I wrote this post originally for Christian PF (an awesome Christian personal finance blog, by the way), who published it in June of 2012.
As a pastor for over 14 years, I don’t know anyone who went into the ministry for the money. Pastors respond to a call to serve God and make a real difference in the lives of others.
Most live modest lives and give sacrificially of their time and financial resources to help others. But some pastors struggle under the weight of financial burdens that few people in their congregation know about. These personal financial challenges often have a negative impact on the pastor’s church, and sadly, are leading a growing number of pastors to leave the ministry.
9 Financial Challenges that Pastors Face
1. Lack of authenticity regarding finances. Pastors and their spouses often feel pressure to look like they have it all together in every aspect of their lives – including their finances. When faced with financial difficulties, many pastors have a hard time admitting to anyone that they struggle or need help. And when they do open up and share their shortcomings and failures, it is sometimes used as a weapon against them.
2. Comparing themselves to others. Some pastors feel a need to maintain a lifestyle level that is comparable to that of the business people in their congregation. This is often unrealistic – and unsustainable – if the pastor’s income doesn’t match up to their expenses. Left unchecked, this can lead to an increased debt load and added personal stress.
3. Feeling a need to justify having or doing something nice. Some pastors have a hard time buying something nice for themselves, and feel like they have to justify certain personal purchases or expenses (like a car, vacation, boat, etc.) to others for fear of what they might say or think of them.
4. Modest pastoral salary. We’ve all heard stories of celebrity TV preachers who live in mansions, and mega-church pastors who earn low-mid six figures, but the average starting salary for a pastor in the U.S. is $37,000. Depending on location and situation, some pastors can live on that just fine, while others, in places like New York City or Southern California, can’t live on twice that. Some pastors find they need to work an extra job to supplement their pastoral salary. Other pastors, especially in small and rural congregations, have two careers (in church speak, they are “bi-vocational”), working part-time as a church pastor and part or full-time in another field.
5. High student loan debt. Many churches and denominations require their pastors to have a high level of education – four years of college and two to four years of seminary or graduate theological study. As seminary costs rise, more pastors-in-training are turning to student loans to finance their education. But many find it extremely difficult to make their monthly payments after graduation because their first church is often small and so is the starting pay.
Bethel Seminary reported that the average student loan debt of 2009/2010 graduates was $38,247. Luther seminary reported that 68% of its 2009/2010 graduates had student loan debt, and that the average debt load was $50,838. It would take a pastor earning an average salary 15-20 years to pay off their seminary student loans – not to mention any undergrad loans they may have.
6. Inadequate savings for child’s education. Pastors who struggle to pay off their own student loans will obviously find it difficult to save for their child’s education at the same time. This is a significant burden for several pastors I know.
7. Unprepared for retirement. Historically, churches have been slow to provide for the retirement needs of their pastors, and pastors didn’t often take the initiative to create their own savings fund, leaving many retired pastors living in poverty. Gratefully, more churches and denominations are setting up retirement plans and offering a match to what the pastor contributes to the plan, but many churches still do not. Pastors who’ve lived in a church parsonage have another problem at retirement: no home equity. While many retirees enjoy living in a home they own, retired pastors often have to pay for housing in their retirement years.
8. No unemployment benefits. The recent economic downturn caused many churches to cut back and some to lay off staff. Some churches can provide a generous severance for laid off pastors but many cannot. And since American churches are exempt from unemployment taxes, pastors are not eligible for unemployment benefits. I don’t know how long it takes the average pastor to find a new position these days, but I know several pastors who have been between churches for 2-3 years. One has been driving a semi truck cross-country for nearly two years while searching for his next pastorate.
9. Uninsured or underinsured. Many churches cannot afford to provide health insurance benefits for their pastors. This leads many spouses to work outside the home to provide insurance for the family through their employment. For pastors who don’t have insurance, medical emergencies often become medical debt that takes years to pay off.
What can churches and pastors do to help resolve these financial challenges that pastors face?
1. Pastors need at least one person, or perhaps a small group of people, that they can be “real” with. Sometimes the church board, or the board’s lay leader, can fill this role, but other times it needs to be someone else. Pastors need people around them who are good listeners, non-judgmental, can keep things confidential, and are committed to their personal and spiritual well-being.
2. Churches and denominations that require a high level of education for their pastors should be willing to pay more for it. Churches should provide more affordable ways of obtaining that education – especially if they require their pastors to attend their own denominational school.
3. Churches should be as generous as they can be with their pastor’s salary, benefits, and retirement. If you cannot do everything you may want to do for your pastor, don’t let that be an excuse for doing nothing. Make a list of all the things you’d like to provide, prioritize the list, and take one or more steps toward those goals each year. If you can’t provide health insurance, at least start a flexible spending account so the pastor can pay for medical expenses out of pre-tax dollars. If you can’t provide a 5% match for your pastor’s retirement savings, start now with 1%.
4. Pastors should start their own emergency and retirement funds if they haven’t already. Even if you can put in just a few bucks a week, it really adds up over time!
5. Pastors should seek to set a good financial example and not be afraid to preach about stewardship and money. Even if they feel inadequate in dealing with the subject, they should teach it nonetheless. You don’t need to preach like you’ve got it all figured out. Instead, say, “This is what I’m learning” or “This is what God’s been teaching me lately about money.”
6. Pastors should seek to remain humble and grateful, and not compare themselves to others or worry about what others think. They should not worry about their lifestyle and what they decide to spend money on. Ultimately, we serve an audience of one.
Pastors, is there anything else you’d add to these lists? Church members, have you seen your church or pastor struggle with any of these financial issues in the past? What was the result? Leave a comment below!
You might also like: