You Want a What?!

Tony Toth
October 3rd, 2009

Have you heard these explanations before?

1. If money is important to you, then you took a wrong turn back in seminary. The ministry is for people who are ready to make sacrificial commitments for eternal causes.  You should earn less in ministry than in other professions. That way you’re certain you’re serving because of a call—not a paycheck.

2. Everybody thinks they need more money. Even star athletes who make more during a timeout than you or I earn all year want higher salaries. But this business about wages is all relative. Every U.S. citizen reading these words is paid more than people from many other countries could ever dream of making—the annual wage in India is about $600! And then again, Bill Gates is worth more than 12 billion dollars, which is roughly speaking, about 12 billion dollars more than we’ll ever be worth. The inequity makes us all cry foul.

3. If you get a raise, that means you’ll take a bigger bite out of the church budget. And since that money is in your pocket, it won’t be available for other, more crucial uses. Therefore, it’s important that you’re not overpaid.

Now, that I’ve alienated all youth pastors and their families between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, I’ll try to redeem myself: you very well may be underpaid.

As assumptions go, in fact, this is a safe one. Relative to who you are, what you know, how hard you work, and how important your mission is, few groups are compensated as poorly as youth pastors. Of course there are bound to be exceptions (the three of you who are overpaid know who you are), and a good portion of you are probably paid fairly. But the rest of you are forced to limp by on a wage that makes owning a home a joke and driving a ’74 Pinto a way of life.

In your dreams the church would offer you a healthy salary and a signing bonus—not to mention a car allowance, cellular phone, conference money, and other perks too numerous to mention. In a fair world, the church would make sure your salary is competitive with teachers and other professionals—and they’d even increase it on occasion (before you think to ask!).

But this is a fallen world in which you have to be your own advocate. And that means embracing the adage, “You do not have because you do not ask.” In that light it pays to know there are right and wrong ways to go about securing a raise.

The wrong ways include whining and threatening to quit—two short-term approaches that might work in a pinch, but do not represent a long-term strategy.

The right ways take much more thought, work, and preparation:

Do a good job.
Rob Crawford, a veteran youth pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bellingham, Washington, believes this is the best way to secure a raise. “Before you ask for more money, stop and evaluate. Are you worth it? Is your group growing? Have you met your goals? Apart from a cost of living increase, don’t expect more money just because you’ve put in more time.”

Negotiate before you accept a position.
A senior pastor with whom I once worked told me that it takes three to five years of success to regain the power candidates surrender the moment they accept a position. I think he was right. Taking a job—any job—is a lot like buying a house. The time to negotiate the price is when the other side is anxious to close. Or, in your case, the time to indicate that you need more money is when everyone still thinks Billy Graham and Bill Hybels call you for advice. But after you’ve signed up for a tour and even logged a few months on the job, peoples’ perceptions of you will be a bit closer to the truth, and they will be less inclined to find ways to meet your salary needs.

A friend of mine who served as a college pastor learned this the hard way. While reading a want ad the church was running, he discovered that they were offering to pay the prospective youth pastor much more than he was making. When he suggested that something wasn’t right, an elder explained to him privately that he was facing one of the hard facts of church (and business) economics. “You are here,” the elder said. “And the simple truth is you are unlikely to leave, so we don’t have to pay you any more money. But the people we are trying to hire are not here, and we have to offer them more money than we pay you to get them to sign on. It isn’t right, but if you were being interviewed today, we’d be prepared to offer you the same amount we are offering a new guy.”

Educate the church.
Often church boards compensate their missionaries and youth pastors based on principles from Acts 2. But most employees are paid based on performance and experience—not according to need.

So you have to decide which compensation approach you want to take. When I first joined a church staff as a youth pastor in 1985, my salary— $16,500 with no benefits—was based purely on need. No one suggested that it was fair for a seminary graduate to make less money than an employee at McDonald’s, but then no one held a gun to my head, either. I took the job, and my wife and I lived a simple life. As time went on, we started a family and needed a bigger place to live. My salary needs went up and the church came through. But after about four years, I realized that although our ministry was growing rapidly, the only way I was going to make more money was to have another kid or buy a bigger house.

That’s when I knew it was time to switch philosophies. I went to the church leaders and suggested that everyone outside of the Soviet Union was paid based on merit. It took about 18 months—and the fall of the U.S.S.R., in fact—but eventually they came around.

Establish a benchmark.
On the two occasions I felt I was being significantly underpaid, I called a dozen youth pastors with ministries similar to mine and asked what they were paid. By filling in a grid that included salary and benefits for about a dozen colleagues—men and women from around town and from a variety of denominations—I was able to show I was clearly on the low side. This information was invaluable in negotiating salary increases.

Recruit the senior pastor as an ally.
When it comes to negotiating a raise, there are a number of people that you should have in your corner, but few can be more important than the senior pastor. The senior pastor probably has the most accurate idea of what it’s like to start out in ministry and how hard you work.

I’ve been fortunate to work under two senior pastors who lobbied hard on my behalf. One said he’d be going to bat for my increase and added that in the following year, he would appreciate any help I could offer him in getting his own raise. (That was hard to argue with because he was also underpaid and was letting me get an increase first.) The other senior pastor made certain that the church committee reviewing staff salaries included local employers who had close ties to the marketplace. And by removing people who had small salaries—such as older people who told stories about how they bought their first house for $2,000 and how I could do the same if I “looked hard enough”—the deck was stacked with people who understood that you have to pay a competitive wage for good people. He virtually guaranteed me an increase.

Be creative.
If the church really does not have the money, there may be other ways to augment your income.

  • Moonlighting—A church that knows you qualify for food stamps is often willing to let your make money on the side. A number of years ago I started teaching classes, first at the local technical school and then at a nearby university. It didn’t pay a lot, but it was better than flipping burgers—and I gained a lot of exposure and confidence. My friend Rob Crawford has supplemented his youth ministry income by coaching high school baseball. The extra thousand dollars can help an annual budget quite a bit.
  • Bonuses—Many companies are scaling back on salaries and putting money into bonus pools to be paid if the organization performs well. A few years back my senior pastor asked the church board to pay the staff a healthy bonus if certain goals were met. The gist of it was that if the church grew and came in under budget, each staff member could receive up to $2,000 extra at the end of the year. The program was not without its critics, but it worked. Each year it was offered, the staff received close to the full bonus.
  • Support raising—As my college ministry grew, it became obvious that any additional salary increases we needed would have to come from outside sources. Today there are eight people on the college ministry’s full-time staff, yet only one is paid by the church. The other seven raise support in the same way a missionary does.
  • Fundraisers—College pastor James Penner recently brought Tony Campolo into Lethbridge, Alberta, to speak at a fundraising dinner. Between ticket sales and an offering. Penner was able to raise enough money to pay for a second person on his staff team. A Christian ministry in my hometown is raising money for one person through a benefit concert, sponsoring a second through sales of its worship band’s CD, and considering the purchase of an espresso stand to finance a third staff member.

Yet whatever creativity you bring into your quest for a raise, let these words fuel your efforts: “You do not have because you do not ask.”

How Much Are You Worth?

  • Education. A college degree is usually the minimum requirement for a youth ministry position. Additional education—an M.Div., M.A., or a doctorate—typically brings a higher salary.
  • Experience. The more time you’ve logged on the front lines, the more valuable you are. Some people suggest that each year towards 10 years in the saddle should bring you an extra one to two thousand dollars annually.
  • Geography. Cost of living is a factor in your take-home pay. A $30,000 salary in South Dakota might put you on Easy Street, but in Los Angeles, you’d have trouble simply paying the rent.
  • Responsibilities. If your job description reads. “Everything the other guy doesn’t want to do,” then your compensation should be adjusted accordingly. Don’t be shy about asking for a raise if the board wants to add significant new duties to your roster. If your ministry grows and you end up adding staff or interns, you also should be compensated accordingly.
Tony Toth

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.