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How Multisite Churches Pay Campus Pastors

Two prevailing models that multisite churches use to pay campus pastors.
How Multisite Churches Pay Campus Pastors
Image: Getty | Klaus Vedfelt

Over the last two years, ChurchSalary has gathered salary data on campus pastors serving at multisite churches in the United States. The data we have gathered tells two stories.

First, multisite churches are not on the same page. Pay is inconsistent between churches, sometimes even within the same organization.

Second, despite these inconsistencies there appear to be two basic models for paying campus pastors. These two models conform to existing patterns for senior/solo and associate pastors and likely are a reflection of the level of responsibility that each campus pastors carries within the organization.

Before we can discuss inconsistencies, let’s unpack the prevailing models.

Table of Contents:

Two Models: Either Senior or Associate

Multisite churches appear to follow one of two models when it comes to campus pastor compensation:
Model 1: Senior Pastor of a Campus-Sized Congregation
Model 2: Associate Pastor of the Larger Multisite Church (or Central Campus)

Model 1: Senior Pastor of a Campus-Sized Congregation

Some campus pastors are paid like the senior/solo pastors of their campus, as if their campus is a stand-alone congregation. This Senior Model approach offers several benefits to multisite churches.

The first and most obvious benefit is that pay for senior/solo pastors scales rapidly as their congregation grows. Among campus pastors this can create a strong incentive for growth, if the multisite church clearly communicates this pay philosophy to the campus pastor, especially in the early stages of launching a satellite campus.

At the same time, senior/solo pastor pay levels off pretty quickly once the congregation reaches a total operating budget of between $675,000 and $1,000,000 or between 300 and 400 people. This plateau occurs naturally as churches are forced to split every additional budget dollar between more and more paid employees to care for the congregation/campus.

The second benefit of this model is that pay for campus pastors will stay competitive with stand-alone congregations of a similar size. However, before we can discuss this potential benefit, we need to unpack Model 2.

Model 2: Associate Pastor of the Larger Multisite Church (or Central Campus)

Some campus pastors are paid like they are associate pastors serving on staff at the larger church (either the central campus or church as a whole). There are at least three major pros and cons to this Associate Model.


For starters, the Associate Model is cheaper for churches in the long-run and makes it easier to sustain satellite campuses. This is because even though pay for associate pastors rises with the church budget (as it does for senior/solo pastors), it plateaus at a much lower level and has a much lower ceiling (rarely rising above $110K for 75% of associate pastors). As result, the church as a whole is likely to experience long-term payroll savings. This can help them launch and grow more campuses because they can utilize more of the tithes from these locations for the budget of the central campus or to grow the satellite campus. To put it bluntly, the Associate Model makes every satellite location more profitable for the central campus.

At the same time, the Associate Model can offer churches and pastors both a minimum threshold and fallback plan. In terms of a minimum threshold, hiring a talented pastor who is capable of rapidly growing and nurturing a new campus can be a struggle. These pastors are often looking for full-time work and on the very low-end of attendance and budget the Senior Model only offers bi-vocational or part-time pay. By attaching their pay to the church as a whole and giving them some responsibilities at the central campus, the organization can create full-time jobs for these new hires—offering them a higher starting salary. Additionally, this attachment to the central campus budget can offer the campus pastor a fallback plan if the launch plan fails or the campus struggles to grow rapidly. Ultimately, their pay will not be as closely tied to small and rapid fluctuations in the health of the campus. Obviously, this strategy and reasoning depends on the philosophy and goals of the overall church leaders. They could just as easily decide that the employment of the campus pastor is entirely contingent on the success of the new campus.


The biggest problem with this Associate Model is pretty obvious: it almost always offers worse pay and growth incentives for campus pastors. Very quickly, once the campus surpasses around $250,000 or 100 people the median salary of a senior/solo pastor rises above that of an associate pastor at the central campus. This has the potential to create retention and incentive problems for the church.

First and foremost, the Associate Model can create conflicting growth incentives. While growing their campus will rapidly increase the campus pastor’s level of responsibility and standing within the organization, it will not necessarily lead to a rapid increase in their paycheck. They will get more pats on the back and phone calls but none of that helps them pay their bills. When disillusionment or discouragement kicks in (as it almost always does in ministry), the campus pastor may be more predisposed to step back and evaluate whether it is worth the effort to hustle and climb the ladder within their existing multisite church.

Campus pastors who find themselves in this situation may realize that they have two options:

  1. Take a risk and plant their own church or
  2. Take a senior pastor gig at an identically-sized stand-alone congregation down the street.

We do not currently have any hard data on how much this is occurring. But, it stands to reason that these kinds of lateral moves, especially to an existing congregation in the area, will be incredibly tempting as these campus pastors are doing a lot of the same work that a stand-alone senior pastor would, while being paid like an associate pastor. The opportunity to lead their own church and preach more frequently, while also getting paid better could be hard to resist.

Hybrid Model: The Best of Both Worlds

In light of these potential pros and cons, a hybrid model might be the best way to balance growth, staffing costs, and an attractive compensation philosophy.

A hybrid philosophy would start out with the Associate Model but shift campus pastors a Senior/Solo Model once a certain growth threshold is reached. This hybrid approach would give the new campus pastor an incentive to grow the campus, with a guarantee of full-time work, and a light at the end of the tunnel—the knowledge that their pay scale could transition and keep growing if they continue to be successful.

Practically, it might look something like this:

Phase 1: The multisite church hires a new campus pastor and pays them like an associate pastor with a full-time salary tied to the central campus (or church as a whole). Their responsibilities at the new campus overlap with responsibilities at the central campus during the initial launch and growth phase. This gives the campus pastor a sense of security and helps the church hire talented and qualified pastors.

Phase 2: The church clearly communicates to the new pastor that campus growth will lead to direct paycheck growth and a shift in responsibilities, thereby incentivizing them to dedicate time and energy to grow their campus and disincentivizing them from spending all their time on projects for the central campus.

In the long run, we think an approach like this will offer the campus pastor a real-world incentive to grow their campus, while also helping the church retain talented and entrepreneurial pastors.

An even more realistic and practical arrangement might involve a contract and a concrete timeline:

“You have X years to grow this campus to ______ people, if you do, your pay scale will change and grow with the size of the campus. If you can’t, we will re-evaluate your place within the organization and the viability of the campus and your position within the organization.”

Examples and Inconsistencies

To illustrate the pros and cons of these two models, we have graphed a handful of campus pastor salaries along with the stats of both their campus and church as a whole. These examples help illustrate both of the models and how they can be applied inconsistently.

Note that the chart is graphed using a logarithmic scale for both the X and Y axis. This double log scale compresses the upper-end (larger budgets and higher pay) and stretches the low-end (smaller budgets and lower pay), enabling a more even visualization of the entire spectrum of budget (horizontal x-axis) and pay (vertical y-axis).

Click here to see a regular scale version that evens the scale and visualizes how pay in each model plateaus as budget increases.

The blue bands on the chart visualize the pay range for a Senior Model and the green bands visualize an Associate Model (darker = 50th to 75th or median to third quartile; lighter = 25th to 50th or first quartile to median). Green dots clearly follow an Associate Pastor model, while blue dots appear to follow a Senior Model.

It is important to note that not every campus pastor fits neatly into this binary model. Highlighting three of these anomalies can help us understand why a church might adopt a novel strategy or how churches are being inconsistent.

Illustration #1

On the chart, one CP stands out. Even though they are leading a church plant, their salary is scaled as if they are co-lead pastor for the central campus. This is likely an intentional decision on the part of the planting church, designed to attract a highly-qualified pastor who can plant a congregation that eventually will stand on its own two feet—functioning more like a parish within a diocese. If this campus pastor was paid like the senior pastor of their own congregation, they would potentially be paid around $30K less.

Illustration #2

Initially, we struggled to categorize two campus pastors (CPs) serving on staff at the same church. This is because, no matter which model we used, these CPs appear to be underpaid. If they were paid using the Senior Model, they could be earning around $30K more than their current salary. If they were paid using the Associate Model, they could be earning between $30K and $50K more.

Ultimately, we realized both CPs are being paid like associate pastors of their campuses. The lower paid CP is paid so little that they must work bi-vocationally. While lower than average per person giving at the central campus may be driving some of this, we fear that this strategy is unsustainable both for the church and the pastors. The lowest paid CP could take a job leading a stand-alone congregation of the same size and immediately earn a full-time wage. The higher paid CP could either take a job as an associate pastor at a larger church—the same size as the central campus—or take a job at a congregation that is the same size of their campus and earn more money.

Illustration #3

Four of the CPs on this chart serve at the same multisite church. This multisite church has five thriving locations and the central campus has intentionally adopted a distributed leadership strategy. Specifically, the church’s leadership structure is governed by three co-equal lead pastors with a campus pastor in charge of four of the five locations. Each of the four campus pastors are paid following an Associate Model as the three co-lead pastors are being paid like senior pastors. Even though this does not neatly fit either the Associate or Senior model, it is internally consistent and driven by a clear pay and staffing philosophy.

That said, this strategy could create problems for the central campus because pay between these four CPs is very similar even though the campus sizes are significantly different. For example, the CP of one of the larger campuses (768 people) only earns $4,000 more than the CP of a 305-person campus. The 2.52x difference in campus size is only translating into a 1.05x difference in pay.


Multisite churches are not monolithic. They are structured differently and, as a result, they may have different staffing needs. Because of this, there probably will never be a one-size fits all approach to paying campus pastors.

That said, there are clearly several well-worn paths and a defined pattern for both senior and associate pastor pay in churches. And they are being applied or adapted in multisite churches—though clearly not as consistent as we would hope.

If you want to hire a staff member to function like the senior/solo pastor of a small congregation, you should probably pay them using that model. Failing to follow a Senior Model in these cases could incentivize these campus pastors to make a lateral move to a standalone congregation—gaining extra money and pulpit time in the process.

If you want to hire campus pastors who will function like the associate pastors of the church as a whole or who will split part of their time at the central campus, it may make sense to use an Associate Model. Using this approach can help your church attract qualified and talented candidates early on, but it may make it harder to retain them long-term as the campus grows.

Footnote: Why attendance isn’t as strong a predictor of pay for pastors as budget, even among campus pastors.

Imagine a church or campus with 400 people and two different budget scenarios.

In Scenario #1, the congregation of 400 only has a per person giving average of $1,000 which gives them a budget of $400,000. This operating budget is used to pay the pastor and staff as well as all ministry and building expenses. Typically, churches allocate around 50% of their total operating budget for payroll expenses (salary, benefits, and miscellaneous payroll expenses). That gives our congregation in Scenario #1 around $200,000 to spend on payroll. Because a church of 400 people will likely need more than one staff member, these payroll dollars must be split between multiple employees (i.e., they can’t all go to the senior pastor).

In Scenario #2, more people at this church give on a regular basis. As a result, average per person giving is closer to the current national average of around $2,700 and the total operating budget is $1,080,000 (i.e., 400 x $2,700). If the congregation allocates 50% of their budget for staffing expenses, they will have a payroll budget of $540,000 (which is larger than the entire operating budget ($400,000) in Scenario #1).

Regardless of what the church in Scenario #1 wants to offer in terms of pay to their pastor(s), they will be seriously hampered by lower per person giving. By contrast, the church in Scenario #2 will have a great deal of freedom in terms of staffing and compensation levels.

Ultimately, even though these two churches have an identical number of people, it does not make sense to say they are equivalent in “size.”

For this reason, and many others, simply saying that a church has around 400 in attendance means very little when it comes to compensation and staffing. If you really want to know what a church can afford to pay its employees, look at their budget.

This budgetary reality should be taken into account when comparing satellite campuses. While it sounds crude to boil people down into dollars and cents, when leaders are trying to allocate resources, you cannot spend what you do not have.

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