At any given moment, there are people in a church congregation who are in the grip of a financial crisis. One of those people could be the pastor.
In a 2015 study by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), more than four thousand pastors were surveyed about their financial health. This study reveals the depth of a situation that reaches across boundaries of theology, governance, and polity. Among the findings:
- 30 percent of pastors have student loan debt averaging $36,000;
- 3 out of 4 carry some type of nonmortgage debt (student, medical, or other debt) averaging $31,593;
- 33 percent have less than $10,000 in retirement funds, and 29 percent have no retirement savings;
- 84 percent do not have funds to cover emergencies and major purchases; and
- 31 percent work second jobs.
The NAE survey was made possible through a nationwide, multiyear initiative by the Lilly Endowment to strengthen the finances of pastors. Numerous organizations have received grants from the endowment to create awareness about this issue and to educate denominations, churches, and pastors about how to respond. Leith Anderson, NAE president, said his organization's three-year project involves three denominations and is already looking to expand.
When Richard (Rick) Foss started his tenure in the 1990s as a bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Eastern North Dakota Synod, he quickly concluded the situation wasn't the fault of the pastors, but of a system that encouraged borrowing to pay for education.
Foss led an effort in his synod to improve the finances of clergy (see sidebar "Reducing Debt and Building Financial Security"), which became one of the blueprints of a 2007 program called "Economic Challenges Facing Indiana Clergy." Foss is now leading the effort to take this field-tested program nationally under the auspices of the Lilly Endowment.
Searching for solutions
Any church strategy to help deal with the challenges of pastors and personal finances should have three essential parts: increasing awareness; building a collaborative environment; and raising the financial education level for pastors, leaders, and laity.
Building awareness and collaboration to root out conflict and competition for scarce resources precedes taking specific economic steps.
"Sometimes a key factor is having a laity champion who understands and who has great empathy for the pastor. That champion can say things and raise issues the pastor has difficulty doing and can rally a core group of people who are committed to finding solutions," said Mark Rennaker, a pastor who is helping lead the Lilly Endowment's national initiative.