Grant also discussed “the most surprising finding” of the BLS data: “the pay gap does not diminish (and may grow wider) when we take into account education and experience….when we take into account age, years of schooling, and having a theology degree, the gap becomes 85 cents,” which is lower than the highest estimate of 90 cents. “In other words,” Grant concluded, “female clergy really do earn less for the same education and experience.”
But for women working in churches and ministries, the question of compensation is weighed down by various factors—many of them unique to church and ministry contexts.
For instance, think back to Julie’s story: a longtime female campus minister suddenly becomes out-paid and out-ranked by a new male minister. Danah Himes, an associate campus minister at Eastern Illinois University’s Christian Campus House, once worked with Julie. Himes explained that Julie wouldn’t have been eligible for the senior position her male colleague was promoted into anyway, due to her ministry’s theology concerning women’s leadership.
“Part of the complication is there are ministries that will only put a male in the lead position,” says Himes. “So they can argue that they fund the position, versus [funding] the gender—but because of the gender, they’re not considering that [female] person for the position.”
When examining issues of gender, theology, and compensation in the church, attorney and Church Law & Tax Editorial Advisor Frank Sommerville offers the reminder that “the Christian community is very broad”—and the range of beliefs on men and women in leadership can contribute to the pay gap. “If you were in a church that was predominantly [made up of] male clergy,” he says, “that’s going to skew the numbers.”
April Diaz, whose work with church staffing organization Slingshot Group has provided her with an inside look at churches’ hiring processes, explains that semantics can play a role in how much a church pays a female employee.
“For churches that are uncomfortable in calling women ‘clergy’ or ‘pastors’ or ‘ministers’ or whatever your denominational language is, it’s much easier to just call them a ‘director’ with the same responsibilities, and thus they don’t qualify for that ministerial housing allowance,” she says. (According to attorney and Church Law & Tax Senior Editor Richard Hammar, “The housing allowance is the most important tax benefit available to ministers.”) “Also, if they do have systems in place for pay ranges [for director roles] within their churches, that automatically drops them to a lower bracket.”
Diaz also describes another unique hiring practice among many churches: the preference for workers who are married, particularly in regards to youth workers interacting with young women. “I…still encounter a lot of churches that say they won’t hire somebody unless they’re married,” she says. And this preference for married applicants can, ultimately, lead to pay discrepancies if churches see workers’ compensation as “need”-based, not position-based.
(Reminder for churches: according to Middlebrook, before a hire, “[a]ll interview questions should be job-related and aimed at determining whether the applicant possesses the proper qualifications,” and “[q]uestions cannot be used to discriminate against applicants” based on factors like marital status. Such discrimination is illegal.)
Yet in her ministry experience, Himes has seen this play out: “if [a church is] hiring a man, especially if he’s married, [then] there’s an expectation that he must need more money to provide for his family…therefore it gives him a place to start higher than if they’re hiring a woman who’s single—or even married—because there’s not the expectation that she should be the primary breadwinner.”
In the 2015 Church Finance Today article on churches and fair pay, Diaz “stress[ed] that churches should create salary ranges for job title or position, avoiding other reasons, such as financial need.”
When encountering these scenarios in her own work, she “always take[s] the conversation back to ‘you’re paying for a position; you’re not paying for a person.’ You need to have salary ranges set up as a result of what the position is, and you can take into consideration, then, as you hire, what the needs of the person might be. But really, experience and education and background—legally—need to be a more significant and solid part of the conversation.”