02 October 2013

Healthy Pastor, Healthy Church

My denomination's provider of health insurance and retirement benefits has spent most of the past few years preparing to shift with the Affordable Care Act, and one of the resulting changes is a four-tiered health insurance plan rather than the single option previously provided to rostered leaders in the ELCA.  Among rostered leaders, this has produced some hand-wringing and consternation, and I hate to say there's good reason for it:  many fear that congregations, upon learning that more inexpensive options are available, will automatically dive to the cheapest plan to save money.  While being fiscally responsible is quite often commendable, in this instance I'd like to offer some thoughts about why paying less may cost congregations more in the long run.

I don't know many ELCA clergy or lay professionals who expect to get "rich" doing the work that we
do for the sake of the church.  Indeed, some of us left far more financially lucrative careers in order to follow a calling to work in the church (not yours truly - I was a Classics major in college.  Not a lot of Fortune 500 companies out there clamoring for experts in Greek and Roman history).  The reality is that many clergy are underpaid when compared with others who have their level of education and professional development.  (One synod suggests using a local school district's contract with its middle school principal as a gauge for commensurate compensation.)  Couple that with an average educational debt load of roughly $40,000, and it quickly becomes apparent that most ELCA clergy aren't going to look anything like Joel Osteen anytime soon.  

The way most synods have addressed compensation is to publish some form of synodical compensation guidelines.  The structure of these guidelines varies from synod to synod, but they all propose some minimum level of cash salary based on years of experience and a benefits package which includes personal time off, sick leave, retirement pension and so on.  

Here's where things can get a little ugly.  The unfortunate truth is that there are congregations who do not pay their staff according to these guidelines, and there are professionals in the ELCA who have allowed congregations to pay them less than guidelines over the years.  This can set up an unhealthy system where congregations believe they can take advantage of kind-hearted servants of the church and those same kind-hearted servants are made to feel guilty for insisting on compensation that is commensurate with their professional qualifications and years of experience.  Overcoming this sort of situation takes years of hard work and a willingness to be blunt about our expectations of each other as staff and congregations.  

The recent change in our health care system could provide some congregations yet another means of finding a way to lowball their professional staff.  But one question I have yet to hear is this:  if we as congregations are not taking care of our staff, how can we expect them to take care of us?  

Imagine this situation with me.  A congregation offers a pastor a salary package that is $3,000 below the stated guidelines for her 15 years of experience as a pastor, and chooses the health care plan with the highest deductible and lowest coverage.  Three months after this package is approved at the annual meeting, the mother of the Council President who pushed for lower-than-guidelines pay is hospitalized with a serious illness.  Imagine the emotional turmoil that goes through the mind of that pastor as she prepares to make her hospital visits.  On the one hand, this is a beloved child of God who needs to hear God's love and grace as she prepares for what may be the last days of her life.  On the other hand, this pastor will doubtless be working through feelings of neglect and under-appreciation, emotional baggage that will no doubt inhibit her ability to be a non-anxious, grace-filled presence in the hospital room.  

Now multiply that encounter by all the other places that pastor must interact with her people:  the Friday night football game; the coffeeshop; the hardware store; the market; lunch with the quilters; baptizing the infant child of a multi-generational family of the church; asking that the leaky faucet in the parsonage be replaced.  Every single encounter can be irreparably damaged by the desire to save the congregation some money in the short-term.  As congregations begin planning compensation for their staff under the new health care plan, are they asking themselves, "What do our choices for compensation tell our staff how we value their work on our behalf?"  I hope so, for their sake and for the sake of their leaders.

12 years ago, I watched as my internship supervisor struggled for guidelines-level pay for the third year in a row.  Three years ago, I was shocked to hear that a local congregation in another denomination was paying their senior pastor a six-figure salary but not providing health benefits for two of their associate pastors.  One colleague has been in ministry for over 20 years and just now was called to the first position where she was paid according to guidelines.  None of these situations ended well for any of the congregations in question.  These experiences and more have convinced me that churches who do not invest in their staff are costing themselves far more in emotional and spiritual capital than they may be saving in fiscal gain.  

I am exceptionally blessed to be currently serving in a congregation that values and contributes to the health of its staff.  They invest in us on all levels:  financial, emotional, professional, spiritual - and I believe they are receiving good work in return.  Not only do they pay according to synodical guidelines, there is an expectation that staff here will find ways to challenge ourselves and grow professionally along the way, and there are appropriate accountability structures in place to manage those times when one of us might be underperforming.  There is a definite sense that we have been called to work hard and do good work here, and while Beloved and I won't be on the Forbes' list anytime soon, neither do we feel under-appreciated or as though anyone is taking advantage of us.  In addition, we can raise the compensation expectations for many vocations in our community by providing an example for other institutions to follow.  "A rising tide lifts all ships," after all.  

There's another popular adage that applies here as well:  "You get what you pay for."  Ten years ago, I bought a pair of Doc Martens boots that are just now beginning to show signs of wear.  Sure, I could have gotten similar-looking boots at a discount store for less than half the price, but would they have lasted even half as long, with the same level of comfort?  Doubtful.  It is my hope that the congregations of the ELCA will not see the change in our health benefits system as a chance to lowball their staff.  It is my belief that congregations who do race to the bottom will cost themselves far more in the long run.  If you tell your staff they're only worth the lowest possible option, chances are they will return the favor with the lowest quality work.  Invest in your staff, church, and I believe they will return that investment with interest.  Healthy pastor, healthy church - healthy church, healthy pastor.  Work toward that mutual goal, and I believe you will find your time and your resources well-spent.


  1. Thank you, Scott! Such an important discussion, and you raise some fantastic points!

    For myself, I find the argument from the positive case much more compelling than the argument from the negative. A pastor who is well cared for by the congregation is much more capable of caring for the members (and beyond).

  2. Of course, I suppose it all comes back to congregational health. A healthy, mission-oriented congregation is less likely to nickle and dime the budget - including compensation.