The importance of paying pastors an adequate wage was a lesson learned the hard way early in my ministry. I graduated near the top of my seminary class. I had high hopes of securing a well-paying position, yet my first call was to a mission congregation. To my knowledge, I was offered the lowest salary of anyone in my graduating class. Of course, I accepted the call, failing to realize the impact an inadequate income could have on the morale of me and my family. To use a biblical phrase, I was zealous without knowledge.
Trying to set an example for my flock, I even tithed on this substandard salary.
One Saturday my wife and I were out canvassing the neighborhood on behalf of the church. About noon we decided to stop at Burger King and grab lunch. We were tired and hungry as we stepped up to the counter. After we ordered, we each looked to the other to pay. As we opened our wallets, we realized that neither of us had enough money to pay for our burgers. We left in embarrassment. My wife is a naturally up person and rarely cries. That day she wept.
Unfortunately, similar scenarios occur in churches around the country. Pastors in far too many places are underpaid. Churches often fail to count the hidden costs of poor salaries. Individuals do not work effectively when money is a constant worry. They become resentful, unproductive, and the ministry suffers. Their families bear the scars for years to come.
Now that I'm in a different position, in which I have a bit more influence over my own salary and those of our staff, my philosophy is that pastors should be free from money worries, as much as possible, so they can concentrate on ministry.
We don't want to overpay or underpay. We don't want anyone to stay at our church only because they couldn't get the same salary elsewhere. Likewise, we don't want anyone to leave solely on account of money. We seek to remove money as a preoccupation.
Our goal is to keep productive and hard-working staff free from humiliating circumstances such as those my wife and I experienced early on in our ministry. Not incidentally, our staff turnover rate has been small through the years.
A difficult question
This is not to say that arriving at a proper wage for a pastor or staff member is always an easy process. In times of economic downturn or recession, the problem can become even more difficult.
During the recent recession, our elder board met to determine proposed raises for staff for the coming year. Several families in our church were unemployed. We even began a support group for jobless men and women who had nowhere to go in the morning. The irony was, despite the bad economic news on the outside, our church was doing well financially. We had seen growth both in membership and giving.