For many congregations, there’s a simple dollars-and-cents logic to the shift toward more lay staffing. One pastor responding to my research survey put it this bluntly: “Lay staff is cheaper than ordained staff.”
For the “price” of one clergy person with a conference-mandated minimum salary, benefits package, and housing allowance, a congregation often can hire several part-time lay staff. One survey respondent explained: “Clergy are far too expensive. We can hire numerous part-time program staff who do a single, highly focused task and do it well for the price of one clergy. The single clergy would never approach the volume of work accomplished by these folks and there is a huge market looking for these creative part-time jobs.”
Yet there is sometimes a reluctance to discuss the financial reality of staffing patterns openly. There is sensitivity among lay staff – particularly those with levels of preparation and responsibility similar to those of the ordained – to the fact that they are compensated less generously than their clergy colleagues. And it is troubling to clergy that many elders are being “priced out” of large church, multi-staff ministry at the same time that a growing segment of small churches can no longer afford an ordained elder. The economic reality of the boom in lay staffing is the elephant in the room.
What are some of the facts about lay staff salaries? My research found that:
- Most full-time lay staff in United Methodist Churches earn between $30,000 to $50,000 a year.
- In all the size categories of churches studied, more than 40 percent of full-time lay staff had salaries of less than $40,000 a year.
- The percent of salaries above $50,000 was greatest in church with average attendance of a 1000 or more (31.2 %). In other size categories studied, only 9 to 16 percent of full-time lay salaries were over $50,000 per year.
- For those in full-time jobs, the percent with church-provided health insurance was 80.3 percent in the largest churches, 72.2 percent in churches with average attendance of 750 to 999, 39.1 percent in churches with attendance of 500 to 749, and 50 percent in churches of 350 to 499.
- Among the survey respondents overall, which included part-timers, the percentage with insurance through their church job was substantially lower.
- A large percentage of lay staff are part-timers who make less that $25,000 a year — many substantially less.
Disparate salaries and benefits can be a potential source of division between lay ministry practitioners and clergy. Some lay staff resent the salary, fringe benefits, and job security that come with a conference “union card.” And some clergy are skeptical about the “outsourcing” of their trade to less educated, lower paid workers.
But an inclusive paradigm of ministry calls us beyond such “two-track” thinking. We must acknowledge, first and foremost, that clergy and lay staff are in it together. Congregations need to honor the principle of equal pay for equal work while at the same time recognizing the importance and value of the levels of theological education and spiritual preparation that clergy bring to a staff team. We must confront the elephant in the room!