Some years ago, advice columnist Ann Landers published a letter from a college student who was pondering his career choices. “My classmates are all in a race for the biggest salaries. I want security, a stable salary, and peace of mind. What jobs should I consider?” Ann reassured the young man that his desires were normal and acceptable, and listed several careers that offered the stability he wanted: civil service, postal work, the clergy—the clergy? 

What an interesting idea. Oh, I’m sure somewhere—probably in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex—a parish priest rests secure in his benefice, whiling away long afternoons writing uplifting novels. But my experience of ministry, and that of most clergy I know, has been quite different. Our calling is, of course, to be for others—to change lives for the better through practical service, spiritual challenge, and moral support. Ironically, though, even more than most employees, we must be our own advocates when it comes to the business side of our profession.

I’ll never forget my own first ministerial salary negotiation. It was for a student internship in an expensive suburb outside Boston. The senior minister—let’s call him Dr. Needham—a distinguished advocate of peace and justice and a most proper Bostonian, had me to dinner with his wife and some lay leaders. It was as much a social test, I felt, as an employment interview. I had only recently stopped wearing the one pair of camouflage pants that had seen me through college, so perhaps you can imagine how at ease I felt.

I knew enough not to be the first to bring up money. Over coffee in the parlor (the ladies did not withdraw, but then no sherry or cigars were on offer), Dr. Needham mentioned the denominational salary guidelines for student interns. Naturally, these were extremely low; I must have looked worried. “Of course,” he said, “we would be able to do just a little better.” There was a pause. “And you have a wife.”

Yes, I said. Fran was a graduate student at MIT. I said, “She gets a student stipend.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I felt I had made a terrible mistake. Would Dr. Needham pay me less because my internship was a “second income”? Had I been a woman, that might well have happened. As it was, he said, “How much are they paying now at MIT?” I told him, and he promptly offered me a salary about 10 percent higher. Needless to say, the sum was far above the norm for ministerial interns.

Sealing Clergy Off from Money 

No wonder many clergy find the money side of ministry distasteful! It is the arena in which it is clearest how much we depend on those we are supposed to lead. It is the locus where sexism, racism, bias against homosexuals, social competition, and sheer anticlerical hostility walk most nearly naked through the church. It is where people express most unambiguously their true evaluation of the place of faith in the “real” (that is, the economic) world.

Some clergy respond by letting ourselves be sealed off from money, taking what we’re offered, thereby colluding in a tacit dualism: money and faith, laity and clergy, secular and sacred. This approach works for some of us, because some congregations are good caretakers, and some community ministries (notably medical and military chaplaincies) are influenced by high standards of compensation. When laypeople are good parents, it works for clergy to be children. But the passive approach fails more often than it succeeds. Left to their own imagination, employers generally imagine low rather than high salaries.

Some clergy take vows of poverty or hold to a theology of simple living. I have no quarrel with such ideas, but I would point out that they are strongly countercultural and therefore not well understood. A clergy leader who wants to lead by countercultural example needs to be more, not less, conversant with the wider culture. It may be laudable to live simply, but it is not enough. Influencing others’ use of money requires engagement with the economic world, not saintly withdrawal.

Other clergy take a muscular approach: bargaining hard, taking control, living ministry the way some people live investment banking. This attitude accepts the faith-and-money dualism, but jumps the fence. Cardinal George Mundelein, archbishop of Chicago from 1915 until his death in 1939, is supposed to have said, “When I was young, I wondered whether I should choose the church or go into the business world. I’m so glad I chose business.” When congregations will put up with it, clergy can afford to be grasping. But of course this option risks abandoning any critical distance from the economic world.

Surely, if we hold (as most of us do, in language comfortable to us) that one God is God of all of life, neither a withdrawal from nor an uncritical embrace of money and the power that goes with it can fulfill a clergy leader’s calling. Matters of money—clergy and staff compensation, budget priorities, investment practices, personal and congregational generosity—all these are brought or not brought before the judgment and the leading of our highest values. If clergy leaders are kept in psychological thrall because of their financial vulnerability and dependence, then it does not matter much how pushy or submissive they are—money considerations remain outside the spiritual sphere, and that’s a shame.

An Awkward Subject 

No situation raises this matter of embracing or rejecting money more intensely than a clergy salary negotiation. Great store is set by whether clergy are demanding or submissive in this process—of revered clergy it is often said, “She never asked for a raise.” This works for a few clergy—either they really don’t care, or they get raises anyway! Too often, though, this “spiritual” pose masks anxiety and silent pique as the reverend pastor lives resentful and retires poor.

What makes clergy compensation such an awkward subject? No one’s compensation is a comfortable subject, but clergy face some special barriers to frank negotiation of their pay. One is that we define ministry as “personal,” and in our culture we generally feel that money ought to be left out of personal relationships. We are advised not to lend money to family—or at least not to expect to get it back. We are offended if a friend tries to sell us something. People who enjoy their friendships in the congregation resist face-to-face pledge canvassing because the involvement of money might contaminate a friendship. This attitude creates an almost audible gear-shifting when a congregant who sees the rabbi or pastor as a personal friend or advisor becomes part of a salary negotiation. Religion, since the 19th century, has been seen primarily as personal and domestic—a refuge from the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace. Until we overcome this sentimental legacy, we clergy will neither claim our economic due nor influence the economic world.

How Much is Enough? 

We lack an adequate vocabulary for discussing the “right” salary for clergy. Our society most naturally thinks of salaries as labor prices subject to the law of supply and demand. But the market for clergy is quite different from other labor markets. It is maddeningly difficult to judge the quality of clergy, or to assess their productivity. It is a challenge to get accurate information about what “the competition” pays. And these days, a high fraction of clergy are married to someone who brings home a higher salary, a factor limiting the mobility that is one of the classical requisites of a perfect labor market. The result is that each layperson is left to estimate the proper salary for the clergy leader based on subjective like or dislike and an uninformed estimate of the available alternatives if the pastor or rabbi should leave. In consequence, discussions about salary usually end inconclusively, whether they take p
lace in local congregations or denominational committees.

In our society, people tend to value what they pay for and to express their values with their pocketbooks. Most North Americans have enough discretionary income that they can afford to pay their clergy what they believe is right, and enough generosity of spirit to pay what they believe they must. So conversations about clergy compensation have the potential to be value-rich discussions. If we can learn to do it, we can use these opportunities to learn about the choices we all, clergy and laity alike, make about consumption and security, generosity and prudence, care for our congregations and care for our families and ourselves.