Offering Just Wages in the Church


St. Mary’s College is reported to be considering a proposal to link the pay of their President with that of their lowest full-time employee. The reason is twofold: to encourage the University to pay their lowest employees better, while also ensuring that executive pay and bonuses did not take too much from the non-profit institution:

Currently for St. Mary’s, the ratio is 13-1 when comparing the president’s salary to that of the college’s lowest-paid employees. In this light, the proposal to cap the ratio at 10-1 is not as much a major cost-cutting effort as it is a push to further address questions of income inequality. The ratio at St. Mary’s is already more reasonable than it is in many corporations or even at other universities ($441,000 was the median compensation for public-college presidents in 2011, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education). Still, those behind the initiative believe it could improve more — and that it’s an important effort to keep the income gap from widening even further.

The St. Mary’s proposal does more than just tie presidential pay to that of less well-compensated staff members. It also seeks to make sure all employees earn at least $29,976, which is 130 percent of the poverty level—enough to keep a family of four off food stamps.

Reading this story made me think: Could such a plan work for churches? As megachurches offer significant pastoral salaries (some so significant that they are not published) and even smaller large churches encroach on higher salaries, is there a way to ensure their salary system is equitable? Not to mention the need for every full-time church employee to be above the 130% of poverty line.

Turns out it has been done before. In 2006, the Church and Society Board of the Oklahoma region of the United Methodist Church offered up a “Just Wages” resolution that recommended just that. Here’s the “call to action” part of their resolution but the full resolution (scroll to page 9) has the statistics and data:

The Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church hereby resolves:

1. To support and strongly encourage churches and Conference agencies to champion a base living wage, excluding benefits, of $9.60 per hour (equivalent to an annual salary of $20,000) for all employees of the Church, whether contract, part-time, or full-time, within the next three years. (This figure is taken from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “2006 Poverty Guidelines,” and applies to the wage needed for a family of four).

2. To support and strongly encourage that the maximum salary for the highest-paid employee/appointed person not exceed four times the lowest-paid full-time staff person (excluding benefits).

3. To exclude any existing employee/appointed person whose current salary already exceeds the formula established by this resolution.

4. Annually to request the Church and Society Commission to present to the Annual Conference any revised figure for the base living wage, based on the DHHS annual “Poverty Guidelines.”

In this resolution of four times the lowest paid employee, one would see this effect only at churches where the pastor’s base pay was above $80,000. In that case, the church could either raise the lowest-paid employee OR lower the salary of the pastor (although the resolution allows for grandfathered salaries–but when the pastor changes…BOOM!).

What do you think?

  1. Do salary caps and floors offer a helpful framework for what a community could decide is a living and excessive wage?
  2. Do salary caps and floors disempower churches of some quality senior pastors who may thumb their noses at a pay ceiling, or perhaps cause the HR Committee to split up jobs into more part-time positions in case the minimum wage becomes too high?

Thoughts? May we all seek justice in our wages, especially in the Church, and find a way for sacrifices and blessings to be shared in a just fashion.

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  1. Thomas Coates says

    Thank you Jeremy– It’s hypocritical of the UMC to advocate for living wages (Wal-Mart protests, farm workers, etc) and then turn around and pay wages that staff cannot live on.
    Similarly, stories of deacons giving up ordination or accepting less-than full-time positions because their church “cannot” pay them what they are required to pay (equal to elders).

    In both cases, these people already make sacrifices to follow God’s call for their lives, but they must feed their families. I know several people who are staff of UM churches, have MDivs, and gave up a great deal to answer God’s call, but the UMC should not contribute to the injustice of non-living wages (not to mention lack of benefits). I have no answers as to what to do, only that if followed to an extreme, churches may be exploiting the call of staff and clergy by paying non-living wages, knowing that the person won’t quit.

  2. says

    Did this proposal pass. If not, what was the margin. It seems like a good idea to me. I’ve pushed churches to raise salaries and they won’t over budget concerns. Part of this is the larger church advocates for the Social Concerns while the local church struggles to say solvent.

  3. Eric says

    Should pastors be paid at all? If we are concerned about the “local” church being “solvent” the Church is in big trouble…if solvency means financially viable?

  4. David says

    If we are asking people to provide leadership for our churches (clergy or laity), and to use the time and talents they would otherwise use to feed their families to do so, livable compensation is a matter of basic justice. Some “professional” clergy, who received community support for their work in guiding the Church date at least from the New Testament period (while Paul chose not to receive support from the Church, he indicated others did in 1 Corinthians 9). In our society, this means drawing a salary–in others it might mean housing and food.

    I also think caps are more than reasonable–families should not be asked to starve for serving churches full of those warm and well-fed, but neither should Christian ministry be about getting rich. How many missionary pastors (in smaller congregations) could be paid by congregations paying senior pastors in the high 6 figures, let alone 7 figure salaries or more?

  5. CJ says

    I like this recommendation. Its fair. But, its only one side of the equation. The other side requires the congregation to step up with giving and maybe lose some of the luxuries they’re accustomed to. Getting the congregation to be OK with the sanctuary being 5 degrees warmer in the summer goes a long way to getting them to be OK with this kind of salary requirement.

  6. says

    I am more concerned that those in certain salary ranges can effectively circumvent the itinerant system, either getting to a place where they cannot be moved or be in such demand that they can be poached by another conference or a non-UM church. It either applies to all of us who are ordained elders, or it doesn’t. The 4x rule seems fair to me, but there are such a small number of churches that this affects I don’t feel it matters that much. I think a bigger issue is being able to pay full-time clergy enough so that their families can live above the poverty level.

  7. says

    It seems to that the Senior Pastor is in the best place to advocate for the fair, and hopefully generous, compensation and support of her/ his staff. There will always be temptations to pay minimal salaries for some, while paying more for the ones deemed “more important/more valuable.” As the shepherd of the congregation and staff, the Senior Pastor is in the best place to encourage fairness, equity, generosity, and the overall care and support of the church’s employees. This ought to include salary AND benefits, including a reasonable, workable schedule, sufficient time off, and the appropriate response to personal/family crises. There are both professional and pastoral roles that only the Senior Pastor appropriately and effectively fulfill.

  8. Zzyzx says

    I think, in many ways linked to this problem, is the problem of partial charges. What of those pastors who are given less than 100% charge? For whatever reason? Suppose a pastor is moved to a new charge that cannot afford 100%? Say, only 50%? Technically, I suppose the pastor could say they will only work 50% as much. But, realistically, the expectations of the local church are for 100% and the pressure is on the pastor to get everything done. So basically it’s a loophole to pay a pastor less for the same amount of work. I’m not sure how often this example works in the US system, but I’m living it right now. My new charge will not be 100% because there’s “no other option” and I’m the new guy in the district. I will get paid a good chunk less thans someone with a full charge. In theory, that means a portion of my time is free to get another job or pick up a hobby or something. But the reality won’t be like that, as any ordained pastor knows. And most hobbies require money.

    It just seems to be another way of paying less and working around the rules to take advantage of people.

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