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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Are Christian Pastor's Making Too Much Money

(c) 2011 by Tom King

According to a recent survey by Dallas-based Leadership Network, the average salary for a lead pastor in a megachurch is $147,000. That probably seems like a lot to the folk out there struggling to pay a ten percent tithe or to the widow with the mite and comparatively, it is. But that's not all.

The survey found that salaries for lead pastors in all churches can range from $40,000 on the low end to $400,000. There are probably outliers that make more or less, but the survey only sampled large churches salary and benefits reports. Churches with a weekend crowd of 2,000 or more averaged $99,000 a year. Even assistant and worship pastors made around $75,000.

These kinds of numbers are not unusual in churches with a congregational financial model. In these churches, a church board sets the pastor's salary, not the central church leadership. Many of these church boards consist of well-heeled members of the congregation who, themselves make very high salaries. It's not at all surprising that a church board chairman who reeled in ten million last year with stock options would consider a $200,000 annual paycheck at all unreasonable.

I live in the Bible Belt. You can't throw a cat in Tyler, Texas without scratching the paint off a church. Churches are probably the second largest business in East Texas after prisons and prison accoutrements (we make most of the nation's razor wire here – I bet you didn't know that). Many southern churches encourage tithing and even if only a third of any congregation actually do that, it's still a lot of money flowing through the collection plate. A mid-sized country church with a couple of doctors or lawyers in attendance can rack up a million dollar budget in no time. And managing all that money, often with the help of maybe one paid church secretary and a bookkeeper – the pastor.

It's not surprising that church board members, many of whom are well acquainted with the headaches of managing an operation the size and scope of a church, feel that, as the Bible says, “the laborer is worth his hire” and compensate accordingly. I know pastors of relatively modest churches who make $95K easily. Their boards evidently think that's an acceptable price for a Doctor of Divinity.

When I sat on a nonprofit board, one of the well-heeled businessmen on the board with me explained to me (patiently as though I were a slow-witted nephew) that business executives routinely draw a salary of around 10% of net company revenues. It doesn't take much for a church to have a one to two million dollar budget, especially if the church is tithing. If you have just ten million dollar execs in your congregation, tithe from just those members alone can hit a million in no time.

The situation with nonprofits may be more shocking to some of their contributors. NPOs often have execs that draw more than 100,00 in salary and benefits, especially if the director is a talented fund-raisers. A board member told me once when I was hired as a development officer for a children's charity that he had not problem paying me a couple of hundred thousand a year if I brought in the contributions.

You'd think there'd be a willingness to sacrifice in people who elect to work for churches or nonprofits and there may well be. Line staff in nonprofits and churches are often highly underpaid, if not entirely volunteers. But these aren't the folk who do well at fund-raising and, let's face it, church and nonprofit boards want CEOs and pastors who are good fund-raisers. One thing I've found over the years is that good fund-raisers often have a really powerful sense of self-interest. You almost need that to raise that kind of money. It certainly explains why the very folk that Jesus said should be the “least” if they wanted to be the first, make so much money.

I think that's one reason God instituted the tithe. It makes sense. If God sets the rate of contributions, then that leaves churches free to choose leaders for churches that might not necessarily be good fund-raisers, but who are, instead, Godly men and women who care more about their people than they do about their pocketbooks.

It's worked pretty well for my own church where pastors are paid, not on the size of their churches, but on the length of their service and experience. It also protects us from leaders who would build a cult of personality around themselves. There's no reward for doing that other than an ego boost and, in practice, it would take a pretty needy ego to be willing to do the kind of work it takes to build a cult of personality without any monetary reward.

In the end, local church and nonprofit boards have to decide how much to pay someone that you are going to trust with a multi-million dollar budget. An underpaid executive is an invitation to embezzling, not because pastors are inherently greedy. A low salary for someone handling large amounts of money won't attract many honest, competent folk who can make a more livable wage elsewhere. At the same time, it is too easy for such a job to attract grifters who would accept low pay in exchange for access to unsupervised loose cash (like offering plates).

What to pay your pastor or nonprofit director is a tough problem that's best left to local boards and congregations to decide. The system is surprisingly free of such shenanigans considering how many churches and how much money is involved. I don't think the government or large corporations have nearly as good a record.

Hmm. Maybe I ought to list that Theological Doctorship I got on-line for ten dollars from the Florida Institute of New Age Theology on my resume'. 

Just one man's opinion....

Tom King

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