Minding the Gap: Gender and Compensation in Churches and Ministries

How churches can provide equitable pay for the women and men they employ.

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

Church Law & Tax has reported on this gap as it appears in churches and ministries. Three issues of the newsletter Church Finance Today—in 2011, 2014, and 2015—featured pieces on salaries for church staff, with each referencing gender as a concerning factor.

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.”

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.

The range of beliefs on men and women in leadership can contribute to the pay gap.

“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.”

What can be done?

Regarding ministers, what can be done from a legal perspective if a church or employer is contributing to the gender wage gap? For female ministers and clergy (as for male ministers and clergy), the answer is: not much.

Due to the legal doctrine of the “ministerial exception,” “all clergy are prevented from bringing lawsuits against the church,” says Sommerville. In general, a court will only attempt to intervene in a church dispute when it can clearly see that a nonreligious issue is in question, due to First Amendment prohibitions regarding religious decision-making.

Because of this, conflicts concerning any issues of pay inequality are “not likely to be resolved through the courts or administrative action,” explains Middlebrook; the ministerial exception “protect[s] churches in their decisions related to the hiring, compensation practices (and ensuing disparity in compensation based on gender), and termination of ministerial employees.”

Sommerville points out that various denominations—including Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalian—have elected to have processes in place for addressing such issues: processes in which clergy can reach out to their conference or diocese and discover “some recourse—not legal recourse, but at least it’s recourse.”

Overall, however, if the wage gap is to be narrowed for female clergy, “it will be individual churches determining whether they believe in equal pay for equal services rendered,” says Middlebrook.

For women who are not defined as ministers—but are still employed by churches or ministries—the story is a little different. According to Middlebrook, “[W]hen it comes to non-minister employees at churches, the ministerial exception does not apply, and thus the aforementioned federal laws likely do apply.”

Assessing the church’s practices

For some churches, this may mean an assessment is in order.

“As a matter of fairness and equity,” says Middlebrook, “I think churches should evaluate their compensation practices to determine if there is a disparity in pay as to all employees who are performing the same job at the same location to determine if any discrepancies exist—and, if they do, is there a recurring trend of it being based on gender?”

Martha Simmons, a reverend in the United Church of Christ and founder of the Women of Color in Ministry Project, agrees with the need for assessment, and she urges churches to set concrete goals regarding compensation evaluation. “I tell churches, ‘You need to do a salary review every five years of all of your positions to make sure that [equitable compensation practices] do not change,’” she explains.

Himes also stresses the importance of encouraging benefits that will support women working in the church: “[I]f a church has things like a maternity leave, fully or partially paid…[so women can] not lose their years of experience, that’s important.”

Such solutions may sound simple enough. But for many women working in ministry, even broaching the subject of compensation is a complicated task.

The messages women hear

“It’s hard to talk about money in the context of ministry,” says Himes. She shares that for many of her single friends, “there’s not even a discussion of what a fair pay should be.” The reasoning? “‘It’s ministry—you don’t do it for the money.’ And that’s the end of the conversation.”

Diaz says that traditional gender roles in the church can also play a role in how women approach—or fail to approach—matters of money.

“In general, women are not equipped or coached or trained…to figure out ‘how do you have that conversation in the church?’” she says. “Because in some ways, too, women are trained to be submissive and to be grateful for what they have received and to not rock the boat—and to serve . . . To go and say, ‘I want $10,000 more dollars because I think that’s fair based on x, y, and z’—in some ways, it doesn’t feel Christian to do that.”

“It’s ministry—you don’t do it for the money.” And that’s the end of the conversation.

Simmons has encountered the same mindsets in her work with women in ministry. “It’s a part of that trick that says to women, ‘You need to be glad that we accepted you. We affirmed women. Give us credit for that,’” she says. “Then tie to that the idea of ‘since we did the right thing, you should be accepting of any issues that come up, because we gave you space to work for Jesus.’”

There are “so many hurdles on the pastoral side, on the female side of things, to have to figure out,” says Diaz. “How do we jump across those mental barriers and some of those internal struggles that we have in order to be fairly compensated?”

Finding individual solutions

Diaz’s work with Charlotte—whose situation was briefly outlined at the start of this piece—offers a basic potential framework for jumping across those barriers. Diaz coached Charlotte for a year, spending several months discussing her compensation issues.

“I think the first step was her just coming to grips with [the truth that] ‘I need to value myself enough to ask [for] what is warranted to me,’” Diaz explains. “Not in an entitled way, but [realizing], ‘I bring a great amount of value to this church and to these students, and because I have value, I need to be able to stick up for myself, defend myself.’”

After this realization came more concrete steps. She did some research—using the Church Law & Tax compensation handbook as one of her sources—and wrote down her request, “her own proposal around how long she’d been at the church and what the growth of the ministry had been and what she does.” In the proposal, she asked for a $5,000 raise.

“She proposed it to the senior pastor, and he looked at it and said ‘yeah’ right away,” Diaz says. “And it was effective the next week.”

Of course, not every story ends like Charlotte’s. “In some churches, it’s just bringing an awareness and then they go, ‘Oh, okay—we need to fix that,’” says Sommerville. “And then in other cases, it’s, ‘Oh, okay—that’s the way it is.’”

Potential rejections from supervisors “are real fears for women,” says Diaz. “I think the fears keep women back from actually saying what it is they actually need and want.”

Diaz advises “that women need to do a better job of exploring what it is that’s hindering them from not pursuing that justice—both legally and theologically.”

But the first steps toward change don’t necessarily involve a confrontation with senior leadership.

Instead, Sommerville recommends “go[ing] to the employee manual first to figure out what are the remedies…if there’s a grievance.” After that, it might be time to start a conversation: “sometimes it’s raising it with your boss, sometimes it’s raising it with the church HR director. In a smaller church, it’s raising it with the personnel committee or the finance committee or church council.”

Finding church-wide solutions

In that vein, Simmons encourages churches to intentionally include women in those committees and councils and denominational efforts. “If they have a diaconate, another board, a finance board, board of elders—make sure that there are women who are part of the human resource effort,” she says. “Make sure that there are women there who can make the case: not women who will agree with the men, but women who will make the case. . . . You don’t see enough women in those positions that determine salaries and bonuses and work hours and how you get ordained. You don’t see women in those positions. And until that changes, much of this will never change.”

According to Simmons, another key step in the path to change concerns awareness and discussion among male clergy and staff—not just female. “You have to do both,” she says. “You have to talk to women, but you certainly have to talk to men.”

In her interactions with male pastors, Simmons has “help[ed] them understand what is just, what is fair, and—when their budget increases—who to take care of first, because these are the people who are doing the heavy lifting.”

Ultimately, however, “until women are willing to join the fight for their own liberation and proper pay, until more women are willing to join this fight—not just men, but more women, young and old—it’s not going to change,” says Simmons. “If you really want to be paid properly, you’re going to have to fight for it.”

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold 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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