How should pastors think about their salaries?

For the first decade of pastoral ministry, I enjoyed the luxury of never having to worry about money. Working in several affluent megachurches afforded my family a premium salary, generous insurance and retirement benefits, and huge margins for savings. Seven years ago, however, we experienced a financial crash.

When our decision to plant a church in urban Indianapolis forced a massive pay cut and a savings-account depletion, my security was threatened for the first time as an adult. The financial habits that I had considered virtuous for much of my life — hard work, aggressive saving, minimal spending, and calculated generosity — worked for me in the prosperity of my previous context. But in the face of this unexpected financial strain, I became obsessive, controlling, and manipulative with my family’s finances. Something had to change, but I had no idea where to start.

Recently, I was leading a conversation on ministry finances with some young pastors in my city. I asked, “Is your current compensation sustainable for your family’s next season of life?” Unsurprisingly, all of them said no. “If you could have a candid conversation with the people responsible for setting your compensation, how much would you need to make to support your family at a reasonable level?” Their answers reflected what I’ve consistently observed over the last several years — if these pastors didn’t receive a substantial increase in their salaries, they’d need to pick up a side hustle, look for another church, or leave ministry altogether.

Problems unique to pastors

The recognition of universal struggles, however, doesn’t negate the existence of some unique financial constraints on ministry families. Every vocation has its own set of “occupational hazards.” Let me highlight two that operate unconsciously in the social architecture of a local congregation.

1. Local-church ministry can place a constraint on wealth-building opportunities as typically defined in America.

In most modern work environments, employee compensation is directly tied to measurable performance indicators like sales, profit, technical competency, billable hours, networking, overtime, and industry experience. Success in these areas leads to financial incentives like promotions, bonuses, stock options, equity, and even lucrative consulting gigs that help build long-term wealth “airbags.”

Ministry, on the other hand, operates with a different set of rules. Churches are nonprofit organizations whose budgets are limited by external factors. Generally, pastoral compensation is determined by a constellation of subjective measures unrelated to performance: tradition, cost of living, level of seminary education, preaching aptitude, or even perceived reputation. “Ministry success” is ill-defined, and the lack of financial incentives creates a low ceiling for long-term wealth-building opportunities like savings, investments, retirement, or college funds.

2. Local-church ministry can place a financial constraint on pastors’ wives.

Despite the fact that more than 60 percent of families with children younger than 18 in the United States are now dual income, some congregations still hold an unspoken expectation that a pastor’s wife doesn’t work outside the home and doesn’t receive any compensation for work she does for the church. Although in some contexts pastors’ wives may find it desirable or necessary to work exclusively at home, the archetypical traditional family structure is a social pressure few outside the church must manage. This assumption puts pressure on single-income families. Consider how it makes women and children financially vulnerable to tragic pastoral failures such as addiction, depression, suicide, and adultery.

Conspiracy of silence

As if these problems are not discouraging enough, there’s a deeper, more dystopian shadow at work — nobody is allowed to talk about any of it! Denominations, missions agencies, and financial teams are not bringing the conversation to their pastors, nor are many of my pastor friends initiating the conversation with their leadership teams. How do we live and lead those trusting us if we are unwilling or unable to discuss the truth about money?

When we attempt to ignore money or deny its power in our lives, we ironically end up empowering its dark side. Unable to articulate the stories and feelings that shape our relationship with money, we become complicit in the conspiracy of silence plaguing a number of churches and pastors’ families.

I first encountered this weird silence in a conversation with a ministry friend who served at another megachurch. While describing his church’s hiring process, he said: “We don’t share compensation information before hiring someone. We don’t want money to be a factor in a person’s decision to take this job. We want them to trust God to provide for their needs.”

As a person who didn’t grow up in the church, ran my own lawn business as a teenager, and majored in business during college, I found this conversation bizarre and naive. It exposed some of the unspoken assumptions that pastors face with money in the church. Is it really a lack of faith to inquire about the details of compensation before accepting a ministry role? Why would trusting God preclude the exercise of one’s God-given mental faculties to discern whether a particular opportunity is a good stewardship decision for one’s family? How much should money factor into a decision to accept a ministry calling? Who determines what constitutes a reasonable standard of living for pastoral ministry?

While many pastors choose to suffer silently, the reality is that these struggles conspire to create regular feelings of anxiety, isolation, and powerlessness.

Money tells a story

Financial anxiety is an ancient problem. In Matthew 6:19–34, Jesus identifies our compulsively anxious relationship to money as one of the barriers that hinders our ability to experience the good life of the kingdom: “You cannot serve God and money. Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life” (Matt 6:24–25). Jesus invites us to see that money is not some commodity we make to secure goods and services — it’s a primal power that can also make us insecure.

Money functions like a narrator or storyteller — it excavates the hidden motivations, values, myths, and longings that unconsciously drive our patterns of feeling, thinking, and behaving. In other words, how we relate to money reveals more than our financial principles; it uncovers our true ambitions.

The story of money both taught and embodied in the life of Jesus is an invitation to the dual nature of human flourishing. Jesus invites us to stand in the tension of both freedom and sacrifice. By freedom, I mean the financial flexibility that offers choices aligned with our human vocation, and by sacrifice, the willingness to risk financial loss for the good of others. The tension exists in the interdependence of freedom and sacrifice — in plenty or in want — in the story of the kingdom: money “answers everything” by providing the freedom for us to enjoy what truly matters in our life as human beings (Ecc 10:19; Phil 4:10–19), but that freedom must always be circumscribed by solidarity and sharing with the most vulnerable in our sphere of influence (1 Tim 6:17–19).

Instead of obsessing over his basic needs, Jesus enlisted a group of trusted friends who funded his ministry and freed him to love, heal, teach, and serve his disciples (Luke 8:3; John 12:1–8). Rather than accumulating privilege and status for himself, Jesus redirected his power for the benefit of the most needy through intentional acts of vulnerability and sacrifice (Luke 11; John 13). This pattern of freedom and sacrifice yielded a life of surrendered contentment that unleashed flourishing for Jesus and those whom he loved.

Three distorted gospels of money

Every pastor and church has a set of organizing assumptions that provide an implicit framework for how they relate to money. The problem is that few people acknowledge the narratives that drive those assumptions. I believe the two basic narratives of money —freedom and sacrifice — provide the subtext for the financial anxiety experienced in ministry. Certain people, owing to their wiring and upbringing, are drawn toward the freedom money can provide, while others will be inclined toward self-sacrifice. However, the truth is that we need to pursue both realities if we are to flourish as human beings in our ministries.

1. Gospel of security

If we experience too much freedom without sacrifice, we can quickly become preoccupied with ourselves and isolated from the concerns of our neighbors. Ministry in this framework becomes another vehicle for pursuing our own comfort, security, and lifestyle privilege (1 Tim 5:5–10).

2. Gospel of suffering

If we experience too much sacrifice without freedom, we often become overwhelmed by the needs of others while ignoring the welfare of our own families (1 Tim 5:8). Ministry in this framework becomes martyrdom, with families feeling trapped and obligated to long hours with little pay.

I’ve seen this mentality play out in historically rural denominations and lean church-planting networks where the assumption is that a low ceiling should be placed on a pastor’s earning potential.

3. Gospel of stoicism

If we lack both freedom and sacrifice, we fall into the worst story: stoicism. Ministry in this framework feels like a cold war, where desire is stifled and everyone is passively resigned to waiting for others to make the first move. Nobody feels empowered or motivated to speak up for the financial health and well-being of the church or its leaders.

This is probably the most common narrative I witness in church planting. It’s rarely intentional, but so many churches (especially younger and more idealistic communities) suppress honest money conversations.

Leaning into the tension

What does it look like for pastors to flourish financially?

Dear pastor, rather than seeking to balance the tension of freedom and sacrifice, I want to invite you to consider leaning into the area that is most underdeveloped in your life during this season. If you’ve pushed too aggressively into sacrifice in a way that has left your family feeling depleted (my story), then maybe you need to lean into freedom and make some decisions that could amplify your joy.

If you fall into patterns of comfort and security, then maybe the call is for you to lean into sacrifice and embrace downward mobility for the good of others. Either way, I’d strongly encourage you to invite a community of trusted friends and advisers into this process with you to help you see past some blind spots that may be keeping you from experiencing the comprehensive flourishing into which God has invited you.

Editors’ note: This article is an adapted excerpt from a new book from TGC, Faithful Endurance: The Joy of Shepherding People for a Lifetime, edited by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, and originally appeared at thegospelcoalition.org.

Topics: Pastoral Practices, Personal Finance

About the Author

Brandon Shields is pastor of Soma Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.