Rachel Ringenberg Miller serves as denominational minister for ministerial leadership for Mennonite Church USA. She focuses on engaging conferences and congregations, providing resources and services to meet the diverse demands facing congregations today. She graduated from Goshen (Indiana) College and Eastern Mennonite Seminary, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with an MDiv. She served as associate pastor for Portland (Oregon) Mennonite Church and as pastor of Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas.
A pastor and banker went out for dinner. Over dinner, the banker asked the pastor, “How are you paid?” The banker was genuinely curious, not being the church-going type. The pastor responded, “Through the generosity of the congregation I serve.” The banker was flabbergasted, “You mean, people voluntarily give the church money, and that’s how you receive a paycheck?” The pastor nodded. The banker shook his head in utter disbelief.
While this story might sound like it’s the beginning of a joke, this is a memory of an actual encounter that happened to a pastor friend of mine. When he told me this story, we reflected that how pastors receive a salary is pretty incredible. Think about it. A group of people voluntarily gather on Sundays to worship and serve God together, and during that gathering there is a time for people to give, out of their generosity, to the church community’s budget — and they do! The church community’s budget is often formed by the congregational leaders and approved by the congregation. A portion of the church community’s budget goes toward the pastor’s salary.
We pay our pastors, because we want healthy and well-trained leaders guiding our congregations.
Education and training, at any level, cost money. For example, the most common degree preferred by Mennonite congregations is a Master of Divinity. This three-year degree program is approximately 80 credit hours. The cost of a Master of Divinity varies, but it’s safe to assume the degree costs somewhere between $30,000-50,000. Congregations can adopt other models of leadership, but if they want the skills a trained pastor brings, a salary is necessary.
The ways pastors have received compensation have changed over the centuries, but that is a whole other conversation. I want to focus on how we do it now, in 2023. The way pastors receive compensation is a bit more complicated than the pastor’s response to the banker in the story above. Yes, it is the congregation who pays the pastor, but the way it’s done is through an intentional process. Mennonite Church USA offers the tools to develop the pastor’s salary through the Pastor Salary Guidelines (PSG) and the accompanying interpretative comments. The PSG is updated every April by Everence, and the interpretative comments are updated by MC USA Church Vitality Office staff.
The most recent updates to the interpretative comments are substantive. The most notable changes include moving the work week to 40 hours; providing 12 weeks of family leave, with eight of those weeks paid for by the congregation; and guidelines to help with educational seminary debt. (Please read the press release from MC USA for more details.) These changes will go a long way to increasing the longevity of pastors. These changes might be what it takes for pastors to believe that congregational ministry is not only a calling but a viable vocation. While this practical piece is important, pastors need to be able to provide for themselves and their families. I also believe these changes reflect the kind of care that is consistent with God’s shalom. Living out God’s shalom is the purpose of the gathered faith community.
It is our hope that congregations will see following the PSG and interpretative comments as one of the many ways they are expressing God’s love.
At the same time, it’s important to note that not all congregations can follow the PSG, due to the financial constraints. And that’s OK. If this is the case for your church, use the PSG and interpretative comments as a conversation starter within the congregation. Be creative. Brainstorm other ways you can support your pastor. Your conference minister may have ideas, as well, so invite them into the conversation. If your congregation discovers you have the resources to pay your pastor above the guidelines, you are welcome to do that, too.
When it comes time to review your pastor’s salary, I hope three things for you and your pastor. One, I hope you celebrate the generosity of the congregation. It is an incredible act to voluntarily support your local congregation and its ministries. Two, I hope you give thanks for your pastor through just compensation. These tools provided by Everence and MC USA have the ability to transform the conversation around the pastor’s salary from a basic negotiation to a conversation about the just sharing of resources.
Finally, to congregations, I hope you use these resources to have open conversations about how your pastor is compensated; to pastors, I hope these resources pave the way for a sustainable ministry.
A quick history as to why we pay our pastors
The compensation of pastors is rooted in the Old Testament. Eleven of the 12 tribes of Israel received land. The odd tribe out was the tribe of Levi. The Levites did not receive land, because they were to tend to the religious life of the nation, which gave them no time to work the land. So then came the challenge of what the Levites were to do about obtaining necessary resources. They were cut off from other means of production, due to the role they played on behalf of the whole, and yet, they still needed to eat. The solution is where we get our understanding of tithing. Each of the 11 tribes that had land gave 10% of what they produced to the temple, as an act of worship and support for those who keep religious life moving. It’s no different today. If you want a pastor to tend to the religious life of the church — including preparing worship, teaching, preaching, providing pastoral care, not to mention dropping everything to come to the hospital in a crisis, being available when you call to talk through major decisions, etc. — they are effectively cut off from other means of production. Therefore, it makes sense for the congregation to tithe their income to the local church to support the pastor and pay for the programmatic life of the church.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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