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Minding the Gap: Gender and Compensation in Churches and Ministries
Minding the Gap: Gender and Compensation in Churches and Ministries
How churches can provide equitable pay for the women and men they employ.
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Julie had been working as an associate campus minister for 15 years. Shortly before her senior leader retired, another associate minister—a man—was hired. This new associate had a salary higher than Julie’s and soon stepped into the senior leadership role when it was vacant. Julie’s salary and position remained the same.

Charlotte worked full-time on her church staff for 10 years. Though she didn’t have a degree in youth ministry, she had about 15 years’ worth of experience working in it. Her student ministry at the church saw a weekly turnout that was larger than the average Sunday service. She received her benefits from her husband’s employer, as her church—a denominational church in the South—did not provide them to her. Her salary was less than $35,000 a year.

Julie and Charlotte’s names have been changed, but the details of their stories have not. Their cases are, arguably, individual: the specific churches and ministries that employed them also employed questionable compensation practices (whether consciously or unconsciously). Yet when placed in the context of labor statistics and anecdotal evidence, their stories hint at the complex, systemic, gender-based compensation issues in the workplace—including the church.

What the gender wage gap looks like

The very existence of a wage gap between men and women is the subject of much debate. Conduct an online search using terms like “gender wage gap” and titles such as “Don’t Buy Into the Gender Pay Gap Myth” are listed alongside results like “The gender pay gap is real, and here’s who is hit hardest.”

Under federal law, any kind of gender-based pay disparity is illegal—period. “There is no question that federal law prohibits pay inequality based on gender—the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 clearly prohibit this type of discrimination,” says attorney David Middlebrook. Yet according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), an economic think tank based in Washington, D.C., US Census Bureau data measuring full-time workers’ annual pay show that “women are paid 80 cents for every dollar men are paid.” The statistics on hourly pay aren’t much better: 83 cents for every man’s dollar.

Under federal law, any kind of gender-based pay disparity is illegal—period.

In an October 2016 report, EPI acknowledged the “fraught” nature of the gender gap topic and the “speculat[ion] that the ‘unadjusted’ gender wage gap could simply be reflecting other influences,” such as education level and occupation. Even with such adjustments, however, EPI found a disparity in pay between the genders.

“[B]ecause gender wage gaps that are ‘adjusted’ for workers’ characteristics (through multivariate regression) are often smaller than unadjusted measures,” the report stated, “people commonly infer that gender discrimination is a smaller problem in the American economy than thought.”

According to the EPI’s findings, though, “[t]he data on the gender wage gap are remarkably clear and (unfortunately) consistent about the scale of the gap. In simple terms, no matter how you measure it, there is a gap.”

What the gender gap looks like in churches

In recent years, Church Law & Tax has reported on this gap as it appears in churches and ministries. Three issues of Church Law & Tax’s monthly newsletter Church Finance Today—in 2011, 2014, and 2015—featured pieces on salaries for church staff, with each referencing gender as a concerning factor. A 2014 ManagingYourChurch.com post titled “The Pastor Pay Gap” commented that “even though the prevalence of women in leadership roles in the church is rising steadily, women’s salary levels are not keeping pace with their male counterparts.”

Two years later, in 2016, not much had changed. In January 2016, the Religion News Service (RNS) reported on the 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data on male and female clergy’s national median income—the first time the BLS had been able to report those numbers, as they previously “could not make reliable estimates for women because of their relatively few numbers.” According to the BLS figures, “women clergy earn 76 cents for each dollar earned by male clergy,” which is 4 to 7 fewer cents than the estimated national gap.

In March 2016, however, RNS reported on the then-newly released 2015 BLS data, in which “median earnings by women [clergy] rose to $924,” stating that the new, narrower gap “remains between 85 and 90 cents for each dollar male clergy earn.” Why the sudden leap in earnings? “The change reflects the sensitivity of the estimates caused by the relatively few female clergy in the data,” wrote RNS reporter Tobin Grant. “There are enough to make a report, but there is less stability in the figures than for other groups.”

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