How Much Should We Pay our Pastors? A Look at Compensation History
From the time of Constantine (325 AD) to the present there seems to be three separate ages and models of pastoral compensation: The Medieval Age (325-1500AD), The Reformed Age (1500-1900), and The 20th Century Collapse (1900-Present). The borders of these eras are pretty fuzzy depending on what country you’re talking about (some Catholic countries managed to sustain the Medieval model of pastoral compensation right into the early 20th century). For simplicity’s sake, I’ll confine my study to the English speaking world.
The Medieval Model
From the legalization of Christianity during the reign of Constantine (and the subsequent reception of taxpayer support) to Protestant reformation the compensation of pastors was very high by most standards. Whether you lived in a small village or a large city, the largest building in town was an elaborate and ornate church surrounded by simple hovels. And just as the church buildings dwarfed all others in size and splendour, so did the wages of the priests. Far from the Biblical admonition to pay clergy “twice as much”, priests and bishops were paid like today’s CEO’s and made hundreds of times more money that the peasant on the street. The church was the largest landowner and power broker of the day, and its priests were considered to be a part of the nobility. One of the few checks on priestly wealth and power was the vow of celibacy introduced by Pope Leo IX during the turn of the 1stmillennium to prevent the establishment of hereditary church titles and priestly dynasties.
While this age produced the world’s greatest religious art and architecture, it did so by placing a crushing burden on the backs of the common people and therefore violated several biblical instructions to pastors not to lord their authority over the people. As far as I know, no one is suggesting a return to these times.
The Reformed Model
After the Reformation, clergy salaries fell dramatically as clergy moved from being a “privileged” class to a “professional” class. Pastoral placement was no longer an issue of noble birth, but professional competence. While most of the medieval clergy were illiterate, many protestant pastors became well-educated professionals. The clergy was often composed of our brightest and best and formed the highest tier of the new middle class. Pastors were now mostly commoners, but well educated, well respected, and well paid. As professionals their salary was related to their education. As a result of their level of education and the level of respect they commanded they were paid, according to University of Pennsylvania historian Julia Rabig, significantly more than other professionals, including doctors and lawyers.
There were some notable exceptions to this rule of the well educated and well paid pastor, specifically in North America. These were the frontier pastors. Typically Methodist or Baptist, these literate, but uneducated men, braved the untamed and unchurched frontier during the 19th century to establish churches in the new western settlements. While most of these pastors were eventually succeeded by more educated replacements as frontier towns became more established, there are still uneducated pastors in some religious traditions today (typically rural, African American/Canadian, and independent).
The 20th Century collapse
The 20th century has not seen any new equilibrium in pastoral compensation, but rather the dissolution of an old one. While the 20th century has seen an increase in pastoral education (the typical pastor has the same level and cost of education as a doctor or a lawyer) it has seen a steady decrease in pastoral pay and respect. Historian Julia Rabig points out in her article “Brethren, Can You Spare a Dime?”, that in the span of a hundred years the clergy has gone from the top of the professional middle class to the very bottom. In fact to consider pastors middle class at all is a bit of a stretch. American economic and religious historian James Hudnut-Beumler points out that clergy salaries continue to fall even though churches are having a more and more difficult time filling pastoral vacancies. In the last 30 years alone pastoral salaries have been cut in half compared to other educated professionals. While in the 1960’s a pastor lived a comfortable middle class lifestyle and was paid as much as an experienced school principle, in the 1990’s pastors salaries fell below that of beginning elementary school teachers. In “Male clergy in economic crisis: Fear of Falling” Matthew J. Price’s study found that many pastors are “resentful of the fact that after years of education and training, they earned only ‘what a crew chief makes at McDonald’s.’” Unfortunately, according to Price, the reasons behind the fall of pastoral salaries is still poorly understood.
John Albiston is a speaker, writer, consultant, and pastor. He has a degree in history and philosophy from the University of Lethbridge, and a Masters of Divinity from Regent College. John has been a pastor for 18 years and has served in American and Canadian churches, large and small, urban and rural, young and old, modern, post-modern, and traditional. He is currently the Connections Pastor at Victory Church in Lethbridge, Alberta.