice as much as me. If I had known this coming in I would have asked for more.
    5) Most hiring committees are not looking out for you, so don’t feel obligated to look out for the church. Don’t be greedy and insensitive, but take care of yourself in the process because no one else will be.
    6) Try to remember that you really want to work there and they really want you to work there. Tension about salary can overshadow the excitement of the mutual attraction. This will pass.

  2. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    I so appreciate these words, Carol. I also appreciate your reminder to encourage colleagues. There’s a colleague in my area who refuses to up his salary because he “doesn’t need it” and “it’s good for the church.” He refuses to see that this has an impact on the compensation of all of our colleagues in the area.
    I can only hope that YCW find a way to stand together rather than apart.

  3. Sara
    Sara says:

    I just had to have a conversation with my personnel committee that was about how I need to be paid $4000 more next year to meet the Presbytery minimum. I was nervous and it was intimidating asking 2 men my dad’s age for a raise; however, I did it, and am stretching my wings as the new 27-year-old female pastor. Honestly, it was empowering. I wish I had had the guts to be more frank about pay 15 months ago when I took the call. I would have negotiated maternity leave then as well, when it was a hypothetical situation.
    In my mind here’s what it came down to: $4000 is a lot of money, and I did not want to resent the church for not paying me fairly in the coming year. My hubby and I are working hard to get out of debt, and that money will go a long way in helping us pay off our debt.
    I am thankful for Presbytery minimums because they are set to help us receive fair pay. It will be difficult in the years to come as my experience rises and I hope to be paid more in the “suggested mid-rage” than in the “minimum” range.

  4. anonymous
    anonymous says:

    In an early job in my career I was told that the church couldn’t afford to pay the minimum. Like a good servant, I asked the senior pastor to prayerfully consider with the governing board how much they could afford, and I would take it- the answer came back the same, so I did. Then a month in I realized the senior pastor was making well over twice what I was, the church had more than enough in the budget to pay the minimum, and there was never a discussion with the board, prayerful or otherwise. The reason I was getting paid what I was- because it was the most the senior pastor had ever made as an assistant.
    The moral of the story, for me, was to ask to see the financials up front and always advocate for yourself! Thank you for this great guide for all ministers.


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