Pinched Paychecks

About half the nation's full-time pastors report they received no salary increase in the past year, continuing a downturn in salaries among top leaders in churches, according to a new survey published by Christianity Today International. In fact, the extensive survey, publishing this fall in the 2010-2011 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff, shows a slight decline or stall in pay levels for the majority of every church employee surveyed this year.

The Compensation Handbook was developed to provide church leaders and employees with a current and reliable picture of compensation practices across a broad spectrum of American churches. It presents survey data from nearly 5,000 churches representing more than 10,000 staff members in 13 ministry positions, both full-time and part-time, ranging from pastors to childcare positions. The survey was conducted in February and March from subscribers of various Christianity Today International magazines, e-newsletters, and web channels, including Church Law & Tax Report, Church Finance Today, andLeadership, a journal for pastors and church leaders.

Among the findings:

• After a slight bump up in salaries in 2008, the new survey finds a small decline reported in 2009.

• Tenure provides little impact on the economic benefit to pastors who serve as their congregation's only clergy person until they have exceeded 15 years of service.

• Women clergy, though smaller in numbers than men, showed a few financial gains, but overall, women's income still trails their male counterparts primarily in full-time positions.

Fewer raises, smaller salaries

The total compensation for all lead pastors (combined solo and senior pastors' data), including housing, insurance, and retirement benefits, was down about 2.4% to an average $70,806. The average for senior pastors who lead multiple pastoral staff declined about one-half of 1% to $80,745, compared to the solo pastors' average of $56,189, down about 6.6%. According to these figures, the average solo pastor lost more than $300 per month in salary and benefits last year.

"One of my church compensation-related concerns," says Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, "is that fringe benefits are often cut along with salaries. Because many fringe benefits are tax-free or tax-deferred, there is a multiplier impact when some benefits are cut (such as church provided health insurance). First, church staff must pay the costs formerly covered by the church and then the costs must be paid from after-tax dollars instead of pre-tax dollars. In many instances, it is better stewardship to reduce pay and maintain full fringe benefits instead of cutting fringe benefits and sustaining pay levels."

As in previous years, regional differences are reflected in the study, as are the effects of congregation size and location. In general, churches in the Central-Southeast and Mountain regions reported lower compensation than the overall averages, while salaries in New England and the Northeastern states were above average. As expected, smaller churches, especially those in rural areas and small cities, reported lower salaries. The exceptions, in most cases, were the rare churches dotting the countryside that have attendance of 1,000 or more worshipers per weekend. Their compensation packages more closely matched their large counterparts in suburban and urban settings.

"While offerings remained relatively steady for many churches through 2008," says Busby, "by early 2009, churches began feeling the impact of rising unemployment in the offering plates. The impact on salaries, shown by this survey, is simply part of the larger picture of the effect of the economy on churches."

Ron Smedley, president of Synergistic Resource Associates (SRA), a full-service human resource/ development consulting firm in California, concurs.

"Ministries, churches, marketplace organizations—no one has been spared the challenges that come with a down economy," he says. "Before we cut wages and lay off staff, we must first problem solve, explore and analyze using the two key rules of stewardship: Does everything that we do have meaning, and are we giving the right amount to receive maximum results?"

As churches increasingly look for ways to balance their books (see the Executive Summary for the 2009 Church Budget Priorities Survey on, Smedley challenges churches to take a holistic approach to strategy and stewardship.

"Excellence today must have new meaning as we organize our resources," he says. "Should there be sacrifice of wages ‘for the sake of ministry'? Or should there be a sense of caring and providing for our leaders and workers to ensure that they are free to pursue ministry objectives without the burden of wondering whether they're going to be able to pay their mortgage or afford health insurance for their family?"

Flying solo

Long-time service to a single congregation produces little financial gain for solo pastors. Unlike most other staff positions reported in this survey, including senior pastors, executive pastors, and worship ministry leaders, solo pastors notice little salary increase based on tenure until they eclipse the 15 year mark. In all other categories, the minister's education levels, church attendance, budget, and the church's location, affect the pastor's total compensation.

Solo pastors who have served their current church less than six years report median total compensation of $54,941, while solo pastors employed in their current churches 11 to 15 years report median compensation of $54,921. The averages show a slightly wider range, but the implication is the same: the percentage of a church's budget given to the pastor's salary is unaffected by the pastor's tenure. The solo pastor is more likely to get a raise by pursuing an advanced degree and moving to a larger church in a more prosperous region than by waiting for his or her current congregation to reward years of faithful service.

Smedley adds, "If a person in a small company wants to receive more money, typically the way to accomplish is to pursue new skills sets and/or an advance degree, and move on to a larger company, similar to what a solo pastor needs to do to increase his or her earnings. The economic reality of small organizations, whether a church or a business, is that if you do not have the money coming in, you cannot pay someone more."

Women pastors make few gains

While women account for only 8% of full-time solo pastors in this survey, their total compensation packages are almost on par with their male counterparts, averaging only $475 less than the male solo pastors' $56,240 total annual package. That near-parity stands in stark contrast to the salaries of female senior pastors leading multi-pastor churches. Only 2% of senior-pastor respondents in this survey were female. They served much smaller churches than male senior pastors (173 worship attenders on average, compared to 415 for male senior pastors) and earned substantially smaller salaries ($60,798 total compensation, compared to $81,134 for male senior pastors). The female senior pastors had served less time with their current congregations (7 years, compared to 10 years for male senior pastors).

Women account for a larger share of part-time church staff, particularly in administration, music, and children's ministries. In almost every staff position, men draw higher incomes than women in the same jobs. While the majority of full-time children's ministry leaders in this survey are female, the relatively few full-time males in these positions receive total compensation about 28% higher than females. Full-time male youth pastors (who far outnumber females in the position) were paid $51,616 total compensation, compared to $40,021 for full-time female youth pastors. Women have made gains in part-time youth ministry. It should be noted that one in three part-time youth pastors is female, and their compensation is on par with that of the male part-timers.

"Traditionally women have been paid less," Smedley notes. "If women and men are carrying out the same job description with the same seniority, and the same education and experience, why should she not be paid the same wages for the same position? Churches need to be above reproach and take care of the core needs of their pastors, regardless of their gender."

Who makes how much?

The 2010-2011 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff reports salary, benefits, and total compensation packages for 13 ministry positions cross-tabulated by church size, budget, region, setting, and by the staff members education level, tenure, and gender. Based on all-new surveys and published annually, this comprehensive reference work has served as the standard for tracking national and regional trends for ten years. Thousands of churches use the Compensation Handbook as a respected guide for establishing salary and benefits for ministers and church staff. The new edition is available on, or by calling 1-800-222-1840.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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