The Pastor Pay Gap
A look at what's driving lower pay for female clergy.

The number of female pastors in the U.S. has doubled since 1990, according to a 2009 Barna study. And yet, 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. Church Law and Tax Report's most recent annual compensation study reveals a difference of $10,000, on average, between men and women. In some cases, the disparity is much wider. The pay gap shows up across positions, from a $25,000 difference in full-time senior pastor salaries to a $10,000 gap in full-time custodial salaries.

Minding the gap

For decades, research has shown a gendered pay gap in clergy salaries. Women tend to remain in "entry-level" positions while men move on to higher paying clergy positions. Women are more likely to serve at small churches in rural areas or small towns, while men move to urban areas with more affluent members, according to salary research. Nonetheless, a pay gap still exists even when congregation size and church budget are considered.

Barbara Brown Zikmund, a retired professor of church history who coauthored Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling, thinks she may know at least one reason for this pay gap. In interviewing many clergywomen to write her book, and having since counseled women joining ministry, Zikmund says women are so eager to take a job in ministry that they often do so regardless of salary.

"Some of these women had made gobs of money and had given it up. They were responding to a call of God that was itching at their soul," Zikmund says. "They didn't care as much about money–they were so excited to have an opportunity to be called and to serve as pastors."

Zikmund counsels women and men joining ministry to negotiate a fair salary, whether they need it or not, partly so the person filling their shoes next will step into a role that pays a living wage. Women are more likely than men not to negotiate salaries, partly because women are often a second-wage earner for a household and don't feel as dependent on their salaries to survive, according to sociology research.

"Oftentimes women say 'I'm so blessed, I don't have to decide what to do based on how much it pays me,'" Zikmund said. "That's a wonderful blessing–but if you're being a responsible church leader, you cannot allow the church to do what you might be willing to swallow."

Women also tend to be hired for the clergy equivalent of lower-management jobs, rather than senior pastor or other higher-level positions. Those lower-level positions typically mean lower pay, according to Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College, who studies women, religion, and politics.

As traditionally male-dominated fields like the clergy hire more women, those professions tend to lose prestige and drop salary levels, which also affects pay, Deckman said. Ideally, church ministry will become a mixed-gender field, rather than representing one gender more than the other, said Zikmund.

"I don't think it's any better to have an all-female clergy in these churches than it was to have an all-male clergy," she said. "Society still has this sort of huge bias that somehow if a vocation is dominated by females it's not as important."

Attaining leadership diversity

Until church members are used to seeing women in leadership roles in all areas, the church will continue to pay women less, says Halee Gray Scott, independent leadership consultant and author of the forthcoming book Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women. Toward this goal, the church needs to encourage women in church leadership beyond traditionally female roles, like music and children's ministry.

"More women need to be in the diverse areas of the church," Scott says.

While women in church leadership make less money than men, they are often compensated in other ways. A 1999 study on clergy salaries found that clergywomen tended to receive more nonmonetary compensation than men, partly because they were more likely to be positive and enthusiastic. That social support compensation includes relational support, and things like dinner from congregation members, discounts on insurance, and other money-saving and supportive benefits.

But social support is no substitute for equal pay, says Zikmund, who believes churches have a moral obligation to enforce equal pay for both genders among their employees.

"You have to start educating church people to think about leadership in churches differently than society often thinks about leadership in businesses," Zikmund said. "Equity for leadership is a religious commitment, and if you ignore that, you're not being a good disciple of Jesus Christ."

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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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