Clarity About Compensation

Why we shouldn't be afraid to talk about money in interviews

It took me five years to earn my seminary degree. It was exhausting. It cost thousands of dollars and took thousands of hours to learn what I needed to learn so I could help lead a local church. Eventually that training was complete, and it was time for my classmates and me to look for jobs.

This didn’t go well for many of us. In fact, some students—men I respect and thought would make great pastors—struggled to find the right church or any church at all.

In a word, they floundered.

Why? I suspect there are several valid reasons. One reason is that, in the last 15 years, there has not been a single book written to help pastors navigate a job transition. Of course, there have been a dozen or so books written to help pastoral search teams, but none written directly to pastors.

That’s why I spent the last four years studying the literature on transitions, interviewing pastors and recruiting other, well-known authors to contribute to the book, Don’t Just Send a Resume: How to Find the Right Job in a Local Church. One area that I think many candidates find especially dicey is the conversation about salary. And because spring is the time many new pastors are graduating and many churches are hiring, the following section from the book feels especially timely:

The Bible is replete with stories of those ensnared by the power of money. Consider the well-known Levite in Judges 17–18. To paraphrase, he is basically asked, “Young man, do you want a better preaching gig? If so, then come on up. Don’t be a priest to a family; be one to a whole tribe.” Previously he had worked for only a small wage, a set of clothes, and his living expenses (17:10). But when the Levite heard this new offer—albeit one made by 600 armed warriors—his “heart was glad” (Judges 18:20). Additionally, consider Balaam in Numbers 22, Gehazi in 2 Kings 5, the rich young ruler in Mark 10, Zacchaeus in Luke 19, and Ananias and his wife Sapphira in Acts 5.

We don’t know the specifics of why each of these people were so captivated with money. Was it status or security? Power or pleasure? We just don’t know. What we do know is that money ensnared them.

Greed can be a slippery and hidden thing. Timothy Keller writes about this in his book, Counterfeit Gods:

Notice that in Luke 12 Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” That is a remarkable statement. Think of another traditional sin that the Bible warns against—adultery. Jesus doesn’t say, “Be careful you aren’t committing adultery!” He doesn’t have to. When you are in bed with someone else’s spouse—you know it. Halfway through you don’t say, “Oh, wait a minute! I think this is adultery!” You know it is. Yet, even though it is clear that the world is filled with greed and materialism, almost no one thinks it is true of them. They are in denial. (p. 57–58)

This is a good observation, but maybe the last line should read “We are in denial.” I know I often am.

Don’t be shy or afraid to talk about money

The private nature and the potential misuse of money doesn’t negate its proper use. Godly people can talk about money in godly ways.

The potential for money to become an idol makes it difficult for pastors to talk about compensation during the hiring process, especially when you add how taboo it is in our culture to discuss one’s income. How many of your friends know your annual salary? How many of your friends’ salaries do you know?

But the private nature and the potential misuse of money doesn’t negate its proper use. God made money, and though we tend to abuse it (just like sex, food and exercise), God is not uncomfortable with the material world. He made it and called it good. So don’t shy away from talking about money in the final stages of a job search. Godly people can talk about money in godly ways.

After all, the church you’re interviewing with has already been talking about money for many months. They likely locked in a salary range long before you even heard about the opening, which means they had to get comfortable talking about money. They shouldn’t be surprised when a candidate wants to talk with them about it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. When one pastor I know asked about money, he was scolded and told, “You never ask about money; you trust the Lord to provide.” This is an over-spiritualized and even manipulative error. We don’t say this to Christians in other professions. Does a doctor lack faith if she asks about her potential salary? Of course not. Another pastor I know has quipped, “I do trust the Lord, but I have a hard time trusting search committees and churches. I know the Lord will provide. What I want to know is how much the Lord will provide through you...and whether I have to get a second job in order for him to provide.”

Components of a salary package

What you’re doing in asking about compensation is seeking to arrive at clarity.

Early in the hiring process, it’ll probably suffice to speak in generalities. But at some point, you need to speak in more detail, even asking the church to put the entire compensation package into writing. They should be glad to do this.

In addition to base salary, here are some of the benefits and other issues related to money that you’ll want to ask about:

  • Health insurance for the pastor and family
  • Vision and dental insurance for the pastor and family
  • Life and disability insurance for the pastor
  • Health savings account
  • Continuing education and conference money
  • Money for ministry tools such as books and computer software
  • Reimbursement for church-related meals
  • Cell phone
  • Paid holidays (how many and which days)
  • Sick/personal days
  • Vacation
    • Total vacation days and total Sundays off
    • Whether or not vacation days rollover to the following year
  • Retirement contribution
    • Contribution to Social Security and Medicare tax contribution (FICA)
    • Is assistance given to the employee directly in paychecks or paid to the government for the employee?
  • Parsonage
  • Federal minister’s housing allowance
  • Sabbatical policy
  • Mileage or automobile reimbursement for business travel
  • Performance reviews and associated yearly salary increases
  • Moving and other relocation expenses
  • Cost of living differences if moving from one region of the country to another
  • Severance policy

Not all of these benefits may be provided, and some that currently aren’t may be offered in the future. I’d encourage you to ask about all of these benefits because you’re not simply negotiating for higher pay. What you’re doing in asking about compensation is seeking to arrive at clarity. Few things will cause more bitterness to you and your family (and the church) than misunderstandings about compensation.

Resources on compensation

If you need resources to help you determine a reasonable compensation package, you have several places to turn. If you know any senior or executive pastors, talk to them. They can give you good advice on what they might pay someone with experience and education similar to your own. Also, you can search online for “pastor pay” (or “youth pastor pay” or “worship pastor pay,” etc.) and get a lot of leads. As a rule of thumb, remember to vet the information for reliability.

You can turn to books for help. A book full of simple but sturdy advice is The Minister’s Salary by Art Rainer. In it, Rainer discusses common pitfalls ministers make concerning money, such as neglecting retirement planning, not understanding a minister’s housing allowance and what it means to opt out of Social Security. In the final chapter, he writes, “Do not walk this journey alone. Too much is at risk ... Find a trusted adviser to work with on your personal finances” (p. 112). Rainer’s book is full of wise and biblical principles.

If you need a resource focused more on numbers and data (loads and loads of data), you might try the Compensation Handbook for Church Staff by Richard R. Hammar. It’s been the definitive book on the topic for years. If you’re interested in the specifics of current tax law for ministers, check out Worth’s Income Tax Guide for Ministers by Beverly J. Worth.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore discussing money when you’re interviewing simply because it’s awkward. During premarital counseling, when my wife and I discuss delicate subjects with couples, I repeatedly say, “It’s only awkward if we make it that way.” The same will be true for you as you talk about money with a prospective church.

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