Southern Fried Faith
wednesday, january 6, 2010
When I graduated from seminary, a time of, put plainly, poverty, I moved to a two-church field in Kingstree, South Carolina, where I would be paid a whopping $12,000 a year (with a manse provided). My first thought after those three lean years in seminary was, How on earth will I ever be able to spend all that money?
The reason that was a two-church field, I was told, was because of a disagreement among parishioners way back in the 1930's over how to pay the preacher. One group wanted to pay him in cash; the other preferred paying in live stock and garden crops. That's what I was told, though who knows the real reason.
Those days of paying religious professionals with chickens and collard greens and potatoes are long gone for the most part. According to a study I read, the average compensation package for a Senior Pastor in the U.S. is now somewhere around $80,000 a year (2009 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff). Of course, a lot depends on the size of the church, and even then, if that's the only income for the household, that really ain't a lot, all things considered. But consider that against the annual personal income per capita in my state of South Carolina in 2005: $28,285 and a median household income in 2005 of a little less that $40,000. Real median household income in the U.S. in 2007 was a little over $50,000; but then, of course, the economy tanked.
I'd hate to think how much preachers at megachurches with 20,000+ members take home; well, I have heard some mind-boggling salaries. One very popular megachurchin my hometown of Anderson reportedly allocates $3 million a year in salaries.
According to a survey done by Your Church Media Group at Christianity Today International, if you're talking about a church with weekly attendance of between 301 and 500 people, the average yearly salary is $102,623. I have some friends in thePCUSA, tall steeple folks, whose compensation packages exceed $150,000. That's a respectable chunk of change. Problem is, in the PCUSA for example, fully 50% of the churches are 100 members or less.
Now, stack those figures up against, say, the salary range for Master's level public school teachers in North Carolina in 2007: $33,000 - 64,000, depending on years experience. Granted, school teachers get a couple of months off in the summer, but I know a bunch of ministers who get more than 2 months off. For example, I knew of a Unitarian Universalist minister who was paid a little more than $70,000 a year, but who had two full months off and, get this, one Sunday per month off. And the office hours of that UU minister generally were 4 hours a week; two hours on two days. Pretty sweet work if you can get it.
Anyway, though I'm an ordained minister, I'm not paid by any church body, so I can with some legitimacy ask, "What do we get for all that money?"
Most tall-steeple church senior pastors I know operate more like CEO's than pastors as defined, say, by the old divine, Richard Baxter. Their job is primarily two fold: preach on Sunday morning and run the church, whatever "run the church" may mean. Some still do "pastoral" work, but not many. And I'm told that megachurch senior pastors don't do any "pastoral work," and my experience as a hospital chaplain generally proved that to be the case.
Lately I've been meeting a bunch of ministers who are, as we used to call them, tent-making ministers. That's to say, they have a day job, a job that pays the bills, and their service to the church is either non-compensated or minimally compensated. Additionally, more and more smaller churches, say in the PCUSA, cannot afford full-time ministers and some, even, are being shut down by their Presbytery. The problem that has to be addressed with "tent-making" ministry is that a number of folks spend 7 years of their lives training for one thing — being a minister — and would find it difficult to find gainful employment in a day job. That raises questions of theological education and how we train ministers.
Now I'm in no way suggesting that the idea of religious professionals being compensated by their churches should be done away with and we all return to "tent-making," (so named for the ministry of the Apostle Paul). But I think some re-thinking is most definitely in order, on all parts. And though I don't really know when the notion of a "religious professional" being compensated came into being. It is, good or bad, a fact of contemporary religious life. It's the way things are now.
Of course, for many, said, of course, jokingly, the preacher still only works one day a week. Well, we all know that's not true. Even if the only "public" appearance of a minister was in the pulpit, hours should (note: should, not necessarily do) go into the preparation of leading the worship and the sermon or homily or lesson — whatever you want to call it. In Protestant circles at least, preaching is still viewed as the primary function of the minister. Churches routinely put "preaching" at the top of the list in the qualifications of potential ministers.
But preachers, ministers, do a lot that may or may not be seen publicly, or at least they should: pastoral counseling, visiting the sick, being the "face" of the church in the local community and for that they should be compensated. How and how much? Tough questions for me.
Do we base it on education, with Th.D's and D.Min's making more than M.Div's? Do we base it on years of experience? Do we base it on church size? Should regional governing bodies, like Presbyteries, mandate minimum's that a church, regardless of its size and demographics, must pay?
Do we raise and lower the salary based on general economic conditions? I know of one Presbyterian church in my town that cut salaries for everyone on the staff. That raises a larger question: How much of a church's budget should be allocated for paying of salaries?
That last question — What percentage of a church's budget should be allocated for paying of salaries? — is, to me, in my present thinking, the most important one and I tend to think most churches approach budget making in a backwards sort of way. Or the larger question: How should churches fund themselves?
Here's a possible starting point: "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need." (Acts 2:42-45)
Now that description of early church life is not normative, it is not proscriptive; but it is informative. I'm going to have to think about this some more. Your thoughts?