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Muzzling the ox: Getting real about clergy compensation

In 1 Corinthians 9, St. Paul makes a characteristically creative move: he applies to the care and feeding of clergy a commandment from the Torah that originally mandated humane treatment of livestock. Well, perhaps clergy is anachronistic: let’s say instead “those who have dedicated their lives to the service of the gospel.” In particular, Paul defends his right to financial support from the people of God. He quotes Deuteronomy 25:4: “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” He then asks and answers his own rhetorical question: “Is it for oxen that God is concerned? [No.] … It was indeed for our sake” that God spoke those words (1 Cor. 9:9-10). He vigorously affirms the appropriateness of those who work in their congregations receiving “material benefits” as a reward for laboring to bring forth spiritual fruit.

On the other hand, St. Paul balances his claims to “the rights of an apostle” with a sense of reciprocity and accountability. He articulates a principle in 1 Corinthians 6:12 (“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial”), which comes into play on this issue as well. His right to compensation could and had to yield to the imperative of his mission’s success: winning all to Christ is what matters most (9:23). Building up the Body is the final criterion for evaluating the mutual responsibilities that the laos and their leaders have for one another. “Though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all” (9:19): clergy compensation may be right, but it must also be good for the Church.

The Apostle is absolutely clear about whom he serves and the force of his Lord’s example. Everything he does is “for the sake of the gospel, so that [he] may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23). The knowledge that Jesus “loves me and died for me” (Gal. 2:20) radically conditions St. Paul’s claims, so that instead of pressing his “rights” he would “endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:12). If Jesus was willing to be crucified for the salvation of the good folks in Corinth, St. Paul figures he can quit a claim to financial support. Indeed, he asserts that “I would rather die than” be deprived of a scintilla of his proclamation’s effectiveness and the prize that comes from it (1 Cor. 9:15, 17, 23, 27). In light of Jesus’ real, bodily sacrifice, St. Paul’s case for “benefits” becomes nearly hypothetical: “[I am not] writing this so that they may be applied in my case” (1 Cor. 9:15).

If this is so with the one Apostle to the Gentiles, how much more for the many parish clergy! Should clergy be ashamed of their need for support for themselves and their wives and families? By no means! St. Paul points to indisputable precedents for household support, given by Cephas and the brothers of the Lord (1 Cor. 9:5). I don’t think most parishes want to see themselves as getting priests on the cheap. Their intention would probably be to park their leader’s salary near the level that they perceive is appropriate for a middle-class professional in their town or suburb. Admittedly, the generosity of this perception probably correlates closely to the size of the parish and the relative affluence of its locale. Nevertheless, I think most parishes want to hold up their end of the bargain and that St. Paul’s point in the first half of chapter 9 has been well-taken by most congregations.

Has the second half of the chapter been embraced by clergy? I think, on the whole, yes. But there are two aspects of clergy compensation that I think cause scandal in the minds of lay leaders, and it is the responsibility of clergy to be mindful of the limits of their “rights” in these areas.

The first is “sabbaticals.” I was talking recently with a lay leader of another parish who had taken part in setting the compensation of the new rector. He was surprised to find in the diocesan boilerplate contract that in addition to the allotted four weeks of vacation (which he found reasonable) there was an additional two weeks provided for “continuing education,” plus an amount of time accrued annually toward a “sabbatical” which was to take place every seven years of service. This layman is a lawyer who works 80- to 90-hour weeks in his own firm, and he noted that this was a better deal than he got. He was genuinely taken aback.

In other words, sabbatical months seemed an excessive assertion of rights to material benefits — and I agree. The sabbatical is modeled on the work cycle of professional academics. For these poor creatures, sabbatical semesters are an indispensable part of preparing works for publication, which is a condition of their employment.

Parish clergy may be bookish, they may be prolix, but they are emphatically not professors. If you want a sabbatical, join a seminary faculty: but be prepared to have more to show for it than a 20-page paper and some picturesque status updates on Facebook. From what I have seen, the sabbaticals of parish clergy are essentially long vacations in which a continuing education component is placed. We should have the honesty to ask for those when they are deserved: for example, at the successful conclusion of capital campaigns or at milestones of service to the congregation bearing the cost of the priest’s absence. But let’s have the honesty to call them what they are and not assert them as a right.

Continuing discipleship is, of course, a part of the daily discipline of a faithful priest. But what is more effective when learning a language: an immersion course lasting two months, or two years of 30 minutes of daily practice? Why would we think prayer life, Bible study, theological reflection, or professional coaching would be different? Week-long or weekend conferences are profitable accents in one’s calendar, but the burden should always be on acquiring skills and experiences that benefit one’s parish in a fairly direct way. That’s the job we signed up for. Reciprocity with your parishioners, focusing on the skills they need you to hone (rather than what you’re intellectually interested in), and a willingness to forgo that which is not beneficial to all — these are Pauline principles that would lead to a muzzling of the ox.

The second muzzling of the ox regards the amount of material benefits that would justly cause scandal among the faithful. Is there such a thing as “too much” compensation for clergy? Is the work of “cardinal” or resource rectors so qualitatively different from that of pastoral rectors? Do bishops, priests, or deacons who make enough to be a 1-percenter in America ($250,000 per year) lose their moral authority? Do they have a lifestyle alien to the life of Christ? To what standard would a salary ceiling be tied?

In imitation of St. Paul, I will answer my own questions. Yes, there is a level of compensation that is scandalous and it is appropriate that it be so. Clergy leaders are not secular executives, even if they are called to lead major enterprises in terms of budget or personnel. They are servants of a crucified Lord, and while I believe that a middle-class lifestyle is something capable of honoring God when accompanied by tithing and self-restraint, we need to remember that as Anglicans and good Catholics we are in a conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ who practice radical poverty in monastic orders. We have a mutual accountability with them and with our colleagues in other parish and chaplaincy settings, let alone clergy in poorer provinces.

Just because a parish is willing to pay it doesn’t make it right. It is lawful, but it is not beneficial. Those called to the peculiar work of overseeing large institutions, be they parishes or dioceses, are not in a vocation that is so qualitatively superior as to justify a qualitatively different life income. The Church Pension Fund is sinning corporately when it underwrites these qualitatively different pay scales in its policies. Either raise the minimum, or place a benefit ceiling, or both: otherwise the CPF is perpetuating massive income inequality that disproportionately affects those who accept calls to smaller parishes.

I propose a clergy salary ceiling set at three times the median family income in the United States: roughly $156,000, plus benefits. This is much more than what 90 percent of the population is making, and much more than 99 percent of clergy are making: a handsome amount of “material benefits” for anyone. If a bishop, priest, or deacon feels put upon to serve Jesus for this amount, perhaps another could fill their position while they go to their own place. In the spirit of the Nicene Canons, something like this could be placed on the floor of a diocesan council:

If any bishop, priest, or deacon should be so filled with avarice as to receive more than three times the median family income in the United States as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, let such a one be deposed.

Well, that’s fantasy, I suppose. But I wonder what that sort of restraint, that sort of giving up of rights, could say to our churches and the world about stewardship, discipleship, social justice, and life in Christ. Maybe if we muzzled the ox a little, there would be more seeds to sow.


  1. While I agree in principle that it is not a good thing for anyone for clergy to be extravagantly paid, I wonder whether it happens with sufficient frequency to merit getting passionate about. As a diocesan bishop involved in clergy deployment, I worry much more about the opposite. I offer vestries the old rule-of -thumb that the rector of a pastoral size parish should be paid similarly to a middle school principal in the same community. Few meet that standard. As for sabbaticals, I must vigorously disagree with Fr Price. Yes, they can be abused, as a vacation in disguise. But they can also be hugely helpful in burnout prevention. A chance for a priest to recharge and reconnect with his or her vocation benefits everyone involved.

    • The principle involved would address not just extravagance (the interpretation of which involves mere custom), but immorality. Is it a sin for a servant of Christ in the episcopate, priesthood, or diaconate to be paid more than a certain amount of money? Could we imagine agreeing on what that sum would be? Could we imagine enforcing clergy restraint in matters of compensation with the same determination with which we enforce restraint in matters of sexual behavior? Would we admit that some cases of the former can be just as scandalous as cases of the latter? Might there be a connection between the two? Are we content to allow market forces alone to govern high-end clergy compensation? Do Bp. Martins’ clergy deserve to have significantly different (and worse) retirements from those enjoyed by resource rectors? Upon what basis would one answer “yes” without causing scandal or making the priesthood into just another profession? When phrased in these terms, I bet I could make people passionate! The circumstance in which the sabbatical is proposed in Bp. Martins’ comment sounds more like a paid medical leave of absence to me. Best to call it what it is. I see burn out as best “treated” in the relationship system rather than at a distance from it.

  2. I have been making similar arguments for years. The incomes of some of our clergy are grotesque and scandalous when compared to man even in our own Church, and certainly when compared to other Christian ministers, and in the face of the poverty of the world. We absolutely lose all moral authority around money and the gospel. There should be a cap on clergy salaries, and if a congregation/diocese wishes to exceed that amount then they should have to match that amount to go into an account to help smaller parishes afford full-time clergy. Another thing that would go a long way to redressing this scandal would be to also standardize the pension, so that no matter how much money one might make during the active years of their ministry, all full-time clergy should receive the same living wage and benefits in their retirement. As for sabbaticals, I have been full-time for 14 years and never yet had a sabbatical. I do think that sabbaticals are a good and beneficial thing, and should be supported by the pension fund and the parish together.

  3. Lots to think about here, Rob. Thank you. A few quibbles:

    We may see that the financial arrangements that mainline churches have enjoyed for generations are crumbling. Maybe most priests will end up tentmakers (again). But with the system we have in place, I don’t think worrying about excessive clergy compensation is very fruitful. Getting a seminary education is very costly. It is perfectly reasonable that our most desirable prospects for parish leadership could find excellent compensation in secular jobs. It’s also reasonable, therefore, that the church come somewhere close to meeting that standard. Bishop Dan’s rule of thumb of a school administrator is very sound.

    Wealthy churches present more issues. In wealthy areas, lower compensation would (and does) surely mean that the priest cannot live in the community he or she serves (except in a rare case where they is a rectory, which is still part of the compensation!). On the other hand, the Vestry of a large parish needs to be sure not to overspend on their rector, and the rector needs to be a team player. Apparently Tom Brady makes much less money than other inferior quarterbacks. He is a very rich man indeed, but he takes a little less to ensure there is enough money for other talent to join him so that they can win.

    But there is an additional issue for many clergy, which may be a little touchy. Since the early 1980’s, the growth of our economy has depended on two-income families. I have quite a few colleagues who can somewhat sanguinely serve a church for less than they’re worth (as it were) because their spouses make plenty of money. For some of us, however, a two-income family is either unrealistic or undesirable – in my family, it’s both. So, I’ve been happy to take every penny my parish wants to give me, and I would ask for more if they had it to give.

    Anyway, thanks again for provoking thoughts on this, Rob. It’s important.

    • Dear Andrew, I think your point about seminary debt underscores the reality of inequality: an equal debt load becomes very unequal when one has twice the salary to service it. I don’t object to using local civil servants with advanced degrees as a way of benchmarking clergy salaries: but I don’t know many districts that would pay a principal $200k. If they did, I wonder if a teacher in the system could write a similar article! My essay was a call to examination of conscience for the top earners amongst the clergy. I don’t think it is inappropriate to desire and to seek “material benefits” from one’s parish that would support one’s family in a middle class standard of living. The only time I feel guilty about my compensation is when I remember the friends I met among the clergy of South Sudan, who would ask me for things like a course of antibiotics for their wife or child. But that is another essay …

      • I agree about the topmost salaries Rob, I just wonder exactly how many clergy qualify? As I wrote below in my comment, it seems to me that our bigger problem is fast decline and congregations that can’t pay clergy, or won’t be able to. Maybe dealing with this can aid in answering that larger challenge, and maybe it can build trust in the laity, but we need some major systemic changes, I think, if we’re going to grow and thrive (our death could be long and slow indeed, however).

    • To add the least to this important conversation, I would simply say that the value in living in the same community as our (presumably wealthier) congregants is not what it used to be. In cities, people generally drive through various types of communities to worship with their chosen congregations.

  4. The author has obviously spent ALL his time looking at the compensation of clergy in wealthy urban dioceses; most of this essay is absolutely nonsensical in a small or rural diocese.

    Of course, the uneven “corporate model” compensation system of the Episcopal Church is a scandal in and of itself, but with all respect, this writer needs to get his tushy out of the rich parts of the country and go meet the small town clergy who could make better money as a secretary.

    • Dear Michael, you are correct that I have very little relational exposure to small town clergy, since I have served in urban and suburban settings. I must share with you, though, that my conscience is seared more by my exposure to the clergy of the persecuted church in Southern Sudan. Nevertheless, I find it fascinating that an essay that I wrote in part to validate the work of clergy who serve small churches vis a vis wealthy parishes and dioceses has been understood to somehow denigrate or ignore them. Part of my concern is to call folks from the part of the church in which my “tushy” has been sequestered to make a deliberate choice for symbolic solidarity with our brothers and sisters. Not that I’m anywhere close to my own proposed “cap” of course!

  5. Like Bishop Martins, I also wonder whether the upper limit is the most pressing concern. Where it relates to the problem of clergy not getting enough is the problem of older clergy (sometimes even retired clergy who get exemptions from pension rules) who continue to make more and more, seemingly (though not directly) at the expense of those making significantly less.

    If there are guidelines for diocesan minimums, it makes sense for there to be diocesan maximums. But I’m not sure how often any of this is ever enforced except at the letter-signing/calling stage — and even then, all you have to do to pay someone less is slap the label “part time” in front of it, whether or not it is actually intended to be part time.

    We’ll never solve the problems of clergy compensation without dealing with the problem of seminary education and its costs. The average seminary degree costs something like $60-90k+, and only rarely is this very well funded by either parish or diocese. We can’t on the one hand expect our ordinands to go into massive debt for a professional degree while at the same time living on a sub-professional salary. I suspect that historical changes in seminary cost and support add to the apparent gap between older and younger clergy, and this in turn relates to broader conflicts and patterns in generational expectations of the job market.

  6. This is an interesting and important conversation, though I admit to finding it unseemly for clergy to argue over clergy compensation :-p. I’ve often wondered if the Episcopal Church might learn something from the model of our United Methodist brothers and sisters in regard to fostering a little more parity in clergy compensation. And yet, one reason that works for them is because their congregations don’t call their clergy, they’re appointed, and the longer someone serves (generally) the larger congregation they move to. Episcopal parishes and others like to be able to call their own clergy (and generally I think this is a good thing. However, that also means they want to be able to attract the clergy they want with a handsome salary (if they are large enough to afford it–a pressing question for most of our parishes in the Episcopal Church, the great majority of which are going to be stretching to pay a minimal full time salary before long). Pulpit and Pew at Duke published an article that touched on this issue a number of years ago, but it’s still quite relevant:

    “However, regardless of polity, only a small percentage of pastors earn what most Americans would consider a professional level salary.

    The report illustrates how the free market forces that drive secular salaries are also at work within the salary structure of the church. Church size translates directly into market power. To attract entrepreneurial clergy, some very large churches are paying entrepreneurial salaries. To earn enough money to pay back educational debt and save for college and retirement, clergy must seek to serve large churches or place their calls second to spouse’s careers.” (read more: http://pulpitandpew.org/sites/all/themes/pulpitandpew/files/salarystudy.pdf)

    Additionally, despite perceptions, Episcopal Clergy, while paid better than most say, independent Baptists etc. are not the most highly paid Christian clergy. I saw a chart a while back that bestowed that distinction on the Greek Orthodox. Sometimes the Greek Orthodox Church is known as the Golden Fish of Orthodoxy because of this, and convert clergy have a reputation of trying to get into the GOA because of it (Here’s an article about it: http://www.aoiusa.org/the-golden-fish-of-orthodoxy/). Also, Rabbis serving synagogues are paid much more than Christian clergy for the most part. A lot of that has to do with the ethnic component and the fact that Synagogues and Greek Orthodox parishes may tend to serve urban areas, draw from a wider field, and be larger on average. Additionally, according to The Pew Forum , both groups have a higher percentage members in higher income groups. For Rabbis, there’s also the issue that they tend to be more educated than Christian clergy. The Jewish Daily Forward ran an article about this a few years ago (http://forward.com/news/131325/on-the-pulpit-rabbis-earn-more-than-christian-cler/)

    I bring up the issue of Rabbis and the Greek Orthodox, in order to bring up the idea that Episcopalians are actually a bit like an ethnic minority faith, in our size and scope, and we might learn from our neighbors in this matter, and to point out this issue of size for one simple reason: we have a big problem with shrinking churches. And shrinking churches have a hard time doing new ministry or growing. You need as bigger core for greater energy and enthusiasm. Demographics bear this out. Most younger adults in TEC are in large parishes. We don’t have many large parishes, which means we don’t have many young adults.

    It may be that a few large parishes are paying obscene amounts of money to their clergy. It’s worth exploring because, while clergy do not take a vow of poverty, it is traditional to believe our vows include an expectation to not live ostentatiously. The question of what is ostentatious is, I think, somewhat subjective and related to location, but like pornography, I think we generally recognize it when we see it. So the priest I know who tooled around in a $100,000+ car struck me as being ostentatious, though I withheld complete judgement because I didn’t know if he might’ve just been borrowing the car and enjoying the drive by the good will of a parishioner. Then there was the issue of the “Party Priest” who was disciplined for ostentatious displays (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/church-boots-club-hopping-priest-rev-gregory-malia-post-pa-hamlet-carbondale-article-1.358926).

    The issue of compensation is a bit less pressing, I think, if only because so few priests are actually being paid extravagantly. And the solution is to talk about the way we compensate clergy and the way we are structured as a church. I would submit that by far the more pressing question (which might partially be solved by putting a cap on pay and redistributing money from wealthy to poor parishes) is the reality that we are fast approaching a time when a majority of our parishes won’t be able to afford to pay a priest a bare minimum salary, let alone a solidly middle class one. The reality is we need to do several things urgently to change some cultural norms in TEC if we’re going to grow:

    We need to merge congregations so that they have a reasonable number of parishioners. This is not so that they can pay clergy, but so that they can have clergy to equip mission. Parishes with priests tend to grow while those without tend to decline. People may not like it, but that’s a simple truth. I also think this is likely to be the case with most parishes with bi-vocational clergy. Again, it may not be popular, but I think it’s likely true.

    We need to close parishes and use any resources to plant new congregations with decently paid clergy and planting teams. This means taking missions that can’t sustain themselves off life support much sooner in the life-cycle. We don’t wan’t to euthanize congregations, but often we’re using extreme measures that mo e beyond the point of mercy to active harm to mission.

    While there may be places in TEC that are extravagant, in my experience we have a much greater problem in our parishes of just doing the bear minimum to get by. Don’t take care of the property, don’t expend money on mission, complain about everything from clergy compensation to the spouse’s death benefit, underpay lay staff etc. etc.

    Deal with seminary debt. 

    We might reconsider the value of parsonages (a lot of places are doing so since 2008, I think).

Finally on Sabbaticals: They’re necessary. The priesthood isn’t a modern profession and shouldn’t be treated like it. Trying to make it conform to the assumptions of industrialism and modernity have resulted in horrendous expectations about what ministry is in our congregations, i.e. “here’s your desk, sit behind it and let people come to you). It’s premodern and multifaceted, and as someone committed to the idea that we need more, not fewer scholarly priests, and more, not fewer energetic and sane priests, sabbaticals are necessary. As it is, most complaints about sabbaticals seem silly to me because they’re detached from reality. Sure, they’re written in to contracts. But survey the clergy who have sabbatical clauses in their contracts. How many have taken them? And it’s often to their detriment and the detriment of their congregations when they don’t, because when people are tired, and worn thin, that’s when they sin. It would be interesting (though unethical) to do a comparative study of cases of clergy misconduct among a group of clergy given regular time off and sabbaticals and compare it to the amount of misconduct among those without. My suspicion is that the latter group would have far higher numbers.

Finally, we do need to talk about financial matters, but primarily in ways that foster openness and transparency, and mission, because the biggest financial problem the American Church has is that the average American Christian only gives about 2% of their income, according to Christian Smith’s “Passing the Plate.” I can’t remember if that’s to charity overall, or just to the church, but either way, it’s paltry. The church bears the bulk of the blame though, because people are generally willing to give to what they believe in. If they’re not giving, then they’re not really believing in it, and that’s not a good sign.

  7. Getting down to the nitty gritty, I can say I fully support these ideas:

    “Just because a parish is willing to pay it doesn’t make it right. It is lawful, but it is not beneficial. Those called to the peculiar work of overseeing large institutions, be they parishes or dioceses, are not in a vocation that is so qualitatively superior as to justify a qualitatively different life income. The Church Pension Fund is sinning corporately when it underwrites these qualitatively different pay scales in its policies. Either raise the minimum, or place a benefit ceiling, or both: otherwise the CPF is perpetuating massive income inequality that disproportionately affects those who accept calls to smaller parishes.”


    “I propose a clergy salary ceiling set at three times the median family income in the United States: roughly $156,000, plus benefits. This is much more than what 90 percent of the population is making, and much more than 99 percent of clergy are making: a handsome amount of “material benefits” for anyone. If a bishop, priest, or deacon feels put upon to serve Jesus for this amount, perhaps another could fill their position while they go to their own place.”

    Though I admit to some discomfort at the idea of voting on someone else’s salary at diocesan convention.

    As it is, I doubt I have much chance of the ceiling your propose falling on me in my lifetime.

    • Dear Jody, thank you so much for your thoughtful responses above. I was raised as a UMC preacher’s kid, so maybe that’s where I got the commitment to a rough parity. Any “cap” would be completely arbitrary, and in the end it doesn’t really matter at what level it’s set — I just grabbed the idea of the median family income as a benchmark in order to give an example. As I wrote above in response to Bp. Martins, my primary point is can we acknowledge or even imagine the appropriateness of *any* upper limit? Could we even have the conversation. My experience over the last 24 hours indicates the answer is “not really.”

  8. I guess we vocational deacons were not part of the clergy you considered for your article. In most Dioceses, we serve without any compensation. Some of us struggle to get expenses reimbursed. Many, if not most, of us do not receive funds for books or continuing education. Vocational deacons are clergy. We support ourselves through marketplace employment or other means of support. Yet, a stipend or honorarium from the parish we serve would honor our contribution to the ministry within the parish and outside the walls of the parish as an icon of Jesus the servant.


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