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How not to compensate your pastor

Thom Rainer headshot

When I converse with church members who have responsibility for overseeing pastoral compensation, I can expect a few typical reactions. First, the members speak in hushed tones, as if the subject of compensation is a forbidden public topic, only to be mentioned in the confines of need-to-know and confidentiality. Second, I will run into one or more misconceptions about pastor’s pay. Third, I often hear from at least one person who has a very unreasonable attitude about the topic.

In that context, I hear six very common negative themes about pastoral compensation. I wish they were not repeated, but they are. See if you have heard any of them. Let’s look at the six ways not to compensate your pastor.

  1. Don’t use “pay” and “package” synonymously. A pastor’s pay is salary plus housing allowance. That’s it. Nothing else. The pay is not health benefits or retirement benefits; those are, obviously, benefits. The pay is not automobile expenses reimbursed. That is an expense reimbursement. Let me give you an example in the secular world. An employee gets a paycheck of $50,000 a year. The same employee gets $4,000 in medical benefits and $3,000 in retirement benefits. And the employee was reimbursed $4,000 for a conference in California. How much does the employee make? $50,000 of course. You don’t add benefits and expenses and call it pay. That’s the total package, but not the paycheck. Articulate your pastor’s pay with that same vernacular.
  2. Don’t keep the pastor’s pay low to keep him humble. I’ve heard that excuse too many times. It’s a fake spiritual way to justify low compensation. If any of you church members like that approach, try lowering your own compensation for the sake of humility.
  3. Don’t count the spouse’s income as part of the pastor’s income. I did a consultation with a church a few years ago where the pastor’s compensation was lower than two other staff members. I asked the obvious question regarding the strange discrepancy. The chairwoman of the personnel committee told me the pastor’s wife had a good paying job as a nurse, so they did not need to pay the pastor much. I almost choked on my Chick-fil-A sandwich.
  4. Don’t fail to contribute toward retirement for your pastor. Too many pastors have insufficient funds in their later years. Too many churches neglect contributing toward their retirement.
  5. Don’t fail to find sources that have pastor and staff salary data available. There are a number of such studies published annually. You have no excuse not to find the information that will help you compensate your pastor fairly. Here is an annual study by LifeWay for my denomination.
  6. Don’t neglect raises. Inflation may be low, but it’s still present. When you fail to give a raise to your pastors every year, they are actually falling behind in purchasing power. Insist they take an annual raise, even if it’s only cost-of-living increases. And, hopefully, it will be even more.

As a postscript, don’t let the abuses of money by a very few pastors give you a false perspective. More pastors are underpaid rather than overpaid. And most pastors would rather not broach the topic of their compensation. It’s just too uncomfortable for them.

So, please, take the lead and take care of your pastors financially.

That will be one less burden they have to carry.

Originally posted at

Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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