'Bless Your Pastor': How evangelical churches are helping financially strapped clergy

Getty Images/Exkalibur
Getty Images/Exkalibur

As the leader of a small Wesleyan church in Eastern Indiana, Pastor Randy was saddled with $40,000 in debt as he tried to pay off student loans and car payments incurred by his family of seven. He worked two jobs to just make ends meet.

Like many pastors in the United States today, Randy works long hours. He shepherds the flock of a church that draws roughly 40 worshipers on Sundays while taking home relatively little pay. 

Facing $15,000 in credit card debt and owing $25,000 on three car payments, Randy also earned income working as a bus driver. But even between the two jobs, Randy says it took nearly every penny he brought home to pay his bills.

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But unlike the pastor who served at this church before him, Randy will not be forced to live out his retirement in government housing. Although some concerns were present when Randy began serving the church two decades ago, he let his financial burdens be known to lay leaders in his congregation.

Because of that discussion over seven years ago, Randy's church and denomination helped his family pay off their enormous debt in the course of a few years and have also ensured that his future will be well taken care of through an adequate pension plan and financial stewardship education.

“They helped tremendously by matching what we would pay on our credit card debt,” Randy, who asked that his identity not to be revealed, told The Christian Post in a recent interview. “Because of that, we paid off $15,000 in a year-and-a-half’s time. The church really stepped up and helped us in a tremendous way.”

Randy's church is one of many that has teamed up with the Wesleyan Church — a Protestant denomination of about 1,600 churches — to make sure their pastors are well taken care of when many pastors today are earning less than $50,000 a year and working more than 50 hours each week. 

While the Wesleyan Church has been working for the last several years to help financially-struggling pastors through its Thrive Financial Initiative, the denomination is joining 11 other denominations and counting in a newly launched movement this summer called the “Bless Your Pastor” campaign.

The campaign was launched in July by the National Association of Evangelicals, an association of over 45,000 churches from 40 different denominations.

The campaign is backed by a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment to respond to the financial struggles facing clergy in the U.S. The movement aims to encourage church boards and churchgoers nationwide to find tangible ways to bless their pastors and their families in ways that don’t tax church budgets.

The movement calls on churches nationwide to not only take up a special offering for their pastor but also advises churchgoers on applicable things they can do or provide to make their pastors' lives a little easier at a time when there are many financial concerns. 

While some congregants have given things of monetary value to their pastors like money, unwanted cars or gift cards, others have offered services like providing free baby-sitting so their pastors can have a date night, free medical checkups or performing extensive home repairs to spare their pastors from thousands in labor costs.

“In Scripture there are times that there was a call for the people of God to be generous,” Brian Kluth, national director of NAE Financial Health and spokesperson for Bless Your Pastor campaign, told CP. “And people responded gladly. And that's what we're hoping that this movement does, that when people hear about these ideas, they'll respond gladly.”

With 50 percent of a church's budget being somewhere around $125,000 a year, there is not a lot of meat left on the bone to pay pastors after the church's funds are divided up among various programs and ministries, Kluth said.

The Bless Your Pastor campaign comes as a 2015 survey of over 4,000 pastors from 19 denominational groups sponsored by NAE indicates that 50 percent of full-time pastors in the U.S. make less than $50,000 a year in combined salary and housing allowance. 

Meanwhile, the survey shows that 31 percent of both full-time and part-time pastors are forced to seek revenue from a second job, while three out of four pastors are carrying some form of debt. According to the survey, 44 percent of pastors are holding total debt of at least $20,000 or more. 

Sixty-two percent of pastors say they don't have any sort of pension or retirement plan through their church employer, creating fear for what their lives will be like once they retire from ministry. Additionally, only about four out of 10 pastors have a health insurance plan through their church.

“We feel that Bless Your Pastor is a way that pastors can be blessed and their financial health can improve but it's not dependent on the church budget,” Kluth explained. “So it calls on Christians to be generous and church boards to be wise and creative.”

Church boards that express interest in joining the Bless Your Pastor campaign will receive a campaign toolkit and a list outlining 50 creative ways that congregants can bless their pastors. The list can be distributed by churches to churchgoers to make them more aware of the stresses placed on their pastors. 

Participating churches are encouraged to hold a special offering for their pastors and staff on any week of their choosing to give church members an opportunity to donate money and other resources to bless the pastor and staff.

Many churches already hold such offerings as part of National Clergy Appreciation Month in October. But as part of NAE's new initiative, churches are encouraged to hold offerings on Sundays that work best for them. 

The pastors of the first 1,000 churches that inform NAE they held a special offering for their pastor will receive a $150 gift card in the mail.

“This has to be driven by laypeople that say to their church board members, ‘Hey, let's do this for our pastor.’ And then it's on the church board to simply watch a seven-minute video that explains it,” Kluth said. “We give them a toolkit of resources. We give them the ‘50 Ways’ list. We give them a sample template letter that they can customize.”

“It’s kind of easy to do because everything's been prepared. So it simply means the leaders step up, watch the video, use the materials and get this out,” he continued. “And then, [they] let God's Spirit put the wind in the sails and let people start blessing their pastor."

In just over a month, Kluth said that over a dozen denominations have indicated they will promote the Bless Your Pastor campaign among their churches. Additionally, NAE will reach out to at least 100 other denominations about the possibility of participating in the program.

Denominations that have indicated they will participate in the campaign include the Christian Missionary Alliance, Free Methodist Church, Evangelical Free Church of America, Church of the United Brethren in Christ, Open Bible Churches, Fellowship of Evangelical Churches, International Pentecostal Holiness Denomination and the Wesleyan Church. 

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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