Please – No More Pastors On the Cheap

No pastor accepts a call to professional ministry to get rich.  But, of course,  money pays for life’s necessities and extras, and we need it to live.  

Part of my work involves overseeing the Terms of Call that spell out what congregations agree to pay their pastors in terms of salary and benefits.  I’ve sadly found that it’s rare – if not unheard of – for congregations to be generous with their pastors without some people in the congregation protesting.

First of all, there are very few congregations that could genuinely be called generous to their pastors and other church staffers.  Many small church pastors are paid the minimum required salary and – if there is an annual raise at all – it tends to be only a cost of living adjustment.  Many small churches would like to pay their pastors more, but cannot afford to do so.  Or they don’t think they can.

What I’ve seen and heard:

  • Churches hiring a pastor, not because they’ve discerned that he/she has been called by God to lead them, but because he/she is the only one who can live in their manse/rectory which saves the congregation money.
  • Churches hiring married co-pastors to share a single position – each working half-time, but bragging openly that they will get more than “two for the price of one.”
  • Churches calling very part time pastors (1/2 time, 1/4 time) but expecting them to work full time, and resenting them if they try to set boundaries.
  • Churches that refuse to give sabbaticals to their pastors, even after 10, 15, 20 years of ministry.

With all of these situations, some education and interpretation is needed.  In fact, of the marks of a healthy 21st Century Church is the ongoing education of church leaders – beyond the pastor.  The elders, deacons, and support staff all need continuing education.  Some of that education is about what a pastor actually does or should be doing.

  • First, everybody needs to remember that successful ministry begins and ends with the Holy Spirit.  Search Committees must pray for their future pastors (it’s fun to realize that this future mystery pastor is walking around somewhere right now), pray for clarity, wisdom, and insight, and recognize that God is guiding the process – or should be.  Just as churches should not be unduly influenced by a potential pastor’s charm and good looks, churches should also not be influenced by the fact that a certain pastor might save them money (by living in the manse, arriving with a personal trust fund, etc.)
  • If we call a part-time pastor, we must – especially – respect and encourage limits to the pastor’s time.  A 10 hour/week pastor (barely) has time to write and preach a sermon, plan and lead worship, and moderate a monthly meeting.  No emergency visits.  No teaching classes.  A 25 hour/week pastor can preach, lead worship, teach a Bible study and do hospital calls (if nobody dies and the boiler doesn’t break down.)  But there’s no time for general pastoral care, premarital counseling, training the ushers, etc.  Even at 50 hours/ week a pastor cannot get everything done.  A solid full time pastor – even one that takes a regular day off – works a lot, doing  a broad array of duties from the holy to the banal.
  • Because of the nature of pastoral work, we have got to give our pastors a sabbatical.  Three.  Whole.  Months.  Every.  Six.  Years.  (Some congregations offer a sabbatical more often than every six years.)  If you don’t think you can spare your pastor for three months, your church officers are not doing their jobs.  Even the poorest congregation can work something out.  There are grants!  And for those of you say, “I don’t get a sabbatical from my bank/plumbing company/dental practice/auto repair shop.  Why should we pay our pastor for taking a three month long vacation?!”   First of all, maybe you should get a sabbatical from your work.  And secondly, teaching pastors need space for further learning without the distractions of the regular duties of professional ministry.  Those who refuse their pastors a sabbatical clearly have no idea what it means to be a parish pastor and the toll it takes on a person emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  And thirdly, a sabbatical not only refreshes the pastor so that he/she can return to benefit the church, but the congregation has the opportunity to take a sabbatical too, in that they can explore something new for their church.

There are some thoughtful churches out there who offer an extra week of vacation when pastors have family emergencies.  They remember their pastor’s ordination date and the anniversary of their pastor’s arrival.  They give little bonuses for an especially good job in special situations.  They tell their pastor what she/he does well and they love their pastor enough to share constructive criticism.  They partner with their pastors to do the work of ministry, rather than assume that “it’s the pastor’s job” to fill the pews and balance the budget.

The adage “you get what you pay for” is not necessarily true for church staffs.  I know pastors who devote their highest devotion and greatest creativity to their churches and are among the lowest paid pastors in their presbyteries.  But we have got to end the practice of attempting to get a pastor on the cheap.  Believe me, when the pastor is happy and healthy, the congregation is happy and healthy.

10 responses to “Please – No More Pastors On the Cheap

  1. Speaking of sabbaticals, how do you decide who is “in charge” when the pastor is away? These can be tense conversations as some might think an “outside” person should come in, while others think we should “hire from within”. What do you think?


    • HI Kara – If the church hires a temporary pastor (or 3 – one for each month, let’s say) that person will moderate the session and the session is ‘in charge’ as always. When I was on sabbatical, the temporary pastor was not ordained, so we had a neighboring pastor moderate the Session. The temporary pastor preached, did pastoral care, etc. If there are multiple ordained pastors on staff and one is selected to be in charge while the Head of Staff is away, there would need to be serious talks about transitions (both going into the sabbatical and after it’s over) and about added compensation for the pastor who is adding responsibilities.


  2. Sigh. I can’t disagree with the principle, but I think we have to find alternative ways to provide support for pastors of congregations that really are financially poor. Why should only financially strong congregations deserve a trained, gifted pastor? What about bi-vocational ministry? What about all us seminary graduates, fully certified, who can’t find calls because there aren’t enough congregations who can pay presbytery minimums? The world is changing and this is a part of our system that also must change.


  3. If I may be so bold, my first church was a tiny, rural (village of 700), financially stressed congregation, but they always called really good pastors straight out of seminary. We made the minimum and the church budget was bolstered with fundraisers (ham dinners, a food booth at the local fair.) Because of the limited resources, I stayed at this church for 5 years and my predecessors stayed for only 2-4 years. I made so little money that I qualified for food stamps and government cheese handouts. After paying student loans, I was eating lots of peanut butter sandwiches.

    There was no money to do much more than serve as a chaplain in that little community, and also, there was practically no social services/mental health/counseling infrastructure in such a rural area. We often did more social work than pastoral work. After a few years, we young pastors tended to leave so that we could do more in our ministry and maybe have a social life.

    I agree that little churches which can only pay for a pastor for 10 or 25 hours a week will probably find that their pastors will need to work a second job to make ends meet, especially if they are single. And if we are in very rural places, where will that second job be? There are no barrista jobs in little crossroads towns.

    We have a couple of churches in our Presbytery that are content with the way things are (very PT pastor or guest preachers each Sunday) even they don’t have anyone to do pastoral care or teach classes or connect with the neighborhood missionally. They will surely close within the next 5-10 years. Maybe there will be house churches that will support their spiritual needs down the road.

    But professional clergy – if we hope to have professional clergy – can be treated well even in small, isolated places if the community really wants this kind of ministry.


  4. Pingback: Please… No More Pastors on the Cheap

  5. Pingback: What Should We Pay Our Pastor? : Part 3 - Systems that Work | The Strategic Church

  6. Having been the pastor/minister on the cheap I have seen much of this in my life. Often they want my wife to play the piano, lead the women, teach Sunday School, etc, etc and pay me a bare minimum salary. They really do want two for one or really two for a half of a livable salary.

    Funny story, a little rural church told me they could only pay me $25 a week and I would have to work I was not from the local area and since I had to work I asked about jobs and they said there were none in the area. I had to turn them down. Trying to support a wife and two kids on $25 a week would have been tough even for my wonderful cost conscious wife.

    There was church that offered a very good salary, in fact, a bit too good. I told them I would come for $10K less and they could use that money to pay off the mortgage or whatever. I guess they thought I was nuts and I never heard from them again. Who works for less money?

    I have done most of my ministry for free and will probably do so until I die. God has graciously given me two pensions from secular jobs and a wife that is very frugal who also worked 31 years. Unlike many ministers, I also have a decent IRA. Ideally, I would like to serve for free at a church that wants to be a church and not just a club or nursing home.

    I suspect though that I will be doing my Maverick Ministry doing what I can where I can. As I told one lad who wanted to know how to get into ministry, you don’t get into ministry you just do ministry whether you get a title or salary or not.

    I got one title because as a jail minister I could speak to 50 in an area they gave us, but not one on one because I did not have a title of pastor. I asked for the title so I could do my ministry. While we were at it I was told what hurt my resume was that did not have enough titles or salaries so I said pay me a $1 a year and I will give it back just so I can say I had a salary. I thought not being greedy of filthy lucre or seeking gaudy titles was a good thing. Silly me. So they made me the Associate Pastor and did give me a small stipend.

    Anyway, thanks for this good article. Hopefully, it will help some young lads down the road. Maybe your next article can be on age discrimination in ministry. When I started out at 30 they wanted 50-55 and now that I qualify for that they want under 50 and even put that in their advertisements. I started out having to defend Timothy and now I have to defend Paul the aged. Crazy stuff.

    Shalom! Maranatha!!


  7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. If I were to share this, I would change the title to say: Please – No More Ministry Leaders on the Cheap. And, I would apply the principals you outlined to ALL persons in ministry regardless of whether they are a pastor or not.

    1. First, everybody needs to remember that successful ministry begins and ends with the Holy Spirit. (I would hope and pray that churches are applying this to ALL ministry positions they are hiring for. Following Gods leading on who he is calling into his church is not exclusive to pastoral staff.)
    2. If we call a part-time Pastor, we must – especially – respect and encourage limits to the pastor’s time. (I’ve yet to encounter anyone in ministry (pastor or not) that only works the hours they are called for. Most understand that when they accept the call to ministry they are not just working the designated hours outlined when they were hired. And, by the way, the families of these leaders understand that too, but it is wrong for churches to take advantage of that understanding.)
    3. Because of the nature of pastoral work, we have got to give our pastors a sabbatical. (When I hear and see churches discussing a sabbatical for their pastoral staff (which is not often enough) it never occurs to them that their other ministry leaders (non-pastoral staff) should have one as well. It’s almost as if they forget that these people work just as hard, are also beaten up emotionally, physically and spiritually, neglect their own needs, and their family’s needs as well. And, if we believe that all of those positions we hire for are ministry positions, then ALL people in ministry need space and time with God, without the distractions of the regular duties of professional ministry.)


  8. This is very difficult to change. This is one time a denominational affiliation can be of help. In some denominations, the terms of call have to be approved by mid level judicatory.


  9. As some who has been a bivocational pastor on the cheap, I can relate. I’d also say that churches don’t realize the bad witness they are being as staff people have unsaved family and friends who see the struggle and instead of the church taking care of their own they often see churches do worse than the world. My father, a non Christian, often has tried to tell me not to look for ministry positions because he does not think I’d be able to take care of my family.


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