In the local cafeteria the other day, I overheard two pastors discussing their salaries. One was a Methodist minister named Melville and the other a Baptist minister named Blake. Pastor Melville was upset. He was 51 years old, had been in ministry for more than 20 years, was still serving a church with a Sunday attendance of only 150, and was making $37,000 a year plus use of a parsonage. He was about to be appointed to a larger church with an average Sunday attendance of 180, but his cash salary would increase only to $39,000. His family could afford college educations for the children only if his wife kept her job in the city where they now lived. However, his new church was located in a town more than 200 miles away. His spouse would have to quit her professional position with no job prospects within commuting distance of the new residence. He had heard of a lot of Baptist ministers hired by large churches and earning salaries of more than $60,000. “How lucky you are,” Melville commented to Blake, “that you are free to choose the church you serve.”

Pastor Blake, however, looked just as sullen as Melville did. “My friend,” he replied, “I wish I had your troubles. You and I are the same age, and both of us have been in ministry for lo these 20 years; yet I am serving an even smaller church and making even less money. And worse, I have no health care or retirement benefits. To make ends meet, I have to work a second job. At least you are moving to a larger church. Not many larger churches seem to be looking for senior pastors in my area, so it looks as though I will be at this church for a while. A few of my colleagues’ churches do have over 350 in Sunday attendance and pay the pastor more than $60,000 a year, but in this state I can count those churches on one hand. I don’t mind the low salary so much, but I am worried about my children not being able to go to college, and my wife is concerned about what our life will be like when we retire.”

Now obviously this overheard conversation is a fictional account—surely no two pastors of different church traditions would sit down over coffee and discuss their salaries so openly. But this conversation represents the typical reality among Protestant denominations. Despite the highly publicized salaries at very large churches, most pastors’ salaries and benefits are moderate, to say the least, and benefits in particular are scarce for pastors in denominations with local autonomy.

But most of us already know this reality, and it seems that not much can be done about it, so why discuss it further? Well, maybe we can learn something by looking at salaries in a slightly new way, and maybe something can be done.

A Fundamental Difference 

The chart on this page gives us a clearer overall picture of average salaries for Protestant pastors in the United States.(1) A striking difference in pastors’ salaries can be seen between connectional and congregational traditions. The first group—overwhelmingly pastors in Methodist denominations but also those in Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian bodies—make up about half of all Protestant pastoral leaders. To varying degrees, centralized decisions regarding pastoral appointments are made for these clergy. At small churches in particular, the centralization and cooperation of the connectional system seem to help the denominations encourage and even provide higher salaries for their pastors.

On the other hand, pastors in congregational polities, overwhelmingly from Baptist traditions but also Pentecostal, Disciples, and United Church of Christ, choose and are chosen by local churches. At small churches, where most pastors serve, congregational salaries are much lower than connectional salaries. Salaries are largely set by the congregation under both polities, but salaries reflect the relative bargaining power of pastors and congregations. Except possibly at the very large churches (which make up less than 1 percent of Protestant congregations), congregational churches are usually in the driver’s seat. Salary offers are low in large part because a great number of congregational pastors are available for jobs, and there are many close substitutes for them (retired pastors, licensed pastors, and lay speakers).(2)

It is eye-opening to realize just how few senior pastors serve large churches—only about 10 percent overall. And while a third of Protestant pastors serve medium-size churches, most walk into worship on Sunday morning facing 100 or fewer in attendance. This state of affairs is not bad in and of itself. Smaller churches allow more time for hands-on, person-to-person ministry, rather than administrative responsibilities. Small churches are a reality and an opportunity. Certainly they encourage a form of Christian worship that has been around since the earliest communities. Many pastors of small churches deal with their small salaries in the same way Paul did—by “tent-making” (see the sidebar on page 11). One of every three pastors serving small churches holds a second job. Nearly 40 percent of small-church pastors work only part-time at the church—some are tent-makers; some are retired.

One contributing factor to low median pastors’ salaries is the large percentage of pastors who work part-time and hold a second job. A different picture emerges if one sets aside part-time pastors’ salaries. The median salary (plus housing) for full-time pastors is $44,500. And looking only at full-time pastors who hold a master’s-level seminary degree, the median salary (plus housing) is $45,800. Whether this is a reasonable figure depends on the vocations to which we compare pastoral leadership. The median salary for teachers and social workers who hold a graduate degree is $45,000.(3)

Why Salaries Differ Across Polity 

Local autonomy (and the consequent lack of sharing mechanisms to support salaries at small churches) is not the sole reason for lower salaries in congregational-polity churches. Congregational churches are smaller in comparison to connectional churches (60 compared to 94 in average Sunday morning attendance) and are less affluent. The average income of the people in the congregational pew is $25,000, compared to $33,000 for members of connectional churches. Congregational pastors have less education. Only 60 percent have a master’s-level seminary degree, compared to 94 percent of connectional pastors. Thus, congregational pastors’ salaries are lower, at least in part, because their congregations are smaller and financially less well off, and because they themselves have less schooling. Indeed, these factors are strong enough to keep congregational salaries lower than connectional, even though 51 percent of the people in congregational pews report that they tithe, compared to only 21 percent of those in connectional pews.(4)

But even though local autonomy is not the only reason for lower salaries of pastors in congregational churches, it remains a large element. Take two pastors like Melville and Blake—one connectional and one congregational. Both have 20 years’ experience and a seminary degree. If we put them in churches with the same average lay income, here is what their salaries would look like at churches of various sizes. At the smaller churches, where most pastors serve, the average connectional salary is higher by about $7,000. The difference diminishes as the size of the church grows to about 180 attenders, at which point our pastors would make about the same, $52,000 (cash salary plus housing), under either polity. Above 180 attenders, the pastor in the congregational polity would make a higher salary—and much higher at a very large church. However, there are few large congregations, and only a minuscule number of very large churches that can provide those higher salaries, under either polity.

Local autonomy affects not only pastors’ salary levels, but their benefits as well. The table below highlights the g
reat lack in pension benefits provided for congregational pastors in comparison to connectional pastors. The pinch is particularly acute at small churches, where most pastors serve.

Despite the many advantages of local autonomy in the congregational polity, it leaves pastors financially vulnerable. While few congregations would want to give up their freedom to set salary and benefits and choose their pastor, congregational-polity denominations or associations should at least let their members know of the financial vulnerability of their pastors. Real concern about the financial well-being of pastors should alert congregational pastors and congregations to the need for better benefits.

The Other Side 

So if pastors in connectional denominations are financially so much better off, why would our Baptist minister Blake not want to join his friend Pastor Melville in a connectional system (if he could somehow bring himself to baptize infants)?

One argument often made against connectional systems is that taking any decision-making power from local churches discourages excellence and inhibits the pastor and congregation from fulfilling their calls in ways they feel are best for them. Some evidence exists for this theory: nearly 60 percent of all worshipers sitting in congregational pews feel strongly that their pastor is a good match for the congregation, while slightly less than 40 percent of those in a connectional church pew feel that way. A statistic cited previously may reflect these levels of satisfaction (though it certainly reflects different emphases in theology as well)—that 51 percent of those in congregational pews say that they tithe, versus only 21 percent of connectional attenders.

Another concern is that if a minimum salary and educational requirements were simply mandated in a connectional system, rather than financially supported, unfilled pulpits would abound. There is some evidence of this tendency. In 1999, 62 percent of the nearly 5,000 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) parishes with memberships of 100 and under were without pastors. Only a 20 percent vacancy rate was reported among those with 101-200 members.(5) These figures may well represent the typical scenario in many connectional denominations.

Because of this trend, we see the tide turning the other way—small churches in connectional traditions are beginning to look more and more like congregational churches. Take, for example, a small, rural United Methodist church that cannot afford a full-time, fully ordained pastor. The congregation asks for and is assigned Pastor Chris, a “local pastor,” a minister lacking full clergy credentials in his denomination. The congregation pays him $22,000 and no benefits, similar to the compensation package of the small Baptist church down the road. Like his Baptist colleague, he is neither guaranteed employment nor forced to change appointments. However, Pastor Chris has less education and went through fewer candidacy requirements than his fully credentialed Methodist clergy colleagues. He has less status and connection to the denomination as a whole, though he may certainly be as effective and excellent a minister.

In the six years leading to 1998, the number of local pastors (along with student and retired pastors) serving United Methodist churches increased by over 1,000 (an increase of 27 percent), replacing nearly one-for-one fully ordained pastors serving churches, who decreased by the same number (from 16,000 to 15,000).(6) Those trends continue. The drive and capability of smaller churches to provide for their own spiritual needs even when they cannot afford a full-time pastor should not be underestimated.

Thus, there are trade-offs. The congregational polity leaves pastors and small churches to fend for themselves as best they see fit. The benefit is possibly a better match of pastor to congregation and more flexibility as to who can serve small congregations. The downside is that small congregations will be served by part-time, less well-educated, and possibly less skilled pastors. In this market pastors have little or no leverage to negotiate for better salaries or benefits. On the other hand, connectional denominations can provide avenues for resources to be shared between richer and poorer churches. This policy improves the financial well-being of pastors at small churches and provides more skilled or educated leadership for small congregations. The downside is that the concern to provide only “fully qualified” pastoral leaders may mean that small congregations get no pastor at all, or insufficient sharing may take place, leaving small churches and small-church pastors to fend for themselves. Both polities have strengths that can be celebrated and weaknesses that should be honestly addressed.

1. Protestant salaries were computed by the author from the Pulpit & Pew 2001 Pastoral Leader Survey. This survey collected detailed salary and other data on 883 clergy from more than 80 different faith traditions randomly selected across the United States. The response rate was high, 73 percent.
2. For more discussion of clergy labor supply and demand, see Patricia M. Y. Chang, “Assessing the Clergy Supply in the 21st Century,” forthcoming, Pulpit & Pew publication series.
3. Author’s calculations from the March 1999 Current Population Survey undertaken by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
4. These data on self-reported laity income levels and tithing come from a survey of the congregations whose leaders participated in the Pulpit & Pew Pastoral Leader Survey. Attender-level data was collected in the U.S. Congregations Study conducted by Presbyterian Research Services, Louisville, Ky.
5. Presbyterian Research Services, Louisville, Ky., “Congregations, How They Are Served, Giving Information, and Worship Attendance by Church Membership Size—1999,”
6. Author’s calculations from the General Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church, 1992-1999.