“I will forego a raise next year,” Rev. Carter told his grateful board in 1997, when the church’s money started getting tight. And because the finances never did improve, year after year he nobly sacrificed. “I didn’t go into the ministry for the money,” he would always say.
And in 2004, when his wife’s new job came with family health insurance, Rev. Carter gladly cancelled the church-sponsored plan, saving his congregation thousands more.
But after Rev. Carter retired in last year, the congregation got a real shock.
Even at the denomination’s minimum recommendation, compensation and health benefits for their next pastor, would be about $30,000 more than they had been paying Rev. Carter. And after avoiding stewardship efforts over the last 20 years, the congregation was accustomed to running hand-to-mouth?
Of course, Rev. Carter is a fictitious pastor, but his story is one seen all across the church. Pastors who – for good reasons and with the best of intentions – allow themselves to be underpaid often do their congregations no favors in the long run. Rev. Carter unwittingly taught his congregation some unfortunate lessons:
- It’s not a priority to ensure our congregation has sufficient money for ministry.
- We can run just fine on “bare bones” budgeting.
- The denomination’s compensation guidelines don’t mean anything.
- When hard times come, the pastor – not the congregation – will sacrifice.
- Our pastors are overpaid. They don’t need to make the denomination’s recommended compensation.
- As dedicated souls who don’t go into the ministry for money, pastors really don’t mind working for less.
Could this have been avoided? Let’s go back to 1997. Rev. Carter might have done things differently. He might have:
- Insisted the congregation keep his pay at the denomination’s minimum guidelines. A call is a covenant relationship. By not giving Rev. Carter a raise, the congregation is unilaterally altering the covenant.
- Insisted that the congregation keep his salary at the minimum guidelines, but give the entire amount back to the congregation.
- Advantage: It keeps the budget’s pastoral compensation line at the right level. Done this way year after year, compensation would not fall short of the guidelines. It would avoid “sticker shock” of calling a new pastor.
- Advantage: Pastor Carter is in control of how much he gives, so he could easily change his offering if the church’s financial picture improves.
- Disadvantage: There is no shared responsibility. The pastor is shouldering the cost of keeping the compensation at an appropriate level.
- Disadvantage: When the pastor retires or moves on, the church will still have to come up with money to make up for the pastor’s contributions.
- Insisted that the congregation keep his salary at the minimum guidelines, but challenged the congregation with a cost-sharing compromise: If the lay leadership increased their giving by one third of the amount of his pay raise and the congregation as a whole increased its giving for the second third, Rev. Carter would donate the final third back to the congregation.
- Advantage: It keeps the compensation at the right level. At the same time, it shares the responsibility, with pastor, leaders and congregation taking different levels. It helps the congregation learn about compromise and mutual responsibility and sacrifice.
Amazingly, many congregations in financial trouble do not talk stewardship. It’s often a failure of leadership. As Charles Lane argues in this insightful essay, if the pastor does not take the lead in stewardship, nothing much happens.
The lessons for both pastors and lay leadership is simple: Not giving leadership a raise is short-sighted and leads to much bigger problems down the road. And it’s essential to have a vigorous, continuing stewardship ministry.