Labor Day & Clergy

Do we promise to pay our pastor fairly and provide for our pastor’s welfare as she/he works among us?*   

Come Labor OnOn this Labor Day Weekend, let’s talk about unions.  Actually, this post is specific to my denomination: the PCUSA.

[Note for non-Presbyterians: In my denomination, the regional body for church governance is The Presbytery. A Presbytery ordinarily encompasses all the churches in our denomination in a specific geographic region.]

It’s been said that The Presbytery is a pastor’s union in that The Presbytery (not to mention The Board of Pensions) has salary requirements, vacation requirements and study leave requirements that ensure fair pay and benefits for our clergy.  While labor unions came into being in the mid-19th century to protect workers, care for Presbyterian clergy via special funds and minimum salaries predates labor unions by over a century.

In a perfect world, employers would pay workers fairly, give them time off, and offer them health insurance and a pension.  But our world is not perfect.  Sadly, we’ve needed labor unions to ensure fair pay, time off and other benefits.

In a perfect Church, the congregation would pay church workers fairly, give church workers time off, and offer health insurance and a pension.  But – God knows – the Church is not perfect.  Sadly, we’ve needed the Presbytery to ensure fair pay, time off and other benefits.

Many of our congregations struggle to pay the clergy minimum because they simply do not have the capacity to do so.  I know that in 30 years of professional ministry, I have earned the Presbytery minimum in 25 of those years – and my salary took the largest percentage of the annual church budget.  But I’ve also noticed – both as a parish pastor and now as a Presbytery staffer – that some churches either:

  1. Do not understand the life of a pastor (and why – for example – a pastor needs a sabbatical every 5-7 years) and/or
  2. Hope to get church staffers for cheap.

This goes for church musicians, educators, administrators, and sextons as well as clergy.

  • We hire “directors” instead of pastors because we can avoid paying the Presbytery minimum salary and benefits.
  • We avoid paying secretaries and music staff full-time salaries to avoid paying the health care and pension benefits that are required for FT employees.
  • We seek the less expensive staffing.  I was asked during conversations with my first church why I needed $14,000/year (the minimum) when I had earned only $8000/year as a hospital chaplain because I “seemed to be doing just fine with $8000.”  We had to convince them to pay me the minimum, and to be fair, many of the parishioners received surplus cheese handouts from the US government.
  • Clergy women still earn less than clergy men on average.

The truth is that there is huge disparity in terms of clergy salaries.  Heads of Staff of large churches often earn twice or three times what the Associate Pastors earn.  There could be reasonable and not-so-reasonable factors involved.

Those who serve in rural or inner city congregations with a higher incidence of unemployed or underemployed parishioners earn less because their congregations simply cannot possibly pay more than the minimum salary, and often cannot pay that minimum at all.

And finally – something on my mind as I can see retirement in the not-so-distant future – there are huge financial incentives for staying in active ministry after age 65 which can destroy a church that needs fresh leadership.  If a pastor needs to go at the age of 60 or 62, but plans to stay on through 70, the congregation may never recover from those years of stagnation.

I have no brilliant answers to remedy these concerns, but they are real.  And my hope is that someone smarter than I might address them on a national level.

In the meantime, I ask you in the parish to appreciate your church workers – from the person who vacuums the sanctuary to the person who preaches the sermon.  If we can’t pay them what they are worth, at least we can thank them for making it possible for us to gather as a community and grow in faith together.

*This question is asked of a congregation when installing a new pastor in the PCUSA.

Image shows the lyrics of the great hymn Come, Labor On by Jane Laurie Borthwick. (1859)

2 responses to “Labor Day & Clergy

  1. Reblogged this on Changing Church — Changing World and commented:
    Thanks to Jan for this timely post, especially as congregations head towards new terms of call for pastors in 2015. Congregations and presbyteries are now grappling with the question of whether it’s faithful compensation to ask a pastor to pay tye extra percentage for family medical coverage when the Board of Pensions is allowing for some cost sharing come the first of the year.


  2. How can we be creative in developing calls that allow flexibility in balancing salaries with consistency and continuity in pastoral leadership — especially when churches are tiny and on the cusp … teetering between life and death. In a sense a rhetorical question, yet it’s grounded in reality.


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