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Working for "Peanuts"

A pastor recalls his financial struggles as a young pastor living on a low salary.
Working for "Peanuts"
Image: tommaso79

The other day, I was listening to Thom Rainer’s recent podcast on “what to do if your church does not pay you adequately.” In it, Rainer’s cohost, Jonathan Howe, prompts him to tell a story about his early years in ministry, highlighting his financial struggles as a young pastor in Florida who received a low salary from his church.

"The compensation … that I was receiving for a family of five—and I know it was in the mid-to-late ’80s, so put that in perspective—but the full-time pay was $21,000 a year," says Rainer.

"That's peanuts, man," Howe replies.

"Even back then, that was peanuts,” says Rainer. “So I really, really was struggling. ... I had to actually sign out food from the food pantry."

In fact, things were so bad for Rainer and his family that his wife was “considering selling her plasma” just to make ends meet. “We sold everything we could sell in order to have enough funds just to support our family,” Rainer says, “even to the point of selling our high school class rings.” And when the mayor paid them a visit in their home, they had to sit on the floor; they had sold their furniture.

In Today’s Dollars

What we should note is that Rainer's income of $21,000 for a family of five in the mid- to late-1980s was certainly “peanuts,” yet he was still above the poverty threshold. During those years, the poverty threshold for a family of five was between $12,450 and $14,140.

If Rainer were a pastor today, what would that $21,000 translate to? His inflation-adjusted income in today's dollars would be roughly between $43,000 and $49,000. Those salaries seem downright typical for many in the workforce, including millennial parents with young families.

But that doesn’t mean Rainer is at all exaggerating. Far from Rainer's financial struggles being overstated, the inflation-adjustment highlights the lower buying power that the last 30 years have delivered to earners.

Churches will need to think intentionally about how their compensation frees—or burdens—staff.

Take the rising price of homes, for example. The median sales price for US homes was around $82,800 in 1985 to $124,800 in 1989. In other words, a typical house cost approximately four to six times Rainer's annual income in 1985. If Rainer were to make roughly the same inflation-adjusted income today of $43,000–$49,000, the median home sales price estimate at the end of last year of $328,600 would cost 6.7 to 7.6 times his income—or an extra 6-36 months' salary (assuming he could save 100% of his income during that time, which is unlikely).

On top of that, pastors today face increased student loan burdens paired with lower after-college wages in ministry, which can make saving for a home (or even monthly expenses) much more difficult to manage.

Are these macro-economic trends churches' fault? Not at all. But just because something isn't your fault doesn't mean it's not your problem. Churches will need to think intentionally about how their compensation frees—or burdens—staff who are tasked with being healthy enough to excel in their ministries.

What Leadership Can Do

Eventually, Rainer left his low-paying church job. The leading administrator in the church came up to him and asked, “Did you make the decision over money?” Rainer admitted he did. She responded, "Why didn't you come to me? I don't pay attention to the church budget." Rainer explains that she meant that if his low salary was an issue, she would have found more money.

The responsibility for fair pay ultimately rests with leaders.

It’s safe to assume this administrator and the other leaders of the church were not trying to wring every ounce of ministry from a church employee like Rainer while paying the bare minimum. Far from trying to take advantage of church workers, most leaders are focused on non-staff ministry—its priority in the budget, its effects on others, and its ultimate growth. Keeping staffing costs low is part of that.

But this encounter with an administrator helps highlight an important caution in church leadership: While church employees should advocate for their own fair treatment, the responsibility for fair pay ultimately rests with leaders.

Church leaders should be utilizing objective data and measurements of fair pay in ministry. They should also be actively engaged in how their ministers are coping financially. If a worker is underpaid, church leaders should know that—and proactively work to correct it, if possible, rather than waiting for someone to bring it up. Waiting until a minister wants to leave is too late. If a church would offer more money to keep an employee from leaving, then it shouldn’t wait until that scenario is a threat—or worse, a reality. Show that appreciation now. And if the realities of a church budget don’t allow for an increase in compensation—or the employee’s role and/or performance don’t warrant one—the church should be up front about that.

Great conversations in church management happen through honesty, clarity, and goodwill, and when it comes to compensation, church employees can display these qualities by approaching a dialogue with both humility and a sense of their own needs and worth. Churches can display these characteristic by proactively working to inform and engage employees.

Church leaders know their employees constitute the church’s most important asset for doing ministry. There’s no reason employees shouldn’t know it, too.

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ChurchSalary is made possible through funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. As part of Lilly's "National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders," ChurchSalary—and our parent, Church Law & Tax—is committed to helping church leaders and pastors develop an atmosphere of healthy financial stewardship, especially in the area of church staff compensation.