Hard to Negotiate

Post Author: Carol Howard Merritt

I’m not even sure that the size of the congregation should matter. I mean at this point there ought to be some systemic realization that women are in small parishes and associate positions, not because they
are less wise, intelligent, or capable, but because there’s that thick stained glass ceiling that we’re slowly, surely trying to crack through.

I long for a compensation package that does not consider how many children you have or don’t have, whether your spouse has a good job or not, or whether the ladies in the church think you eat out too much, a salary structure where associate pastors do not make less than half of the head of staff (I mean, really. Are they doing half the work? We all know the answer to that one).

I long for a system that realizes that the Baby Boomers who bought their houses twenty years ago for 20K, and have been receiving 2% increases every year, may be comfortable sitting on their increased housing equity. They are in a much different position than the members of a new generation, who enter into the pastorate with education loans and possible mortgages that make our debt to income ratio way out of whack. The reality is a new generation who looks into the future and realizes how much college will cost for their children and that the social security system will not be there in the same way that it is now.

For me, at this time of year, the major struggle is to stay above the minimum salary requirements that are required by the LGB. After ten years of being on church staffs, I’m still dog paddling, trying to keep my head above that line (obviously, I’m not the best negotiator…but I do have a good shared equity housing deal).

I used to try to rise above it, and by that I mean rise above grappling with this issue altogether. I’m not a very materialistic person. Every December, my husband asks me what I want for Christmas, and he’s greeted by a blank stare, because I really don’t know…. Nobody goes into the pastorate for the money. I’m in it to spread the good news, help people, and work for social justice. So, it was always just simpler for me to ignore that my salary had slipped beneath the minimum, once again. Of course, it was really easy for the church and LGB to ignore it as well.

But then years ago someone asked me to compile a graph of the area pastors in our denomination and their salaries. So I did. It was shocking. The women made much less than the men. People of color made
less too, especially if they were serving immigrant congregations. It was common for some pastors to make five times more than others (I’m not like many people. I don’t think that the upper-end should be making less. I think we should smooth out the inequities by letting the lower end make more. I mean, in that case, the minimum salary requirement left families below the poverty level).

I labeled the gender, ethnic, and age differences and showed it to a wonderful member of my congregation – an engineering professor at Brown. He saw how the bars of men who were a certain age and color towered over the rest. He didn’t know any of the pastors or churches and with the stark numbers in front of him, he was appalled. “How could the denomination let this happen? This is terrible. There should never be this much discrimination going on in the church.”

I shrugged and tried to explain, “The salaries are negotiated on a local level, between the church and the individual pastor. There’s a bit of general oversight, but it’s really up to the pastor. And…you know…churches are struggling….” But that’s when it occurred to me that I needed to start caring. I could not call for justice in a discriminating environment if I wasn’t willing to do my part. And how could we stand for justice in our society if we can’t model fairness in our own churches?

The fact is, our system isn’t socialized. I don’t mean to blame the victims in this scenario, but, as grueling and painful as it may be, we have to begin seeing that advocating for our own salaries (or better
yet, finding a member who will advocate on our behalf) goes beyond our personal pocketbook. Individually, especially as pastors who are a part of a minority group in our churches, if we don’t negotiate for ourselves, then we contribute to a much larger problem.

So, what about you? What’s your situation? How does your denomination do it? If you could change something about how salaries are doled out, what would you change? It’s a tough issue.

Carol Howard Merritt has been a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Abbeville, Louisiana and Barrington Presbyterian Church, Barrington, Rhode Island. Currently, she is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, which was published by The Alban Institute and recently won the 2008 Award of Merit from the Religion Communicators Council.

Image by: Amtec Photos
Used with permission
8 replies
  1. Amy
    Amy says:

    I’m happy to say that in the Mennonite Church we do have denominational guidelines for pastors’ salaries based on level of educations, cost of living in the area where you live, years of education, years of service to the church and some other variables. My congregation can afford to also offer some medical coverage and a pretty good benefits package but there are many who can’t. This is a small denomination and I recently found out that there are many uninsured Mennonite Pastors – mostly serving in minority congregations. But to their credit, the denominational leadership is trying to change that. It never seems like enough, but really my situation is pretty good.

  2. Elsa
    Elsa says:

    In the United Church of Christ, each conference has its own guidelines (based on regional data to reflect a just compensation) — but there are churches that are advertised as not meeting conference guidelines. It’s not a requirement. I wonder if this is an issue of stewardship. Or perhaps that’s obvious.

  3. Teri
    Teri says:

    As a Presbyterian, you’ve covered our system pretty accurately. In the case of my congregation, the people are so insistent on the pastors making a living wage that they are willing to run a deficit budget but not wiling to let us skip a COLA for a year. So while a real raise is out of the question, at least we do get the federal COLA regardless of the church’s prospective financial situation. But we’re in a pretty good situation, with reserves from several years of coming in under budget, and we’re a growing congregation. I’m lucky, I realize…and I also realize that next time, I need to negotiate for more than I did this time. I knew I came in too low when they immediately agreed to my counter-offer! It would be interesting to check out how other pastors in my town are doing, though (but none of them are my denomination so I don’t know how I’d get that info without calling them up and asking point-blank!). Perhaps a project for the winter…

  4. Teri
    Teri says:

    oh, I forgot: one small problem in the minimum-salary-set-by-the-local-governing-body system: my Presbytery covers a wide geographic area and also encompasses suburbs, rural areas, and college towns. The cost of living varies widely in my Presbytery, with my area being the high end of the spectrum, which makes it look like I make WAY more than anyone else, but I also spend nearly 50% of my income just on housing while others who make much less have savings accounts instead.

  5. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    This is something thing that the Scottish Episcopal Church gets right. There is a flat stipend, which every priest gets, regardless. There are also a few allowances that can be added if needed (family support, rural travel grants, etc), and a few churches offer extra bonuses (Easter collections, for example). I suppose some might find it frustrating that there will never be ‘increase’ across decades of service, but it speaks clearly of the fact that ‘a priest is a priest is a priest’ wherever they happen to serve.

  6. Ellen L-D
    Ellen L-D says:

    The Church of Scotland had a shake up a few years back which ruffled many feathers and phased out the voluntary additional payments larger congregations made to ministers. CofS ministers are paid from the central body on a ten-year scale (number of years of ordained service) that increases each year by about 2.6% (I think). We also have housing (manse) owned by congregation. Great for leveling the playing field from rural to urban deprived to wealthy town churches, but interesting when it comes to heating costs depending on the house provided. Modern heat-efficient house doesn’t use up all the stipend to heat during the winter like the ancient, large, drafty manses can. I’m thankful I don’t have to negotiate my stipend with the congregation and that going to a rural charge (as I feel passionately called to) doesn’t mean struggling to make ends meet month on month because of the lower stipend.

  7. m
    m says:

    As I begin my first call process I wonder constantly about this, particularly for the reason that on my desk, the first call paperwork sits directly upon my student loan paperwork.
    Perhaps it’s only because I hear the horror stories now, but I fear for my ability to simultaneously serve the church and repay my seminary debt. The shocked looks that I’m getting from parishoners, pastors, and other leaders at the personal cost of seminary leaves me less than confident that the church even realizes the financial burden that we face with seminary.
    I also have a question. How am I to show good stewardship to my future congregation when my income only meets my expenses, and my public giving might not be as generous as they might expect?

  8. Louise
    Louise says:

    It shows how each denomination does things in so many different ways. Here in the UK in the United Reformed Church we are paid out of a central pot of money.
    Each local congregation, whether or not they have ordained ministry pay something into the pot. Each stipendary minister is paid the same, regardless of position, length of service, gender – whatever.
    We usually live in a church owned house so our housing costs (but not gas/electric), water and council tax as well as repairs and decoration are paid for.
    We get an allowance each month to help run a car (not great though with the rising costs of fuel! But it is better than nothing) and in addition we get 40pence per mile on church business.
    I’d hate it having to negotiate a salary. As each locality is just so different, and the ability to pay a minister varies in each church it makes so much sense to pay out of a central pot. In the end the larger churches end up paying more for the smaller churches, and those in less well off areas…. but there is something of the Kingdom in that!
    What a difference in context we are all in, and you certainly have my thoughts…. ! And all of a sudden I appreciate my denomination a little more… In this regard at least!


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