“Crops weren’t so good this year, and offerings are down,” a worried rural church council president observed. “We’d like to give the pastor a raise, but we’re not sure the dollars will be there. How can we talk about this?”

“I love my ministry in this parish,” a pastor declared. “And the people seem to appreciate and support me—except when it comes to compensation. What can I do?”

“There’s an undercurrent of murmuring in our church,” a personnel committee chair observed. “Some of us feel that we need to evaluate the minister, and others are suggesting that church staff salaries be tied more closely to performance,” she added. “Can you help us out?”

Denominational staff people regularly field questions like these. In the Lutheran synod where I have served for more than a decade, compensation-related questions arise most frequently in the fall, when church councils are preparing budgets for annual meetings in late January. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, phone calls come in almost daily from anxious clergy and uptight council leaders.

When church people discuss what to pay the pastor, they take on two touchy topics at once: first, the question of parishioners’ financial giving to support the mission of the church; second, the matter of compensation itself—something most people regard as nobody’s business but their own. How can church leaders and ministry staff have constructive, missional, partnership-building conversations about compensation?

Our Foundation in Faith 

Compensation for clergy and other church staff, like other issues the church faces, must be viewed in light of Christians’ core biblical and theological convictions. What faith commitments will influence our approach to this important subject?

Our starting point is that the grace of God in Jesus Christ can be neither bought nor sold. God insists on giving it freely. Indeed, all Christians receive in baptism a call to serve and proclaim the good news of God’s undeserved love in Jesus Christ.

All Christians are to declare the gospel, especially to those who have never heard it. Within the church, however, some are called to make this task a major occupational commitment. Some church leaders are asked to devote a significant amount of time and energy to the ministry of equipping all of God’s people for service in the world. When the church asks such men and women to make ministry a major occupational commitment, the church takes upon itself a responsibility to pay them an appropriate wage.

The principle that “laborers deserve their food” (Matt. 10:10) is attested throughout the scriptures. In the Old Testament, priests were granted a portion of the sacrifices made by the people; tithes and other offerings were received to support God’s servants. In the New Testament, Paul speaks of the duty of churches to support their leaders—even though Paul chose to waive this right for himself (1 Cor. 9).

Insofar as the church is institutionally embodied, it is subject to the same standards of justice to which all human institutions are accountable. The church, however, is more than a human institution. At a deeper level, the church is the community of faith—drawn together by God around the Word and Sacraments, empowered for witness in the world. Pastors and other church staff members are simultaneously employed by congregations and called by the church to be fellow workers with all of God’s people in the body of Christ.

As churches and ministry agencies make decisions about staff compensation, they will bear in mind their identity and calling in Jesus Christ. Ideally, compensation decisions will be made in ways that allow parishioners and church staff to cherish one another as partners in God’s service and contribute to the flourishing of the congregation’s ministry within God’s wider mission in the world.

Naming the Challenges 

We may agree on these principles, but how do we translate vision into action? Here is where things get tricky. It is crucial to recognize and name some of the challenges we face in talking about church staff compensation.

First, we need to be honest about the ambiguous feelings we bring to this topic. In America it’s considered in poor taste to ask people their age, weight, or salary. And yet self-help books and popular magazines are filled with advice about these very things!

In too many cases, especially in small-membership and rural congregations, virtually no conversation ensues between parish leaders and church staff about compensation. More than once I have heard of pastors who had no idea what their next year’s compensation would be until they arrived at the annual meeting at which salaries were set! Although plenty of resources are available to guide us in drafting compensation packages, we lack models for having good face-to-face conversations on this topic.

It’s important to recognize that ministerial compensation is about relationships more than dollars. Although church staff members typically have not entered the ministry for financial reasons, they see compensation as one of the important ways they are valued by the church members with whom they serve. At the same time, ministers experience much anxiety and even pain around this issue.

In my experience, elected lay leaders of congregations earnestly want to do better. Several years ago I surveyed the ministers and elected parish leaders of the synod I serve and discovered that compensation was one of lay and clergy leaders’ top three concerns in the area of parish personnel procedures.

Compensation Conversation Teams 

I propose that congregations use small teams of lay leaders to pursue mission-focused, partnership-nurturing conversations with church employees about compensation issues. The congregation’s personnel committee (or whatever leadership group is responsible for personnel matters) divides itself into several teams of two. Each team meets with at least one member of the staff. In congregations with large staffs, a team may need to meet with more than one staff member. Every church staff member will meet with his or her team at least twice annually. Click here to view a complete description of this process. 

Members of these compensation conversation teams should be active church participants who are respected by the congregation and trusted by staff members. They should embrace the congregation’s mission statement and agree with the congregation’s vision for staff compensation planning. Team members should also be familiar with the denomination’s compensation standards and have a working knowledge of the factors that go into clergy compensation planning. Above all, team members should be able to exercise discretion with the information they gain in conversations with staff members.

I strongly encourage congregations to maintain a strict distinction between staff evaluation times and compensation conversation times. Formal staff reviews should be conducted about six months before the meetings at which compensation is considered. This separation keeps the focus of staff reviews on constructive advice about future performance rather than on assigning a monetary “grade” to past performance. (It is appropriate, however, for compensation conversation team members to have available the report from each church employee’s most recent performance review—but only as one of a number of pieces of information used in discussing compensation.)

In my view, teams should meet with church staff workers at least twice before a final compensation proposal is brought to the congregation’s annual meeting
. The first conversation should take place at least two months before the annual meeting and should be informal and open-ended. Team members will meet with the staff member for at least one hour to review the current compensation package, the job description, the employee’s financial concerns, the fiscal health of the congregation, denominational guidelines, information from the latest job performance review, and other pertinent information. By the conclusion of this initial meeting, the team and staff member should have developed a preliminary compensation proposal for the coming year.

After the first conversation, team members will offer preliminary reports on their visits to the personnel committee (or whatever leadership group handles personnel issues). The staff member will also have had time to reflect on the conversation and discuss the proposed compensation package with spouse, other family members, and a financial adviser.

The team will then schedule a second conversation with each staff person that will be more focused and task-oriented. Team members will share with the staff person the reactions to the preliminary proposal from other parish leadership groups, along with any suggested changes. The staff person will have an opportunity to respond and offer additional input. The goal of the second conversation is to produce a final compensation proposal that will be acceptable to the staff person and able to garner support from elected congregational leaders.

The work of the compensation conversation team is not over at this point. Team members will now act as advocates within the congregation for the staff person and the proposed compensation package as it is considered within the annual budget by the voting membership of the congregation. Although ministers shouldn’t feel they need to avoid the topic of their compensation, most are uncomfortable being their own advocates in this regard. How much better it is if members of the compensation conversation team can carry that responsibility, especially as the personnel portion of the parish budget is debated at the congregation’s annual meeting!

Tending Relationships 

If every congregation uses a compensation conversation team model, will all our church staff salary concerns disappear? No. At times a gap will still separate what a congregation might want to offer, what a staff member might deserve, and the dollars available in the personnel budget.

But remember this maxim: Ministerial support is at least as much about tending relationships as it is about providing adequate compensation. Church staff will cherish any attempt by elected lay leaders to pursue honest, respectful, caring conversations with them about this touchiest of topics.