July 9, 2020

Lee Adams on the Future of the American Church (1)

Lee Adams is a regular reader and commenter here on Internet Monk. He blogs at Homilies, Prayers, and Bread for the Journey, and has recently done a series on the future of the American church.

I asked Lee if we could share his articles here on IM, and he graciously agreed. We will run one each Tuesday afternoon for the next few weeks.

Thanks, Lee!

• • •

Part One: Ministry as a “Career” vs. a “Calling”
by Lee Adams

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.”

• Frederick Buechner

I spend a good deal of time thinking about the church and faith on various levels.  I love church history, and looking at trends, practices, and the evolution of what we call Christianity.  It’s impossible for me to remove my own personal experience from that equation, as a guy who grew up in a liturgical, United Methodist tradition; who viewed the rise of the religious right in the 1980′s and 1990′s; who was a part of the seeker-friendly, post-modern mega church movement in the early days of my own ministry;  who experienced being a part of church plants and splits (better spoken, I was a part of a church split that called themselves a plant…I didn’t realize this until I had been on staff for quite a while);  who had great moments of triumph and equally emotional moments of defeat as a pastor; who ran from post-modernism to historical Christianity; and who eventually wound up right where I started…In the little United Methodist Church in which I grew up.

All of those things combined together make quite of pot of hash.  If you don’t know what hash is, just imagine taking all the meat you currently have in your freezer, throw in a hogs head, onions, tomatoes, and whole lot of spices, and let the mix simmer in a black cast-iron pot over an open fire until it tastes good.

That being said, I’m going to do the best I can to describe what the hash is going to taste like once you get a spoon in your hand.  The aforementioned faith ingredients are all mixed up, and I wanted to take a few moments over the days to come to make my best attempt to tell you what I believe the flavor of Christianity is going to be over the next few years.

Too Many Cooks, Pillsbury

There are some trends and cultural phenomena that must be considered as you take a whiff of what I’m cooking.  Consider these things we’ll be looking at as the spices that I’m throwing in the pot:

  1. Ministry as a “career” vs. “calling”.
  2. The evangelical response to growth in orthodox denominations.
  3. Return to liturgical practices:  Here to stay?

For now, let’s look at spice #1…..ministry as a career vs. ministry as a calling.  I’ll speak a good deal from personal experience, and provide some concrete stats that hopefully, will support where I’m coming from.  The end result will be some thoughts that are solely my own, my personal opinions on what I think will make this stew more than just palatable, but downright delicious.

I’ve got a great friend who has been a deacon at a small, rural Baptist church with a membership of about 80 people for several years.  He’s in his late twenties, married, college education, and has a good career.  He’s led a home group consisting of twenty-somethings and college-aged folks for some time now.  He’s addicted to sound doctrine.  We don’t always agree on matters of theology, but he’s a great guy, wonderful teacher, and he’s serious about his belief system.

Quite a while back, he was discussing his frustrations with the institutional church, mostly to support his idea that the early church met in homes, not temples or cathedrals.  In the midst of his conversation, he mentioned that his pastor at the time had an annual salary of $72,000.


To minister to 80 people.

I was shocked.

Later on, I did a little research to see just what the average salary was for pastors in my region.  There are some wild cards in the data.  There’s one mega church in the area, where the pastor has a salary of a little over $100,000 each year.  There’s also a number of very small, rural churches with memberships less than thirty.  I looked at some specific criteria:

1) Churches located in Madison County, Georgia.  Madison County is a bedroom community for Athens, Georgia, where the University of Georgia is located.  There’s a good mix of agricultural, blue-collar, and white-collar folks.

2) Salaries of pastors with a seminary degree only.  A friend of mine pastors a very small church in a rural area of the county, and gives his salary back to the church each month as a gift.  It’s a part-time career, but full-time passion for him and his wife.  He works full-time for our local school system. There are others like him in our area, who have miniscule salaries from the churches they lead, and didn’t attend college with the idea that they would be “full-time” pastors one day.

Using the aforementioned criteria, I plugged into www.payscale.com, just to see what pastors were making in the MC.  The average pastor makes a salary of $39,050 each year.  Now, keep in mind, salary doesn’t include mileage, housing allowance, and other tax-free perks that many pastors enjoy.  25% of pastors in Madison County make more than $50,969 per calendar year.  10% make over $62,995.

Here’s some more stats, courtesy of www.city-data.com. There’s a population of about 28,000 in Madison County, about 38% of whom are involved in some type of active practice of faith.  There are 35 churches in the county.  Over 8000 of about 10,000 folks who report religious affiliation in the county are Baptist.

16.9% of Madison County residents live below the poverty level, above the state and national averages for poverty.  The most common occupation in the county is “construction worker”.  The average household contains 2.6 individuals, 2 of whom are typically adults.  The median household income for Madison County is $40, 764 annually.

What strikes me about the above stats is that the average individual pastor’s salary is virtually equal to the average household income in this region.

Now, I’m not going to argue that your calling can’t be your career.  I’ve worked in the medical field before, and have seen physicians and nurses who were completely devoted to their patients, regardless of whether they had a great health insurance policy.  I currently work in child protective services, and admire the devotion of my co-workers to the children to whom we strive to provide safety and stability.  I believe that I’m called to this job, and do my best at it.  Lord, you can’t see the things we see on a daily basis and escape insanity without it being a calling.

There just seems to be something crazy going on with pastor’s salaries.  In England, the primary Christian body is, well, the Church of England.  BBC News reported some time back that the average vicar makes 16,400 Pounds annually, or $26,362 each year.  Dailymail.co.uk reports that the average annual salary for any individual in England is 25,543 Pounds, or $41,059 in US dollars.  So, pastors back in the mother country don’t seem to do quite as well as they do over here in the colonies!  They don’t do any less work, or have less responsibility.  They just make less money than the average Joe.

This spice is not smelling so good to me.

I’m not advocating the idea that every pastor should take a vow of poverty.  I suppose the point I’m making is that statistics prove that pastors in our culture tend to make more money than the average working family in the communities they serve.  My fear is that pastors making a lot of money produces the idea that pastors should expect to make a lot of money!  How long will it be before congregations, in these difficult economic times, begin to stand up and take notice that the pastors called to wash their congregation member’s feet are getting their own pedicured on a regular basis, while mama’s toes back at home are startin’ to look a mess?

I’ll admit, that was probably a little mean.  I’ll give the podium to G.K Chesterton for a moment:

“He that serves God for money will serve the devil for a better wage.”


To focus this rant a bit, I would say that the danger in paying pastors a high salary is that they will not only fall in love with money, but become slaves to those who give the most, in terms of dollars.  If you have a pastor who tells you, “I don’t know who gives what amount in this church. I don’t want to know.”, then friend, your pastor is telling you a story. And I use the phrase “telling you a story” not meaning to indicate that he is relaying details of an incident, but instead in the Southern sense of the phrase. In the intended context, “telling you a story” means he is flat-out lying. Having been a pastor for years, and served with every personality type of pastor you can imagine, in tiny churches and in a mega church, I can tell you, they know who the big givers are. They may not know how big, but they know who to call when the church van breaks down, or the church can’t make this month’s mortgage payment.

Setting the Table, Dial

As I stated earlier, much of this post and posts to follow about the future of the church are little more than my own opinions.   I don’t advocate the elimination of professional clergy.  I do believe that God ordained a three-fold order of bishops, priests, and deacons.  We need pastors to provide order and Biblical leadership.  I don’t believe that a “house church” movement without designated leadership is the direction the church is going.

I believe that we are about to see a shift in the culture of church leadership, however.  I believe that we will begin to see more “home-grown” pastors, serving for years on the parish level, sent to seminary with the blessing and support of their local church, graduating to serve in a part-time capacity at the church they grew up in, with more delegation of responsibilities to members of the congregation.  This won’t excuse preachers and priests from the responsibilities of pastoral care, visitation, counseling, etc.  In fact, the primary responsibilities of the pastor should be, in no particular order, pastoral care, preaching, discipleship, and ordering Sunday worship.  I believe that you will see less pastors attempting to manage every aspect of the church, though (money, building projects, etc.).  The John Maxwell-inspired CEO model of leading churches is dying a slow and painful death, along with many of the churches that latched onto that format.

In the next twenty years, I anticipate that there will be more pastors who pursue a life in ministry because ministry is what they are passionate about, not because it’s what they wish to do for a living.  Some of the most dedicated and enduring pastors I’ve known in our region spent much of their lives doing construction work to support their families, in addition to being church planters, leading significant congregations, and making a lasting impact for the kingdom in their communities.  In an area where the primary vocation is construction work, doesn’t it make sense that a pastor who is willing to work with his hands would have good results in ministry?

It’s not a new concept.  Neither Lifeway nor Ed Stetzer has a patent on the idea.  Jesus started the business.  Remember, “The word became flesh and dwelled among us…”?  Jesus became the target demographic that he wished to reach, and I would say that he did a pretty good job of church planting. Heck, look at all the satellite campuses he’s got going!

With congregation members suffering economically, there will be less to put in the offering plates.  Paul made tents to feed himself while doing ministry, a hands on, workman’s job.  Is it unrealistic to expect that we would have pastors who are more committed if they have to work for the privilege of the position, rather than working the position for the benefit of its privileges?

Now, that smells a little bit better.


  1. Hmmm… I think I must have grown up in the wrong denomination…

    My father was/is a an AoG pastor, and there have been very few times throughout his tenure that he hasn’t had to work other jobs to get some additional income to make ends meet. And I know many other pastors in the same boat.

    I actually do think that having more pastors be bi-vocational is something that would be generally a good thing in the church, but we can’t have our cake and eat it to. We can’t simultaneously expect pastors to have great theological training (which isn’t cheap!) while at the same time pursue another vocation. From the article, it seems like you’re advocating that people become pastors almost as a second career by going to seminary later in life. I actually don’t think that’s a bad idea, other than the fact that a seminary education is still very expensive. Perhaps we need to rethink the current seminary and theological training system so that those who are passionate about serving the church aren’t hindered because of the costs.

    Overall, I agree a lot with the heart of the article. But, personally, I know very few pastors who are getting rich off of being a pastor.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Phil.

      Personally, I like a parish-based education system, which can mean a lot of things. It could mean distance learning, part-time college, etc., while you get on-the-job training. If you look at business models, many also use “co-ops”, where students attend school full-time for a period, then work at their profession for a while. I guess I like the idea of someone who is going to be in a profession that requires intimate relationships with people to have hands-on training, with people (no Mark Driscoll jokes here).

      Like you, I don’t know a lot of guys getting rich off of ministry…$39,000 isn’t a king’s ransom…But when the average household income in our region is $40,000…I don’t know…

      • From a pure economic perspective, I don’t know that I necessarily think that a pastor’s salary should be expected to be whatever the median is in a given area. I think if we require pastors to have some sort of post-graduate education, than that additional time, effort, and money they invest into getting that education should entitle them to something more than the median. I guess if it we’re looking at pastors in an area where the typical job is a blue collar position, it’s not exactly the same type of work.

        Now certainly I don’t think that pastors should think themselves better or above the people they’re serving. But I guess I just tend to see things from the side of the pastor more than the other. I feel like people really do want the best of all worlds when it comes to pastors. They want someone who’s highly educated and smart, but yet at the same time they want him to be homey and down-to-earth – an average Joe.

        I do hear you about the parish-based system. It would make a lot of sense. I just don’t know how common that is or will become.

    • In evaluating pastor’s salaries, you also need to look at the tax breaks they get. Due to an antiquated tax code, pastors get a tax break through a “housing allowance” that most of us would love to have. Most pastors, even the well paid pastors in big churches, end up paying no Federal income tax. A pastor who makes $100,000,probably about average for a church of 2,000 in the Rocky Mountains, pays no taxes. He also can opt out of social security and fund his own retirement with tax breaks that most of us don’t get.

      • Not true,

        Pastors get hammered with taxes. They get hit with self-eimployement taxes on their housing allowance.

      • I’m with Austin. The taxes may be structured differently, and I seem to remember that they resemble the structure for farmers and fishermen; but pastors, farmers and those fishermen among us do pay taxes. Believe me.

        As I understand, the housing allowance has to be on the books and is considered taxable income. Also medical benefits. Or am I completely wrong on these points, anybody?

      • Pastors can opt out of social security if they are morally opposed to it for some reason, but by doing so they are also forfeiting receiving any SS benefits in the future. Actually, a pastor can get screwed over by SS if the church doesn’t compensate him properly. Pastoral work is considered self-employment, so if they don’t opt out, they have to withhold the entire amount themselves. Now, most churches realize this and do the regular matching like a normal employer, but they don’t have to.

        The housing allowance actually can be a deduction for federal taxes, and it can save pastors money. As I said before, though, I know very few pastors who are getting rich being pastors. Of the ones that I do know who make a higher than average salary, many of them are bright and talented enough that they could probably be making more money doing something else.

      • Paying no federal taxes? Not true. I don’t know where you’re getting your information from, but every pastor I know pays federal taxes. As a pastor who does receive a housing allowance, I still pay a very healthy federal tax bill.

  2. Let me just say that as a Georgia Tech supporter, the fact that this involves UGA diminishes this post right off that bat. ;^)

  3. David Cornwell says

    Lee, I’m very glad your work is being published here. Marge and I have discussed many of the issues you raise in this article, discussed them often in fact, most recently a couple of days ago. I’d felt the call to ministry, from the time I was 14 years of age. Yet because of the circumstances of life, and my lack of readiness, this didn’t happen until I was in my mid 30’s. My jobs before I became a pastor were part and parcel of my preparation. I knew what it meant to work, both physically and mentally. When I finally was ordained and began to do my calling I quickly became somewhat disillusioned by the careerism of many of my colleagues. It wasn’t that they didn’t do good work or were not honest, but that they always had their eye on the next step. The salary system in place in the denomination isn’t one that will encourage long pastorates. It’s one that means the next church will always be the one that pays more, and has slightly more prestige. One of the consequences of this meant that pastors moved often, families couldn’t put down roots, and that when you moved the ecclesiastical authorities discouraged further contact with the people from your old church. Very often I wished I’d blatantly ignored this advice. Another consequence was to the church. Leadership changed often, and with that at least a somewhat new direction. Many times it was a radically new direction. Parishioners also learned that just a few people could force a change in pastoral leadership. A letter here, a call there, complaints passed up to the next level, and a change might happen. I could go on and on.

    Anyway, Lee, keep on with your writing and your serving. I’d like to meet you someday.

    • Our histories are very similar, for sure. I’m looking forward to a cup of coffee someday!

      Growing up in ministry in a mega church, I saw so many young guys who would go to seminary, and as you point out, treat positions like stepping stones. That doesn’t mean they weren’t gifted or hard-working, or that they weren’t called to preach. I think sometimes that it’s our focus that gets easily shifted. Every pastor should have defined ministry goals…and not all of those goals should involve ends that are easily quantified. Some should have to do with commitment, compassion, enduring relationships, etc.

      Perhaps I’m overly idealistic. Only eternity will tell, I suppose….

      • Every pastor should have defined ministry goals…and not all of those goals should involve ends that are easily quantified. Some should have to do with commitment, compassion, enduring relationships, etc.

        Excellent thought: grist for a future book maybe; you strike a good balance here. Metrics are not always our friends, but they aren’t evil either.


  4. Good post, but I feel a few things may have been overlooked. How many of the pastors in your stats are full vs. part time? I don’t know about you, but 40k is a pretty killer salary for your second job (even if its your primary calling). Yes, there are bi-vocational pastors paid snot and many give what little they make back. And most churches might actually in the long run be better off with a bi-vocational minister, both in terms of budget and outreach. The other thing: Salary only is not a fair estimate. Housing counts, big time, because that’s where the rest of us dump the largest portion of our wage. The 25k a CoE priest makes is easy to live on if you have a place to live, a car to drive, your educational loans and cell phone service covered by the church, etc… The total compensation package is where the real analysis lies. I know a pastor who worked for a church that didn’t average 60, yet was pulling in near six figures after benefits. They didn’t really reach any of the dirt poor hispanics living down the street. The church was alarmingly caucasian for its area.

    By the way, the average Minister of Music salary was 58-59k last I checked (a few years ago). I doubt they are paid more than their pastors. Look at the full compensation packages of only full time ministers and you might be in for a shockingly different story.

    • The general expectation in this region, if a pastor is making $39,000 or more annually, would be for him to devote himself full-time to the church. Now, I do know other pastors who draw a larger salary, work two-three days weekly at the church, then do other jobs. It can be a source of conflict for parishoners who are in the know, who don’t understand why their pastor makes more working 24 hours/week than they do working full-time…especially when they come to realize that the benefits don’t end with salary and basics like health insurance and retirement.

      There are areas of Georgia where the pastors and church staff members are compensated at a much higher level. We’re in a little more of an impoverished area. Actually, Clarke County, the home of UGa, is one of the poorest counties in the state of Georgia….We are about ten minutes from there.

    • BTW, I love the descriptor “alarmingly caucasian”. It makes me smile to think of using it from the pulpit. I can also see my wife telling me, “Please don’t tell another congregation that they are ‘alarmingly caucasian’.”

      Good times, good times…

      • I hope that doesn’t sound like liberal multiculturalism, as if we need affirmative action in our membership or something. The Palm Desert area of Southern California is home to the furthest extremities. In one neighborhood, Indian Wells, on any given day can house 10% of the nation’s wealth. The uber rich have vacation homes there (Why? I still wonder…). Just down the street in the Indio and Coachella areas, the area is dominated by the poor hispanics with many illegal immigrants sharing pitifully small living accommodations between several families. Churches in this area have done nothing to bridge the gap: The larger ones cater to the well off middle to upper class Caucasians who want to hear about prosperity, while Pentecostal groups, hispanic Baptist congregations and Catholic churches minister to the super poor. I’ve never seen such wealth and poverty coexist side by side without one doing much to improve the other, while the church is so oblivious and unconcerned about it. I believe a congregation’s primary mission field is it’s immediate neighborhood. For it’s location, that I was the only hispanic at this church just felt weird. That nobody much really cared was even stranger.

        • Miguel, I’m from the LA area, and I think that your comments say as much about the unique nature of the 111 corridor and the Coachella Valley itself as it does about the church. You are in an area of snowbird resorts, retirement communities, migrant agricultural workers, and subcultures (such as the weekenders from the regional gay community) even within the same ethnic groups. Many of the retirees left their original communities to seclude themselves in gated neighborhoods and country clubs… their mindset is already looking inward, escaping the “melting pot” they left behind for the more predictable company of like-minded society.
          Many days of the year, the intense heat makes everyone hide away until nightfall.
          Under those circumstances, church pastors probably feel fortunate if they can encourage fellowship even within one ethnographic segment, let alone from among different linguistic and economic backgrounds. (There’s probably more diversity in the drug and sk8er cultures.)
          I’m not justifying it, just explaining it.

    • Miguel, it could be that the average minister of music’s salary, 58-59K, is because large churches are the ones to have formal positions for music ministers, and thus pay salaries. The smaller churches, while paying salaries to full-time pastors, often have volunteers lead the music, as with sunday school, audio/visual, cleaning, etc.

  5. If I were a seminary student today, I would seriously ask why invest in the immense cost of resident seminary education, be abbeyfied for three years, and take on massive debt after enduring a regimen of spiritual formation and rigorous intellectual training, only to face churches where a preaching and teaching ministry is considered passé. Using a comparative costs-benefits analysis, its about as useful as obtaining a graduate degree in typewriter repair. In my day, kids were headed to seminary to avoid the draft. Now, it seems, some see it as a lucrative career. Same sort of deal, ministry as a business. In today’s competitive market, the talented gravitate towards well-endowed megachurches. But there are only so many to go around. So what you wind up with are entry-level posts primarily in small or rural churches barely offering a living wage. You’re undoubtedly right about the tent-maker trajectory. Our diocese offers a bi-vocational ordination path, and it is these unserved parishes which are benefitting.

    • I’m interested to learn more about what your diocese is doing, Stuart…Can you post a link?

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      We’ve been trying to figure out in my diocese how to ordain folks without the debt and 3-years-away that comes from seminary. While there’s a recognition in the denomination that the traditional seminary model isn’t probably the way to do things in the future, we still want to have well-trained clergy, and so many of the bishops are unwilling to depart from the seminary model. I’m kinda the guinea pig in my diocese for a non-seminary track, though I already have a Master’s of Christian Ministry from outside of our denomination (think of it as the practicum end of an M.Div that can get rolled into an M.Div). Since I support myself with my own appraisal business, I’m not in any particular hurry to rush through the process, though I don’t think it’s any quicker than if I’d just gone off to seminary at this point. It is a heckuva lot cheaper, though!

  6. Donegal Misfortune says

    I think that the cost of salary for pastors trends upward for the mere fact that it is seen as a personal investment just like other professions. For a man who aspires to the office of pastor (overseer) this necessarily involves some sort of training. This training however is not like the training of a dentist, lawyer, or business guru though in many cases it involves “graduate school.” This is a calling that is indeed a vocation, and vocations are to be self replicating. The burden of undergraduate education is one thing to take on, lucky the man who gets a full-ride scholarship. Graduate school is another beast that we have come to rely on for the training of our clergy, who alone bears the cost. But, unlike going to study any other profession, the one going into ministry is ultimately doing it for others, not himself, unless he just wants to be a best selling author, conference speaker, or blogging-wonk…lol. Because this training is within the confines of the church, (for where else would one learn the Christian ministry?) for the benefit of the church, then the costs of clerical education ought to be taken on by the church. This would be an excellent movement in the direction to remove “professional” hirelings. With this offer for free to the ministry student (apprentice), this could and might encourage those who do not have a calling to “give ministry a shot.” But those who aspire to the office of the overseer are not to do so only because they have a holy hunch, or do so autonomously as if only they know that they are called to serve the church but the church doesn’t know a leader when it sees one. We need to expunge the thought that the student is purchasing a theological education and therefore having authority over what was bought, ie being a customer! The Church is the beneficiary of the training not the one aspiring to the office. As a dentist, I would want to the work of dentistry not just for the sake of helping others, but mostly because I want to have a job that affords the opportunity of freedom, hours, and pay which is commensurate with the profession. Same with lawyer, designer, or any other “professional career path” which is ultimately about personal attainment rather than any deep seated altruistic bent in life. And though that may be one’s calling/vocation, it still affords a multitude of luxuries that the minister has no business coveting. But the true ministry student is not aspiring to that. Rather he does so for the sake of the church as a whole and specifically for a certain location, ie. parish. The question is, does the church stand behind the one aspiring to the office of the overseer? If so, then the church knowing that it is the beneficiary of the theological education ought to give strong testimony to the one obtaining it by paying for the cost. If a specific church cannot do so because it is paying the current leadership so much that the church cannot replicate leadership then there is something amiss.

    The unsavory fact is that, for what it’s worth, theological education has become relegated to various parachurch organizations governed more by the rules of the academy, which is based more on the lecture hall style of education rather than the peripatetic, tutorial style, or master/apprentice model along with the coveted necessity of secular accrediting agencies than by the rules of the Church.

  7. The Previous Dan says


    I’ve thought about this topic and even experienced it from various angles. My dad was a bi-vocational minister during my growing years (age 10-25). Lots of time invested, stress experienced, and criticism received with little in the way of earthly compensation. Looking back on the cost to our family, what I learned from that was that unless your church has celibate clergy, the bi-vocational thing is a lousy idea. A church should pay a married minster a living wage so as not to put undue stress on family and also to provide him time to do justice to his calling.

    So as a young adult I went to Bible College to be a minister like dad but I was determined to be fulltime in my vocation. Upon graduation I took a position with a church but I turned out to be a disaster. I was too young and too green. I have seriously prayed that God somehow heals the people that had to endure my 10 years of “ministry.” If I could get hold of their phone numbers I would apologize to each one. Looking back after 15 years of being out of professional ministry I see how the natural seasoning of life and especially my time spent working secular jobs have made all the difference in how I understand, approach, and minister to people.

    That is just my experience and I know that God works in different ways in different lives, but it seems to me that the ideal professional minster would be someone who goes into paid full-time ministry after spending a decade or two working in the marketplace experiencing the same thing as his congregants. But I am convinced that a paid, full-time position is important to anyone supporting a family.

  8. I have serious disagreements with this post and some of the comments, though I do understand where they are coming from (and it’s not as if I’m unbiased). After 12 years in ministry I’ve spent the last two as a full time pastor and in all honesty I’ve learned “you get what you pay for” or in biblical terms “he who sows sparingly, will reap sparingly”. I’m not advocating some sort of prosperity gospel but the simple truth that a well paid whatever-vocation generally produces better results. Plumber, electrician, assistant, retailer, etc., etc. As a bi-vocational pastor, I was getting paid $15k (including total benefits) and had to make up the rest in another line of work. Construction was my other trade so you can guess how I was doing financially in the market crash. I’ve also worked fast-food and other restaurants as well during my 10 year period, but the never consistent schedule that comes with retail meant I could never be consistently relied upon by my church so I was glad to get out of that trade. Even when my schedule became more regular I simply had to spend more days earning a living than focusing on the ministry.

    The truth is a second job means less time focused on ministry. Period. And eventually every bi-vocational pastor I know can’t stay one forever. With the demands of ministry, a second job (which usually doesn’t care about your ministry), and then raising your own family (which you try to prevent them from resenting ministry)… nearly all bi-vocational pastors I’ve known either quit ministry or go full time.

    On top of that, most of these long-term small churches don’t have the tools for effective outreach. Many simply don’t make new disciples. I know that’s a taboo topic here on iMonk, and I’m not advocating a mega-church model, but if a church is not growing with new disciples even by just a little bit, then it’s not proclaiming the gospel as it’s commissioned to do. A full time paid pastor should be seen as the domestic missionary, someone whom the church commissions and sends to spread the gospel as their vocation. And if we’re not asking them to take vows of poverty, then it is reasonable that they should be paid at least median income for where they live. Paying a person a reasonable wage also gives incentive and accountability to actually do the job well. Under paying someone guarantees the job won’t be done to the best of their ability, I don’t care what profession we’re talking about.

    It should at least be something worth pondering that the church is shrinking (and drastically so) except where professionals take their job professionally. You may not like it but I don’t see any alternatives actually working on a mass scale.

    ***Full Disclosure*** My current salary and benefit package totals $48k/yr and my church has nearly doubled in size in the two years full time ministry (w/o mega-church techniques)

    • Donegal Misfortune says

      Paying a person a reasonable wage also gives incentive and accountability to actually do the job well. Under paying someone guarantees the job won’t be done to the best of their ability, I don’t care what profession we’re talking about.

      There are those who may disagree and fight me tooth and nail on this, but having been in a union situation, the guy that is part-time works does a better job that the guys who have been there full-time and are secure in their salary, benefits, and pension plan..why/, the part-time guy doesn’t know from one week to the next if it is his last, so he had better do what the management tells him to do, the full timers…if they don’t like what is assigned to them they end up loafing around as much as possible and then file a grievance if the supervisor chastises them.

      This is an instance, which I am sure many are familiar with, where job security leads to a lack of devotion to the job

      • But comparing a union employee to a non-union employee is not fair. I am (and most pastors) are essentially classified as independent contractors. And nearly all independent contractors that I’ve worked with work harder than their union colleagues. Not too mention most full-time pastors are facing the:

        the part-time guy doesn’t know from one week to the next if it is his last, so he had better do what the management tells him to do


        If my church isn’t making disciples then my time in this job is limited. If my congregation doesn’t have faith in my leadership, then my days are numbered. If my church doesn’t grow then I have no financial security. 7 days after my son was born I was made senior pastor of this church. If I don’t do my job then he won’t be having his graduation party here b/c “here” won’t exist.

        Being given a full-time job is not the same as being given job security.

        • Donegal Misfortune says

          Oh…I did not mean to make that comparison. Believe me, I know, living in a once thriving union section of the country that nearly all independent contractors work harder than their union colleagues. As, for job security, I should have said, that if one is full-time pastor, then you are more likely to stay, thus being secure rather than part-time pastor where if you lost your other job, then you may end up moving for the another job.

      • + 1

    • I disagree about the growth aspect because if you look at a small town that is composed almost entirely of the elderly, over time you’re going to have difficulty growing that church. Just replacing those that are going to their rest is going to be hard. The Episcopal church, I understand, has a plan of making priests with limited faculties (basically they can celebrate the sacraments only in the specific church that called them), as a way of dealing with this reality.

    • I don’t know how much I agree with you that a pastor should be a domestic missionary. I guess it depends on how you envisage the job of a missionary. Most people when they think of missionaries think in terms of evangelism. I think, though, a lot of what many missionaries do nowadays is more akin to being a pastor. They are overseeing a group of people by living with them, and new members are added because of people reaching out to others. It’s not all the pastor evangelizing.

      The other question that arises in my mind in regards to your post is just how indispensable should a pastor be? The way you’re describing it, I almost get the feeling that you’re in a situation where if something happened to you, the church simply wouldn’t be there any longer. I’ve seen that sort of thing happen before. To me, that’s probably one of the biggest reason to be tied into a larger network or denomination of churches. It provides some amount of stability when pastors leave or pass on.

      I will also say this. If a pastor is at a church that is shrinking, it doesn’t necessarily or even likely mean that the pastor is doing a poor job. Sometimes it just happens. I’ve seen it happen to some very good men and women, and they were working as hard as person could be expected. It had nothing to do with their creativity or drive, really. We all have to walk the road of failure sometime in our life.

  9. “I don’t know who gives what amount in this church. I don’t want to know.”

    You are wrong in saying that is always a story – I’ve been the treasurer in two churches and in both the pastor said he didn’t want to know who gave what and he really DIDN’T know. Only I and the women who counted the offering had access to that (his wife and family were not among them), and we didn’t tell him. And, as the second church was a small church in a rural area, there weren’t any big givers to approach if there was a particular need.

    Frankly, I’ve seen far more pastors underpaid than overpaid, and I think articles like this do more harm than good. There are already too many people in congregations prepared to criticize a pastor’s salary, meager as it may be! For those who think having a housing allowance is so great – remember that in small churches especially, the pastor likely doesn’t receive insurance or retirement, and he has to pay the full portion of his SS taxes as a self-employed worker.

    Scripture is clear that the laborer is worthy of his wages, and there is no reason a full-time pastor should not be paid similarly to his congregation in most cases – and perhaps more to compensate if his wife isn’t working, depending if most of his congregation has two incomes and how much the church expects of his wife. The burden placed on a pastor’s wife is often great, as if she were a staff member as well. Bi-vocational work is not healthy for a family in the long run; I’ve done it, but I’m not married and don’t have children. I am preparing for pastoral ministry and want to stay bivocational, since I want to serve small churches that can’t afford a pastor – BUT I don’t have a spouse or children! That makes a difference.

    No, of course we shouldn’t go to the extremes of prosperity churches with their extravagant salaries – but pastoral ministry IS a job, and a very hard one at that – and the pastor does not need the additional stress of not being able to support his family. Yes, it’s a calling – but also a career.

    • But you know, I have to wonder when I see sons of pastors being pastors. I mean, it makes me think the Catholics are onto something with the celibacy requirement. At what time does it stop being a calling and just become the family business?

      • Depends on the situation. Is the son taking over the father’s church like a family business? or is the son going through seminary and getting his own call? Nothing wrong with sons following fathers into the ministry, but never into the same community.

        • And yet, I know a guy who has 2 sons, both of which are pastors. They didn’t follow Dad into a church, neither are seminary grads (not needed for this denom), but it begins to look as though the family can’t do anything else.

    • David Cornwell says

      “The burden placed on a pastor’s wife is often great, as if she were a staff member as well.”

      And this is a shame. A pastor’s spouse should be treated by the congregation just as any other member of the church would be. She/he should not be expected to do this or that at the whim of someone in the church, or because the last pastor’s spouse did the same (this should apply whether the pastor is male or female). Sometimes a spouse may need to ruffle some feathers because of these demands. Unless they are being paid by the church, the spouse should do only those things he/she feels led to do, or wants to do. We had a District Superintendent that made sure local churches understood this. The old cultural expectations should be flushed. And, thankfully, it is changing.

      The burden will be great anyway. A family living in this kind of public view is under tremendous pressure at times.

  10. Donegal Misfortune says

    What I would like to know is when did the business style of benefit packages come with being a pastor?

    • I agree, the idea that a church should treat their pastor the same way most of them are treated at work is outrageous. (sarcasm)

    • The Previous Dan says

      You mean Pastor’s families don’t eat, the kids don’t need health care, and they never need to retire?

    • Donegal Misfortune says

      I wasn’t disagreeing; I was just wondering when…after wwi, wwii, mba ’80s?

      • The Previous Dan says

        Sorry about that. I guess the things we grow up with tend to make us over-sensitive to certain things, even later on in life.

  11. Our pastor makes a pretty good salary, and we lave a parsonage for him and his family to live in.

    I’m wondering which occupations are more important than the shepherding of Christ’s flock and the ministry of Word and Sacrament?

    Our pastor is worth every penny and a lot more than that.

  12. In the numbers mentioned in the article, you have to be careful comparing apples, oranges, and carrots. Most people (who are not self-employed) see one salary that their employer ‘pays’ them. The employers cost is much higher after adding employers portion of social security, benefits, and other expenses. A $80,000 salary (for a pastor package) is comparable to $40,000-$50,000 in the ‘real’ world.

    Second, you have to be careful comparing a pastor’s salary to the ‘median’ of the community. Most people in the United States are in or close to poverty, yet most all the people close to poverty do not go to church (they are too busy working your table when you go to lunch on Sundays). Most all people in U.S. churches are middle class or upper middle class. Therefore, if you pay a pastor close to the ‘median’ salary of the community, his lifestyle would be close to poverty levels even if most people in the church are well off.

    But, now having said all that, the expectations of a modern church for vision leader, CEO, administrator, charismatic speaker, spotless family life, shepherd…are so difficult to obtain that if someone does appear to have all the qualities, he can receive a very good salary. However, all the real people with problems and real issues would be challenged to find any full time role at any salary.

    • Allen, I beg to differ, at least when it comes to the Catholic Church. The busboys and migrant workers may not be attending the Mega-Church with the Ken doll as a pastor, but they ARE pretty regular about attending Mass. No suits required, and the bus line is only a half-block away. Twenty-five percent of American Christians are Roman Catholic, making it the largest single denomination in the US (and the world).

      I would also be interested in where you got your statement that “most people in the US are in or close to poverty”. That sounds a bit over the top to me….

      • Really? Regular about mass? Most of the folks in my neighborhood that are Catholic, and most are Mexican (the Guatemalans live further south), attend less than what I would call regularly. In fact, I have noticed a plethora of Spanish speaking pentecostal style churches opening up in the area and they seem to be more regularly attended.

  13. Welsh Willie says

    In this harsh economy, a cushy American vicarage must be very tempting. This being the case, we should expect to see a glut of divinity students (like MBAs a few years back), some of them atheists or Wiccans or whatnot. (There is reason to believe that this is occurring.) This competition will in turn make the profession less attractive, and force career-seeking behavior among those in it.

    Same with missionary work. A century ago, going to some faraway tropical country would have meant genuine personal sacrifice. Today such jobs can be pretty cushy, almost like a vacation or a gap year, and anyway Christianity is well-established in most countries even where it is not the majority religion. Back then missionaries would practice medicine or teach school in order to make themselves useful to the natives. Today the main skill (besides being able to rant at people) seems to be fund-raising, and an ability to agree with the theological opinions of one’s donors and sending agency.(Have a look at their websites. You’ll see.) Small wonder that few people regard missionaries (at least, the ones near them) as contributing to society–they are more like advertisers.

    Of course, many nonconformist American denominations do not require any kind of education, and failing that, one can always hang up one’s own shingle and declare oneself to be a priest, bishop, guru, etc. Like most forms of entrepreneurial activity with low entry qualifications, the competition (for suckers) is fierce and the failure rate is high, yet the successes can be sufficiently impressive to warrant comparison with the established churches.

  14. Curtis Baker says

    I think there are several factors worth considering. I think the movement in rural areas to a bivocational minister has some benefits, however, in most cases I agree with many here who can’t see that being sustained in a larger way for very long. I have had some experience in both. When I graduated from school the church that took me on agreed to let me work one year as a biovocational minister in order to pay off my studen loans. The salary I made from the church that year went exclusivey towards the loans, while my family lived off of the income from the other job. It was a great blessing to me that the church allowed me to do this, and saved me from many years of burdensome loan repayment. Having said that though, it was one long, tough year. Obviously when you have a regular 40 to 50 hour a week job, that means your study and pastoral duties must be done after hours. This either takes time away from family or keeps the minister up late at night. If you then have to be at work early the next morning, it creates burnout pretty quickly. Not to mention the fact that you loose your weekends to study and pastoral work, therefore you end up having very little down time. Also at issue is adequate time to study. With so many hours taken up with a job and study for specific lessons (sermon, bible class, etc) you then have no time for recreational reading, which is vital to the needs of one’s own soul if you are going to give yourself to this kind of work. Add to that all of the emergency kind of situations that arise in the work of ministry, and it makes for a very exhausting life that takes a toll both on yourself and your family. Not to mention it is harder to be avaliable for funerals and other such things that are usually handeled during normal working hours. It must be said that all of this depends somewhat on the gifts of the minister. If they are a high energy person or have a quick intelligence, all these things are made a bit easier, but most cannot sustain that level of intensity. If pastors are burning out when that is their only job, how much more so will they burnout when it is added on to a full time job, even if duties are delegated out. I know after that year of bivocational ministry I was so thankful to be able to give myself to it in an undivided way.

    I think the idea of a bivocational minister can be especially appealing to someone without children, or whose children are already grown, but the strain on the family in that kind position is notable. Combine that with time constraints and the need for recreation and further learning, you realize what a blessing it is to give yourself to ministry in a full time capacity. This may go to your point though, that pastors should feel fortunate to be able to give themselves to their vocation on a full time basis, and therefore minister out of sense of call, not as a chance to hop churches until you acheive the size of church or pay that your ambition thinks it wants.

    Good article! Thanks for the provoking thoughts.

  15. Jack Heron says

    That was excellent, Lee! I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

  16. Thanks for all the comments and thoughts. I’m glad that we all have this community where we can share ideas, encourage and challenge each other. I would like to respond to every individual comment, but unfortunately, I’m bi-vocational and have a family, so I don’t have the time ;o). Regardless, here’s some closing thoughts….

    1) Remember, as you read this post and next week’s, I do believe in professional clergy. I think that the culture of how one achieves that status is going to be changing over the next couple of decades, in our seminaries, in our local parishes, etc.

    2) I have no beef with pastors receiving a salary. I have a master’s degree, and expect to be compensated at my job. Being a pastor is a different animal, at least in my mind, though. It’s the purest and highest calling, but it’s also a calling to downward mobility. It’s difficult for me to swallow when I sit in a church where a good number of congregants are at or below poverty level, or have been hit hard in these difficult economic times, then see the pastor making a salary that exceeds the average salary of the congregation. Bottom line…in most evangelical settings, the congregation pays the pastor. As congregants become more limited in their ability to give, I believe we’re going to be seeing more and more pastors who have to tighten the belt buckle and be bi-vocational. Remember when I said before that I’m bi-vocational? I have been for several years now. In fact, if you count a quarterly consultation gig I do, you could say I’m tri-vocational. And I have a family. It’s tough, and I know this. But, it’s reality, and we push on.

    3) Several of y’all have mentioned the idea that local parishes should financially support seminarians as they attend college. I completely, 100%, fully agree with this. I worked part-time at a local hospital while in college, and they had a program where they would help pay for college if you agreed to work for them for 6 months for each semester they aided you. I jumped on it. Not only did it mean some of my college cost was covered, but I had a job waiting for me when I graduated. One way that local churches can guarantee quality leadership in the next generation is to produce and nurture quality leaders. A combination of parish-based, hands-on experience; seminary training (which is more and more accessible through distance learning); and solid spiritual mentors, will make for a good pastor who wants to invest in his local church, because they have invested in him.

    Thanks again for all the comments.


  17. MelissatheRagamuffin says

    My yearly meeting doesn’t allow for paid clergy. I believe the words “free gospel ministry” are actually in our book of discipline. You will sometimes hear members of our yearly meeting uncharitably call paid pastors “hirlings.”

    However, when I was still in evangelical churches – usually the better paid the pastor the worse the ministry of the church. The church might have bells and whistles like a sophisticated sound system or a flashy worship band, but let a member of the church get laid off and need help. I can remember being at a church where the pastor’s salary was more than the entire annual budget of my home church. Someone came to the church because they were out of work, had gotten a job, and needed money to put gas in the car to get to work. He was told, “We’ll pray for you.”

  18. I am a pastor who was trained and ordained by my local non-denominational church (parish) after getting an academic degree in education. (My late father was a businessman who was similarly trained and ordained by his Baptist church and only got a seminary degree later in life.) I first served as an associate pastor and Christian school principal under a pastor who was really an evangelist; his family lived fairly well while my wife and I subsisted. When he felt threatened by my ministry as a result of his own insecurities, he sent me out to plant a small church in another town; during this time, I supplemented my meager income by teaching in public schools. Nearly a decade later, I again became an associate pastor and Christian school principal in a megachurch formed by the merger of three small churches with Christian schools. The senior pastor was a very charismatic preacher who micromanaged everything and lived well above the average family, while most of the staff lived below the average. When his and some of the other elders’ children became unhappy with the school, he sent me out to start another church plant. I now pastor a small non-denominational church in my hometown and work for the local Department of Social Services. While I would like our church to be a little larger so I did not have to work another job, I much prefer this arrangement in the more intimate smaler church to the larger but more sterile church that is run like a corporation with the pastor as CEO. I like to think of myself as called to several complementary careers, serving God by serving others in various capacities.

  19. I personally think there should not be any leaders in any church under the age of 45 or there abouts. I have a problem with a kid (mid twenties) just out of seminery thinking he is a spiritual leader. He has not lived life long enough to be a leader, not even with other people of his age or younger. And for sure not older people. I too think peachers should have a job outside of the church, if preaching is all that is feeding the family you are more prone to tell the congeration what they want to hear to keep the money coming in. Tough to feed the family if you have driven everyone away.

  20. Since comparisons have been made to secular business and compensation, let me weigh in by saying that churches in general (sorry to be so broad in my comparison) are some of the most inefficient “businesses” I’ve seen: Over sized and underutilized facilities, above average sized secretarial and support staffs, company paid health benefits, company paid cell phones, company subsidized housing, no performance based pay system, the opportunity to take sabbaticals, etc.


    Perhaps if we weren’t split into so many half-filled churches, literally across the street from each other, we could have fewer, better compensated pastors.

  21. I would definitely love to see a trend away from the one-man-show, absolute lord and pastor model that seems to dominate in independent, non-denom churches — at least in my neck of the woods. That can be very unhealthy, especially if the pastor also owns the building the church gathers in.
    I’m not against paying pastors a livable salary, but, then again, I believe the more volunteerism a church can foster among its members, the better.
    And I think it’s important for church bodies to develop a distinct sense of identity, rather than just letting the man up front fashion the church in his own image.

  22. petrushka1611 says

    In the church I grew up in, the ideal (put forth more by members, believe it or not, than the pastor, who was my dad) was that the pastor should make double the average salary of the church members because “let the elders that rule well be worthy of double honor.”

  23. Thanks Lee, for bringing this up,
    I’m involved in teaching our Elders evangelical pastors are overpaid. I’ve talked to the pastors in my local area and the “double honor” thing is always spoken to me to justify themselves. It’s an Ole boys club type of guild. Elder boards and most church folks seem to want everything run by the paid staff. House churches are a good step from pastor ship to bring a much needed crique. I’ve noticed too the Catholic churches in the area more resemble the folks you see at Wal-Mart vrs. the upper middle class of evangelicalism.