May  2016 24
Can Congregations Continue to Fund Middle Class Clergy Salaries?

mapley offering plate with moneyBi-vocational ministry can mean many things, but for my purpose here I am referring to a ministry that—regardless of scope of duties, and passion and education brought by the minister—pays less than a middle-class living wage.

Much is being written, and there is much worry, over the growth of bi-vocational ministry in white Protestant formerly middle-class-salary-paying congregations. All of those qualifiers of “congregations” are important.

Ministry in immigrant start-up and in African-American congregations has more often than not required a two-income family or a pastor who earns a living separately from or in addition to what the ministry pays.

When I entered seminary in 1977, I expected there would be a middle-class salary-paying congregation waiting for me. I was right.

I also expected there would be better and better paying churches as I moved on and up, that I could look forward to a step-up career in ministry.

If I had stayed in congregational ministry, that path might have been possible; but the career would have been more zig-zag, and it may have been derailed as the pyramid of congregations that could pay really well swelled at the bottom of the pay scale and narrowed at the top over the last 40 years.

When I entered seminary, I had no clue the extent to which I carried white, male, mainline Protestant, privileged expectations regarding money and ministry.

I had no idea either that Christianity was into a once-every-500-years revolution of what it means to be Christian, nor that my denomination (United Methodist) was a dozen years into a decline phase that has not stopped.

And I was unaware that a church system built on post-World War II wealth was such a passing moment on the historical timeline of how ministry has been funded in the U.S.

Read James Hudnut-Beumler’s In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar on funding in Protestant ministry in America from colonial days through the present. Or Matthew Price’s comments on growing inequality in the capacity of congregations to pay full-time salaries.

What you’d read is that there have always been congregations that can pay well, but there has never been a congregational system full of substantial “livings.” There have always been relatively wealthy and relatively poor churches.

The closest that some mainline denominations came to uniformly middle-class salary capacity was in the post-World War II era through the early 1970s. Religious adherence was high. Suburbs were booming. The generation raised on Depression frugality and mass action loyalties to win a war built and populated congregations.

In the many decades before the War (and, in truth, maybe over the previous 200 years), a common complaint among denominational leaders was “If only the people were more generous with their money, the clergy would not be so poor.” Then came the positive effects on churches of a nation who was the victor in a great war.

Those effects are passing.

Many, many of those churches were religious social centers where adherents sought belonging and help with raising their children.

They knew how to welcome those who looked like them. They did not know how to welcome strangers; and racial and class divides were even more pronounced on Sunday morning than the rest of the week.

As a result, those who stayed in one place for decades have grown old together. The average member of those congregations still in existence is 60 years old. Ask the pastors of those congregations “What percentage of your budget is given by persons over 65?”, and you’ll likely hear, “I don’t want to look at that number, because it is too frightening.”

So, a few perspectives:

  • Clergy paid less-than-a-middle-class salary has been the historical norm in the U.S. The last 70 years has been an abnormal period.
  • Clergy in immigrant and in many African-American congregations have always been bi-vocational. Complaints about bi-vocational ministry are predominantly white, middle-class complaints (which does not make them less real, just less universal).
  • There are some congregations that pay really well.
  • The legacy and wealth transfer of the World War II generation is nearing the end of its cycle. Their gifts are enormous, but those gifts get us to third base rather than all the way home. Their gifts won’t fully support ministry in a new generation.
  • A person entering ministry today and expecting to be paid a middle-class salary consistently throughout a career is either mistaken or will have to be a skilled institutional builder in a generation where the value of institutions is often questioned.
  • At a time when Christianity is undergoing a massive upheaval, I hope we would all want the absolute best possible education for ministry.
  • God is calling more persons into ministry in this dynamic time than there are already existing, thriving, middle-class salary-paying congregations. Given all the forces embedded in that claim (God, persons called, dynamic time, congregational system), I can’t predict how the issue of paying for ministry will be addressed.

It is clear that anyone going into ministry these days will be forging paths rather than walking on roads built by others, to an extent not seen in generations. What all this means in terms of educating and supporting called persons deserves a great deal more attention.

Photo from Concordia Church Supplies
Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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