When Brandon Shields left his full-time position as a pastor in West Palm Beach to start a church several states away, he did what most church planters do: He allotted his family as little money as possible to get by while in the fundraising stage.
As his home and salary shrank to what he believed to be appropriate size for a church planter, his children and expenses grew—and so did his anxiety over finances.
Shields has plenty of company; surveys have shown the vast majority of clergy, around nine in ten Protestant pastors in the US, experience financial stress.
Many churchgoers—and pastors themselves—assume these kinds of budget balancing acts come as part of the job. Just as churches must wrestle with the tension between generosity and being good stewards of the resources God has given, pastors too must work out how to provide adequately for their families while striving to live simply.
But in the end, American Christians might be surprised to learn how many pastors struggle to make ends meet, and how much those financial pressures can weigh on their personal lives and ministry careers.
With October being Pastor Appreciation Month, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) launched its Bless Your Pastor campaign to raise awareness about the state of clergy finances and provide resources for thoughtful ways churches can support their leaders.
“Over 70 percent of pastors know pastors that have left the ministry just from the stress of it, either the personal stress or the financial stress, and over one-third have said they themselves have considered leaving the ministry just because it’s too difficult on their family, especially with some of the financial challenges they face,” Brian Kluth, national director of NAE Financial Health and spokesperson for Bless Your Pastor, said in an interview with K-LOVE.
An earlier NAE survey by found that half of pastors have salary/housing packages under $50,000. When it comes to benefits, most receive no family health insurance (59%) and no pension or retirement funds (62%).
A 2016 study of clergy compensation similarly found that Protestant clergy income (including salary and housing allowances) amounts to just over $46,000 annually on average.
Analysis by GuideStone, the financial planning firm for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), indicates SBC pastor salaries are not keeping up with the rate of inflation, and the financial pull often leaves them without adequate funds to save for the future.
“One thing we can say for certain is that most [SBC] pastors are generally underprepared for retirement,” said Roy Hayhurst of GuideStone. “Many factors contribute to a lack of retirement readiness in ministry including the growing challenge of student debt, the burden of personal debt, inertia and putting the focus on the here and now and not on their long-term needs.”
Chet Lilly, chief operating officer at PCA Retirement and Benefits Inc., the retirement agency of the Presbyterian Church in America, has seen many pastors who spend their professional lives in low-paying ministries, only to discover after decades of serving the church that they cannot retire.
Although Lilly and Hayhurst said their organizations strongly discourage pastors from opting out of Social Security Benefits, the NAE reports that one in five of pastors have done so. Opting out doubles the amount of money a pastor might have to save in order to retire.
“They are underpaid for long periods of time, and they may get to a point where they are 60 or 70 and ill or tired, but they can’t retire,” Lilly said. “We are encouraging folks to work to age 70 and then, if they need to — and many do — then slow down to 20 or so hours a week.”
With today’s financial demands, particularly growing student loan debt from college or seminary, ministry leaders fear fewer of today’s pastors will stick it out long-term after being overworked and underpaid.
“One year in [to planting the church], an advisor told me that I couldn’t keep living like that, and I had to take a raise. I realized I had swung too far the other way and did some study on what fair compensation looked like for our family,” he said.
Not only did Shields take the pay raise, but he and his leadership studied a theology of compensation to develop a coherent vision for how the church would set salaries. He believes many pastors either feel too ashamed to broach the subject with their lay leaders or don’t know how to advocate for themselves, so they suffer in silence, move on to another church, or leave ministry altogether.
Though “poverty theology”—Shields’ term for the notion that pastors and ministry leaders ought to be poor—has lost its hold in many churches, it persists in mission work and church planting in particular. Barna Group, in its 2017 State of Pastors report, found that pastors tend to see themselves as more financial sound (describing their situation as “secure” or “surplus”) than the average American, while church planters report being less well off (“surviving” or “struggling”).
Though pastors of smaller churches with smaller budgets are more likely to fall on the “struggling” end financially, Barna also noted a correlation between financial uncertainty and discontent in ministry: “Pastors who express lower levels of satisfaction with their vocation or with their current position are more likely to see themselves as struggling…”
Many historic and mainline denominations enroll clergy in retirement plans, expect churches to contribute toward retirement, and provide strong guidance on salary scales, but smaller denominations and nondenominational churches often lack such structures.
Denominations often propose minimum salary requirements, and those that don’t usually offer non-binding call package guidelines and recommend sites like ChurchSalary.com. Search firms like Vanderbloemen also offer guides based on their research, as does LifeWay Research.
In addition to encouraging churchgoers to give faithfully to help contribute toward their pastors’ salary year-round, the campaign suggests special financial gifts this month can help cover a marriage retreat, family vacation, ministry conference, or seminary courses. Or, the church can give toward other high-cost items like student debt, children’s college tuition, medical expenses, or retirement savings.
“Few people get into ministry to experience financial abundance. We know the risks but when the risks become so large, it leads to suffering,” Shields said. “How can the church honor God and dignify and bless their pastor as he lays down his life for the congregation?”
The Bless Your Pastor campaign is part of a larger initiative to address financial challenges faced by pastors and is funded by a $1 million, three-year grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc.
Editor’s note: Christianity Today is also the recipient of funding from the Lilly Endowment.