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2021 Pastoral Salary Report

Is Seminary Worth It?

How long will it take the average pastor to recoup the cost of a graduate degree?
Is Seminary Worth It?
Image: Feodora Chiosea | Getty

Is seminary worth it? How long does it take to recoup the cost of a master’s degree or seminary education? How much does education influence a pastor’s salary?


In the 2021 Pastoral Salary Report, ChurchSalary and Clarity Research set out to answer these questions using the salary and education data of 18,936 pastors. The charts and graphs detailing the impact of education are divided into seven major pastoral positions:

Learn more about our methodology and how numbers in the 2021 Pastoral Salary Report were normalized.

Because budget plays the biggest role in determining a pastor’s salary, all of the salary data and averages in this article have been normalized by budget with the help of Clarity Research. This normalization process minimized the impact of budget on our statistical analysis, allowing Clarity Research to quantify the influence of other variables on pastoral compensation.

Please note that, because these averages are normalized by budget, they are not suitable for setting or evaluating salaries for individual pastors. They are designed to observe relative cost and benefits of education for pastors.

The Cost of Seminary

In order to estimate the time it would take to offset seminary tuition for each type of pastor, ChurchSalary used an estimate of $30,000–$50,000 for 2–3 years of graduate-level education. However, the cost of a master’s or seminary degree will obviously vary depending on type, denominational support, and institution.

Using this tuition range, ChurchSalary estimates that it will take the average pastor five to nine years to cover the cost of seminary. In other words, seminary is almost always “worth it” for pastors who plan to dedicate their lives to serving the church.

In fact, the lifetime or career value of a seminary education can be considerable. For an associate pastor, 30–40 years of higher salaries (+$5,985 annually) coupled with additional retirement contributions (10% monthly savings with 7% growth) will yield an extra $236,000 to $359,000.

A seminary or master’s degree also confers many non-financial benefits. For example, in some denominations a seminary degree may be a prerequisite for positions that require teaching or exegesis—e.g., senior, associate, and Christian education pastors.

Additionally, many secular and non-profit employers look favorably on candidates with a master’s degree on their resume. And the wage premium for those who have a master’s degree outside of the church is higher. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that the value of a master’s degree—the wage premium—in the secular marketplace is around $12,000 a year.

For each type of pastor, ChurchSalary has calculated four estimates.

  • The continuing education premium represents the average increase between each level above an associate degree—What is the average annual value of one more degree?
  • The wage premium and percent increase figures for seminary (master’s degree) estimate how much more a pastor will earn annually if they complete this type of degree.
  • The time to recoup figure estimates the minimum and maximum number of years needed offset the cost of a master’s degree (based on total tuition costs of $30k to $50k).

Click here to see the formulas behind these figures and examples.

Education Averages by Position

Senior/Solo Pastors 

Continuing Education Premium = $3,660
Seminary (Master’s Degree)
                  Wage Premium = +$4,025
                  Percent Increase = 3.87%
                  Time to Recoup = 7.5 to 12.4 years

Higher levels of education uniquely impact the salary of senior/solo pastors. First, senior/solo pastors are more highly educated than other pastors. The majority of senior/solo pastors have a master’s degree or have attended seminary (51.6%). The rest either have a doctorate (20%) or a bachelor’s degrees (20.9%). Only a small minority (7%) have an associate degree or less.

Because more than 50% of senior/solo pastors attend seminary, the wage premium typically associated with a master’s degree among other pastors is shifted up to the doctorate level. Thus, while seminary graduates see an increase in their annual salary (3.9%), senior/solo pastors who pursue a terminal degree (Ph.D. or D.Min.) can expect a larger increase (7.4%). This doctorate premium makes sense when you consider that senior pastors are often expected to lead a team of pastors with M.A. credentials.

Executive Pastors 

Continuing Education Premium = $2,487
Seminary (Master’s Degree)
                  Wage Premium = $4,894
                  Percent Increase = 7%
                  Time to Recoup = 6.1 to 10.2 years

The data for executive pastors indicates that pursing either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree is worth the time and financial cost. The wage premium for a bachelor’s degree is 5.7% or $4,438, and the premium associated with a master’s degree is 7% or $4,894.

Oddly, earning a doctorate appears to confer an annual decrease of 1.4% or $1,872 to executive pastor salaries. The most likely explanation for this decrease is that executive pastors with doctorates choose to also teach as adjunct professors, splitting their time and salary between the church and a college (or seminary). Because their adjunct compensation is not reported to ChurchSalary, we cannot estimate the true value of a doctorate degree for executive pastors.

Associate Pastors 

Continuing Education Premium = $5,176
Seminary (Master’s Degree)
                  Wage Premium = $5,837
                  Percent Increase = 10.1%
                  Time to Recoup = 5.1 to 8.6 years

The data for associate pastors is clear: higher levels of education always translate into a higher average salary. The largest increase is seen among associate pastors who earn a master’s degree. They earn at least 10% more every year than their peers with a bachelor’s degree. As we mentioned previously, this wage premium can confer an extra $236,000–$359,000 in earnings (wages and retirement savings) over the course of a 30–40-year career.

Even though the variance is high among associate pastors with a doctorate, there does appear to be a clear increase for individuals who earn a terminal degree.

Adult Ministry & Christian Education Pastors 

Continuing Education Premium = $2,185
Seminary (Master’s Degree)
                  Wage Premium = $9,503
                  Percent Increase = 15.4%
                  Time to Recoup = 3.2 to 5.3 years

Because the cohort of adult ministry and Christian education pastors span such a wide range of responsibilities and roles, there is a great deal of variance between individual salaries. This variance makes it harder to analyze the value of associate, bachelor, or doctorate degrees. That said, there is a massive wage premium of 15.4% or $9,053/yr. for adult ministry or Christian education pastors who complete a master’s degree.

Indeed, pastors in this master’s degree cohort appear to fall into a distinct pay grade that is consistently higher and exhibits less variance.

This significant M.A. wage premium makes sense given the education-related tasks performed by these pastors. Pastors who educate and teach adults are clearly rewarded for their seminary training.

Music/Worship Pastors 

Continuing Education Premium = $4,286
Seminary (Master’s Degree)
                  Wage Premium = $6,839
                  Percent Increase = 9.5%
                  Time to Recoup = 4.4 to 7.3 years

It is less common for music/worship pastors to attend seminary or earn a master’s degree. Perhaps for this reason, worship pastors with a master’s degree of some kind earn more (9.5% or $6,839) every year than their peers with only a four-year degree.

Interestingly, the annual difference between the median salary of worship pastors with a bachelor’s degree ($56,377) versus those with a master’s degree ($64,233) is $7,856.

Youth Pastors 

Continuing Education Premium = $4,332
Seminary (Master’s Degree)
                  Wage Premium = $5,711
                  Percent Increase = 12%
                  Time to Recoup = 5.3 to 8.8 years

Even though they earn less money, youth pastors are more educated than worship pastors. Specifically, youth pastors are more likely to attend seminary and to complete four years of college than music/worship pastors.

Based on the master’s degree wage premium and the time to recoup the cost of seminary—as well as the fact that many youth pastors go on to serve as family, associate, and even senior pastors—it makes financial sense for youth pastors to pursue a seminary education if they plan to pursue a career in the church.

Additionally, given the wealth of data captured by the Youth Pastor Compensation Survey, ChurchSalary can conclude with a high level of certainty that for youth pastors:

  • a master’s degree is worth $5,711 more per year (or more), and
  • a bachelor’s degree is worth $1,393 more per year (or more).

Children’s Pastors 

Continuing Education Premium = $4,424
Seminary (Master’s Degree)
                  Wage Premium = $5,124
                  Percent Increase = 10%
                  Time to Recoup = 5.8 to 9.7 years

In ChurchSalary’s database, the position of children’s pastor also encompasses preschool directors. Because of this, the distribution of education among children’s pastors in ChurchSalary’s database is likely lower than children’s pastors in the real-world. Meaning that, children’s pastors are more likely than preschool directors/pastors to attend seminary.

That said, there is clearly a wage premium (10% or $5,142) associated with a seminary or master’s degree for pastors or directors who lead children under the age of 12 or 13. It almost always makes financial and career sense for children’s pastors (or preschool directors) to attend seminary, especially if they plan to serve vocationally for more than 6-10 years.

The incredibly wide confidence interval for children’s pastors with doctorates (+/- $21,391) is because there are only seven such employees in ChurchSalary’s database. Doctorates among children’s pastors are clearly a rarity.

Four Basic Estimates

ChurchSalary used both average and median salary data, normalized by budget, to estimate the value of education for pastors. Below is an explanation (with examples) of how these estimates were calculated.

Continuing Education Premium: The average of all six increases above an associate degree. OR, the difference between the top three education levels using both the average and median salary. How much might one more degree increase my salary?

  • Continuing Education Premium = $3,660 = ($2,367 + $2,859 + $5,645 + $337 + $5,192 + $5,558) / 6

Master’s Degree

Wage Premium: The average increase between a master’s and bachelor’s degree (using both the average and median salary). How much more, on average, will this type of pastor earn annually if they complete a master’s degree?

  • Wage Premium = $4,025 = ($2,859 + $5,192) / 2

Percent Increase: Percent difference between average salary of pastors with a master’s and bachelor’s degree

  • Percent Increase = 3.87% = ($76,648 - $73,789) / $73,789

Time to Recoup: Estimated time to offset the cost of a master’s degree using the wage premium.

  • Time to Recoup = 7.5 to 12.4 years = $30,000 or $50,000 / $4,025

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