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Heather Tomlinson braves the important but awkward subject of how much we should pay our church leaders
Some would say they get too much, others would argue the opposite. Heather Tomlinson braves the important but awkward subject of how much we should pay our church leaders.
It’s a sensitive subject for us Brits, who don’t like to talk about salaries at the best of times. But the people who lead our spiritual communities, and to whom we submit, are also relying on us to pay their way. We’re encouraged to tithe and give to the Church; a substantial part of this money goes to paying the salaries of people in leadership. But there is a wide difference in what they are paid across different churches. On the one hand, many pastors do their job for free, finding full-time work to pay their bills and looking on their ministry as a calling which needs no fees. On the other hand, there are some large churches which pay their pastors more than £100,000 (and even more than that, in the US). Then there are the thousands of ministers who work for mainstream denominations who all get the same, fairly average wage. So who gets it right? What does scripture say about it? And can we ever pay our pastors too much – or too little?
There are those who don’t have to worry about this question too much – particularly those in the more traditional denominations. In the Church of England, all vicars are paid the same, except a few Archbishops (Rowan Williams, for example, earns just over £70,000). The vicars’ standard payment is £22,360 per year – although it is substantially bolstered by a generous final salary pension and the provision of accommodation, which are often substantial and worth nearly £10,000 a year on average. Methodist ministers receive just over £20,000, but also receive housing benefits and other allowances to bolster their income. Catholic Priests are the least well paid – although they are unlikely to have a dependent family to support – at less than £10,000 a year.
The Church of England calls its pay a stipend as it does not consider it a wage for work performed. ‘It is intended to free them from financial worry,’ says John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, who chairs the committee responsible for remuneration. ‘Freedom needs to be provided... for ministers to perform their duties, it is not about rewarding people.’
There is debate within the Church of England as to whether people should be paid differentially, because those who live in more impoverished areas find that they are paid much more than their congregation, but those in more affluent areas can struggle, particularly in the South East. It also means that the richer churches are subsidising the other areas, so that there can be churches in economically disadvantaged communities. ‘We have a ministry to the whole of the country,’ says Packer. ‘What we hope to do is provide reasonably generously an amount which will enable people to live their own lives free of financial worry, without being in any way overpaid.
There are also many unpaid preachers in the mainstream denominations. Many smaller denominations or networks do not have such specific terms and conditions. For people in the business of deciding pastor salaries, their concern is the lack of resources available to many pastors of independent churches in the UK. ‘We did have a certain level of concern about a minority of churches where frankly the pastor is either working and busking on the street or has [to have] their own independent income to support them, and they wouldn’t have made the minimum paid level,’ says Paul Lindsay at Christian Vocation, an organisation which helps Christians to find their calling in life. ‘It concerned me that their level of commitment and loyalty wasn’t being matched with appropriate reward.’ This is backed up in a survey conducted by Christian Vocation, which took place in 2008, where the lowest paid salary for a full-time church leader was just over £10,000. The average was just over £27,000.
Concerns about finance can deter people from entering ministry. ‘If you come in with a family, the question is, “Can I live on the income this will generate?”’ says Lindsay. ‘The level of commitment to the call is far stronger than for a non-Christian looking for a job. But some would think, “Can I live?” Some back away. Some say irrespective of what I’m paid, I will do it because I’m called to do it, and I trust God to bring in what I need.’
The concern is mainly around churches where trustees decide what pastors are paid, which often depends on the level of donations. Stewardship is an organisation that aims to promote generosity in Britain’s churches. They highlight that many pastors don’t preach on giving because their wages rely on this. ‘In many churches, a church leader would be afraid to teach about giving and encourage generosity because it would be seen as asking for a pay rise, because pay comes from the support of the congregation,’ says Anthony McKernan, head of marketing at Stewardship. ‘Leaders often do not feel free to preach and teach on generosity because of what they might think. We would say we want to see money released for resourcing God’s kingdom, which is often about investing in people.’
Because so many pastors are very dedicated to their role, many will accept small salaries. ‘Most people go into Christian work out of a sense of calling, rather than as a career path to follow,’ says Steve Clifford, the general director of the Evangelical Alliance. ‘Because there is a sense of being called to this, people are willing to be put up with low salary and poor conditions. Therefore the church has a responsibility to look after the person bringing leadership.’ Some smaller churches don’t pay their pastors at all, but see some benefits in that. Carl Belcher and his wife Sarah run a small church in Lincoln, part of a local independent evangelical church called Threshold. Their congregation has about 30 people attending, with many members unemployed or on low incomes, in one of the more economically disadvantaged areas in the city. They have taken the decision not to have any paid staff.
‘Employing a church leader isn’t always the most financially sustainable approach,’ says Belcher. ‘It certainly slows down church planting and the reproductive process. If you reach a certain financial strength, you get the means to pay someone. But if the heart of your DNA is empowering people to think missionally and disciple the people you come into contact with, you can do more. Creating a hierarchical or professional leadership… it has the potential to disempower the wider Christian community, and their thinking “I didn’t have all that much to contribute” rather than seeing mission as their responsibility.’
However he acknowledges the pressures of being an unpaid pastor. ‘If you have a full time job, you don’t have as much time to do what you want, and you have the pressures of juggling different responsibilities,’ he says. ‘The benefits are that it helps you make sure that what you do is part of genuine sacrifice and service, and not because you are getting paid. I recognise that this approach works for us in the context we’re working in, but it’s not necessarily right for all.’ There is an argument that this approach is scriptural. St Paul clearly states that he worked to fund his ministry. However Clifford argues that this is not the only approach supported in scripture. ‘My reading of the New Testament is that Paul encourages churches in support of ministry and leadership,’ he says. ‘While on occasions Paul clearly was a tent maker, there are other occasions where he was supported and funded by churches and he encouraged people to be generous to people in leadership.’
When Jesus sent out the 72, he instructed them not to take money, but instead relying on the generosity of people they meet along the way. Steve Pierce, director for learning and stewardship for the Diocese of Liverpool, points out that the sending of the 72 encourages the evangelists to be willing to accept what others offer. ‘It is not just about going out with nothing, it is also about having the vulnerability to accept hospitality and to share their meal,’ he says. ‘The warnings are about the ways that wealth can seduce you.’
He also points out that we can’t expect our pastors to live in more poverty than we do. ‘We need to be careful that we are not expecting them to have a lifestyle that we would not ourselves choose,’ he says.
High paying churches
At the other extreme are churches where staff are handsomely rewarded for their work. Hillsong Church London discloses that it pays one staff member over £120,000, and two other members of staff more than £60,000. Abundant Life Church in Bradford pays someone over £60,000. Kingsway International Christian Centre was in the secular media several years ago for paying their pastor handsomely. This information is publicly available from the Charity Commission, because most churches are registered charities, and in the UK they must disclose staff earning more than £60,000. However it does not have to name who receives the salary – unlike publicly traded companies.
It can be argued that paying large salaries is scriptural. In 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul states that elders in the church are ‘worthy of double honour’, which some interpret as meaning pastors should be paid twice the average salary. It is also worth noting that these churches often donate significant amounts to mission and outreach, and receive large incomes from the tithes. They also have large congregations, with the extra responsibility that comes along with that. ‘The remuneration paid to other ministers and pastoral staff, as in most organisations, is essentially determined by considering an employee’s qualifications, years of experience and level of responsibility,’ says a Hillsong spokesman. ‘The remuneration paid to the senior pastors is determined by a board and recognises the extraordinary commitment made over many years and the responsibility to lead and provide direction to a large congregation.’
Hillsong’s congregation has grown to 6,500 and their leaders also have a lot of responsibility internationally and for mission activities. Steve Clifford points out that many large churches are highly complex organisations, with many businesses and ministries involved, and therefore they need a highly skilled pastor. He is reluctant to state what is an acceptable salary, but advises churches to think carefully about paying large salaries. ‘I do think that leaders need to exercise caution in relation to the level of financial support they are receiving,’ he says. ‘It needs to be appropriate to the congregation that they are in and what the church can afford.’
High-paying churches are often associated with ‘prosperity gospel’ teaching, rightly or wrongly, and this could affect their approach to finances. One senior pastor drives a Porsche; the image can be very modern and fitting in with today’s materialistic culture. ‘One of the difficulties is that if you are teaching prosperity gospel, the leader needs to model that,’ says Pierce. ‘If you are talking about abundance and God’s blessings, you need to model that. There is a relationship with what you are teaching. Your teaching also justifies your lifestyle.’ Prosperity gospel teaching is controversial, although it is preached in many churches across the world, and associated with many famous ministries. Some forms of this teaching were recently strongly criticised by theologians within the Lausanne Movement, which has observed the teaching becoming more prevalent in Africa in recent years, as well as in the West. ‘The Bible warns against greed from beginning to end, and 1 Peter warns elders not to seek unfair material reward – ie to work for money,’ says Dr Chris Wright, who heads the Theology Working Group of the Lausanne Movement. ‘So it is certainly wrong for individuals to demand to be paid more than an adequate remuneration – perhaps not more than the average or median of their congregation – or for churches to over pay their pastors – which they may do merely to boost their own sense of importance – since it exposes them to temptations that the Bible warns against.’
This temptation has been around way before the Christian church began, with the Sons of Eli in 1 Samuel 2 seeking the best part of the tithe, one of the sins that lead to their demise. This temptation is most acute in the US. In the United States, a popular ministry can mean big bucks. This is not necessarily abused; for example Rick Warren has benefited so highly from his successful range of books that he says he has become a ‘reverse tither’, keeping 10% of his income and donating the rest. He also paid back the salaries his church had paid him in previous years – which was $110,000 (£68,100) per year.
However some preachers have attracted the attention of the United States Senate, which is investigating six high-profile ministries – including those of Joyce Meyer and Benny Hinn – for allegedly lavish lifestyles. Last year there was a controversy over a pastor who had a reported $450,000 salary package at a New York church. There are a number of organisations who have sprung up to address the perceived financial issues in the American churches, including the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Ministrywatch.com and Wall Watchers, but they are all voluntary. Since the increased scrutiny, Joyce Meyer Ministries has joined the ECFA and has been praised for her transparency, and some of the ministries, including that of Benny Hinn, are co-operating with the Senate enquiry. It is possible the outcome of the investigation will lead to new legislation governing the running of religious organisations in the US.
There are more checks and balances in the UK than there are in the US. When a church is a registered charity, as is usually the case in the UK, there are limits to the amounts that can be paid to pastors. The Charity Commission regulates all charitable organisations in this country and has powers to investigate if someone expresses concern to them about how a charity is being run. Their guidelines, in a document entitled ‘Faith in good governance’ state that paying ‘very generous salaries’, ‘excessive expenses’ or paying for the ‘enhancement of the leader’s personal reputation’ are not allowed – although no specifics are given.
It is very unusual for the Commission to investigate churches, which indicates that abuses of finances are rare, and may be more related to misunderstandings of charity rules than deliberate behaviour. When it investigated one large church, there were concerns about how money had been spent, and conflicts of interest between a pastor being both a charity trustee and the person in charge. Since then the Evangelical Alliance has developed documents to help churches to address this issue, to avoid it happening again in the future.
However the potential for mismanagement can go further. A different, and more unusual case took place in the 1990s. An investigation into a church by the Charity Commission found ‘evidence of misconduct and mismanagement, including significant unauthorised salary payments and other benefits provided to the Pastor and his wife, as well as a number of the trustees.’ The pastor was later jailed for sexual offences, which he denied. He and his wife have since set up a new church which continues to operate.
According to Clifford, further regulation in the UK is unnecessary. Instead, he recommends that we encourage more openness in churches so that the congregation is clearly shown how the churches’ finances are spent and come together to support this. Anyone can look at charity accounts through the Charity Commission website, but Clifford advocates further openness, such as holding open meetings to discuss the church’s finance. ‘The key word in this is transparency,’ says Clifford. ‘So… people are aware of what support [pastors] areexperiencing, and there is a corporate sense that it is appropriate. It is important that decisions being made… there is some sense of arms-length distance between those making decisions and those in responsibility.’
He argues churches are more transparent than they were 10 years ago. He believes that churches are best held accountable within a wider group of churches, through membership of a denomination or a group like the Evangelical Alliance. However some denominations do not dictate how funds should be spent; for example Assemblies of God does not set salaries, although they give guidelines. But they would not tell a church what to pay its pastor.
Transparency is biblical according to Pierce, who says this is particularly important to be honest before the general public. ‘Paul says clergy are entitled to receive financial support, but there is a genuine issue around the importance of churches been transparent about what they are doing about finance,’ he says. ‘In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul is very clear that he is looking to some kind of transparency.’ This passage, talking about collecting money for suffering Christians, states; ‘We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.’
However Pierce points out that if we disagree with the way our tithes are being spent, it might be the time to find a different church rather than withhold giving or complain about the situation. ‘On the flip side, at what point are we entitled to put conditions on what God has called us to, and what is the nature of a gift if there are conditions and money upheld?,’ he says. ‘If people have a difficulty with what the church is doing with money, we should address this, not just withhold giving as a form of protest. If this situation is unresolved, it may be time to look at another church.’
What to pay your pastor?
If you have a role to play in setting the salary of your pastor, what are the benchmarks? Here are some suggestions made by people interviewed in this article.
• Salary of a Headteacher of a similarly sized school, because the role is similar
• The average of the salaries of the congregation you are serving
• The average for a pastor in your area (or upper quartile, if you wish to reward your pastor)
For support in making these decisions, or information on giving and generosity in the Church, Christian Vocation and Stewardship offer advice and information
The following passages have something to say on pastor’s pay: 1 Samuel 2, Nehemiah 13:10-11, Luke 8:3, Luke 10:1-7, 1 Corinthians 9, 2 Corinthians 8, 2 Corinthians 11:7-11, 1 Timothy 5:17-18, 1 Peter 5:1-4, 3 John 1:5-8
Your money and your life K Tondeur and S Pierce (SPCK). Includes chapters on giving from a Christian perspective.
The Holy Spirit is not for sale J Lee Grady (Chosen). A challenging and strongly worded investigation into the problems of parts of the American church.
www.ministrywatch.com Provides information on American ministries and their transparency about financial issues, as well as guidance and resources.
www.charity-commission.gov.uk For UK regulation of charities and charity accounts (See particularly charity-commission.gov.uk/Charity_requirements_ guidance/Specialist_guidance/Faith/faithgov.aspx)