Churches Slowly Expand Salaries

Will slow growth and strained budgets thwart future increases?

The recession officially ended two years ago, but America’s slow recovery is evident everywhere—including the pay that pastors and paid ministry staff members receive to lead churches nationwide.

The 2012-2013 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff, Christianity Today’s bi-annual survey of salaries and benefits of 4,600 participating churches, reveals an average 1.7 percent increase in pay for all 8,000 positions reported on since the last survey in 2010. Two years ago, though, the compensation survey showed pay and benefits declined an average of 1.4 percent, so this year’s uptick in pay, albeit small, represents a bigger overall improvement for church workers.

To illustrate, senior pastors report salary and benefits at an average $82,938 this year, up 2.7 percent from the $80,745 average reported in the 2010-2011 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff (see Chart 1). While a salary in the $80,000 range looks good on paper, actual take-home pay for pastors may be much different, perhaps far less. The average base salary of a full-time senior pastor ranges from $33,000 to $70,000. Eighty-four percent of senior pastors say they also receive a housing allowance, which accounts for $20,000 to $38,000 in added compensation.

About 32 percent of churches provide additional salary to their senior or solo pastor to assist with their Social Security payments. Of these churches, 78 percent pay half of the Social Security tax, while 22 percent pay all of it.

About two-thirds of the churches surveyed reimburse roughly 79 percent of the senior or solo pastor’s professional expenses per year, and two-thirds (64 percent) help their senior or solo pastor with auto expenses.

Larger churches (those with weekly attendances between 2,000 and 20,000) follow many of these same trends, according to Warren Bird, research director for Leadership Network, who has conducted several surveys of large churches available at “When the Great Recession hit, churches small and large pulled back on many expenses, including continuing education costs and raises for their pastors,” he says. “As the economy slowly recovers, churches are carefully easing back into increases in these areas.”

Benefits vary significantly from one position to the next (for full-time senior pastors, see Chart 2). This is especially true for health insurance and retirement programs. The number of church staff receiving health insurance varies from 44 percent to 71 percent, depending on position. A similar gap is seen among those who report receiving retirement benefits (41 percent to 67 percent). Part-time staff members receive fewer fringe benefits, with one notable change this year: most part-time positions show an increase in the percentage of those who receive paid vacation. At the same time, the overall percentage of part-time staff receiving salary increases is the lowest in three years.

“Our board of directors agonized over pay increases for the 2011 budget. We wanted to honor a staff that had worked hard in 2010 (a lean financial year), but also be careful not to overextend our budget,” says Jenni Catron, executive pastor for Cross Point Church, a multisite church in Nashville. “Ultimately we decided to allow for two- to three-percent increases for our staff as a cost of living raise. Unfortunately, we then discovered that the actual cost of living increase in the Nashville area for this year is more than four percent. It’s frustrating not to be able to pay people as well as we’d like.”

If church employees are frustrated by the slow climb out of the deep recessionary hole, they’re not seeking greener pastures. On average, senior pastors have been employed at their current church for ten years. The overall average for full-time church staff is eight years; part-time staff members have been at their current churches about six-and-a-half years on average. Senior pastors and executive pastors rank at the top in total compensation plus benefits. In general, as church income and worship attendance increase, compensation and benefits also increase.

Survey results for executive/administrative pastors bear this out. For example, the majority (55 percent) of full-time executive or administrative pastors works in churches with income of more than $1 million. Nearly one-third serve in churches with worship attendance of more than 1,000, and about half serve in churches set in a suburb of a large city. All generally receive higher compensation and benefits packages compared to those in other settings. Bird’s research of large churches confirms this: “The larger the church, the more likely it is to underwrite the pastor’s full benefits and Social Security taxes, and likewise for others on the church staff.”

Associate pastors and worship pastors/directors receive the next highest compensation amounts, followed generally by solo pastors, adult education pastors, and administrators. On average, associate pastors earn about 75 percent of what senior pastors receive, but about 10 percent more than solo pastors. About six in ten full-time associate pastors receive health insurance and retirement benefits.

Growth, Education, Gender, and Geography

Other results from Christianity Today’s national compensation survey:

Eighty-one percent of churches say their attendance remained flat (38 percent) or grew (43 percent) during the past year, while 19 percent say they experienced a decline. This is the largest area of contrast with churches of 2,000 or more people, Bird says. “A bigger portion of them are growing, and with the extra cash that growth often provides, they are able to hire more staff or at least provide greater benefit coverage for their existing staff,” he says.

Education plays a significant part in determining senior pastor pay, although the same is not true for other positions in the church. Forty-nine percent of senior pastors have a master’s degree, and 23 percent hold doctorates. Senior pastors who earn a doctorate after their master’s degree garner the best compensation increases.

Across all paid church positions, men are compensated 28 percent more than their female counterparts. Some of this difference can be explained on the basis of church income, which proved the biggest factor affecting compensation and benefits in this study. To illustrate, in churches with male senior pastors, church income (i.e. revenue) averages about $710,000, while church income where women serve as senior pastors hovers at about $487,000. This $223,000 gap in revenue could explain, at least in part, why male senior pastors are compensated about 20 percent higher than female senior pastors in this example.

The only women outpacing men in churches are those who serve as church secretaries and part-time musicians or vocalists. Even though women make up 69 percent of full-time children’s pastors (89 percent of part-time children’s pastors are women), men serving in this role full-time earn nearly $12,000 more on average than women.

The biggest disparity in pay along gender lines is for full-time adult ministry pastors—men earn about 55 percent more than women in this position—and for male executive pastors, who earn nearly 50 percent more than women in this same role.

The gender pay gap closes for solo pastors. Although 92 percent of solo pastors are men (paid an average of $57,452), they earn only slightly more than women solo pastors (paid an average of $54,102).

Generally speaking, church workers make more in suburbs and large cities.

The percentage of churches with declining attendance is rising in almost all areas, with the biggest declines in attendance occurring in these three places:

  • Mountain (21 percent)
  • West-South Central (21 percent)
  • New England (20 percent)

Additionally, fewer churches are operating in the black. The overall percentage of churches with income EXCEEDING expenses is declining in almost every region, with the biggest drop in churches from these five regions (See Chart 3).

  1. West-South Central (32%, down from 45% in 2009)
  2. South Atlantic (27%, down from 33% in 2009))
  3. Middle Atlantic (25%, down from 32% in 2009)
  4. Mountain (25%, down from 39% in 2009)
  5. Pacific (22%, down from 29% in 2009)
  6. Typically, 48 percent of the churches’ income/budget is devoted to salaries. That average for staffing costs also holds true for larger churches (attendances of 2,000 to 20,000), Bird says.

  7. To determine compensation levels for your church, order the new 2012-2013 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff on
  8. Marian V. Liautaud served as editor of The 2012-2013 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff. Cynia Solver, independent research consultant at Solver Solutions (, conducted the research and analyzed data for The 2012-2013 Compensation Handbook for Church Staff.

    This article first appeared in Church Finance Today, October 2011.

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