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Written by Keith Schwanz
From his column It's Your Money

its-your-money-00-18_article.jpgI watched the deficit in the treasurer’s report month after month, noticing that the shortfall almost always equaled my compensation as an associate pastor. No one else seemed willing to address the issue, so I did. I resigned.

When I got home that evening, I had to tell my wife what I had done.

Things were not much better in my next pastoral assignment. As I moved into my new office, I happened to walk through the sanctuary and saw a prop on the platform, a giant thermometer with dollar amounts on the right side. The red ribbon almost made it to the top. I asked the office secretary if the congregation had just completed a missions weekend. “No,” she said, “we took pledges for your salary.”

I had to tell my wife.

Additional angst arose in the coming months. When they took pledges for my salary they forgot to include financial support for the ministries they expected me to lead. I had a job description that articulated their expectations, but few resources with which to accomplish what the senior pastor and church board demanded of me.

I know other ministers have felt this type of anxiety. I recently found an article by a pastor with the title, “At Offering Time, My Job is On the Line.” It’s true. Congregational finances can affect a pastor’s personal finances.

Changing Economics

Coming out of the Great Recession (December 2007 through June 2009), I began to hear stories from pastors whose compensation decreased. The recession accelerated the move by many pastoral households to seek multiple sources of income.

Pastors and church board members have a fiduciary responsibility to make financial decisions that best serve the congregation.

I have examined numerous data sets since that time. The compiled data of Church of the Nazarene congregations in the United States shows that 22.7% of all expenditures went to pastoral compensation in 1987. In 2017, reported compensation represented 40.6% of all expenditures.

But another data point prompts even more concern. In 1987, for every $1 spent on local ministries, another 74¢ was spent on pastoral compensation. In 2017, for every $1 spent on local ministries the amount spent on pastoral compensation was $1.95.

In light of this observation, I checked attendance figures. Morning worship attendance peaked in 2005. That same year, for every $1 spent on local ministries another 93¢ was spent on pastoral support. In 2017, morning worship attendance was 86% of that in 2005. In that 12-year span, attendance declined as expenditure priorities changed.

Congregations appear to have ardently worked to maintain the financial support of their pastors. But as an unintended consequence, they have increased the percentage of all expenditures spent on compensation. At some point this becomes unsustainable.

The church today is radically different than in 1943 when my father became a pastor or when my own ministry began in 1977. For example, evangelism methods we used then are much less effective today. Just as we have adjusted various ministry practices, maybe we need to do the same with congregational financial models.

This is a terribly complex issue that defies easy answers. Let me mention just two elements that seem important in these days: vocational ministry and fiduciary responsibility.

Vocational Ministry

The Church of the Nazarene affirms that “Christ calls some men and women to a specific and public ministry” (Manual 500). The word “vocation” encapsulates this sense of spiritual calling. The word “profession” originally referred to a public declaration (to profess) of someone entering religious work. In the 18th century, however, the term “professional” began to denote anyone working in a trade that required special skill and training, such as doctors and attorneys. Since the path to ordination required specific educational attainment, in the past 100 years or so clergy began to be seen as professionals, and compensation and benefits were expected to correlate with this professional status.

Jeren Rowell, in Thinking, Listening, Being: A Wesleyan Pastoral Theology, asks, “Where did we ever get the idea that a pastor’s compensation should be commensurate with other professionals in the community?” (p. 60). He continues, “This is not to say that congregations have no obligation to support their pastors,” but the gospel takes precedence.

When serving as a missionary, Paul provided his own support, but welcomed the gifts of those he pastored. Jesus told His disciples to not be concerned about providing for themselves, but to be cared for by those to whom they ministered. Every congregation is a missional enterprise. Compensation for some pastors may employ Paul's missionary model with more pastoral self-support, while some congregations may have the resources to totally care for the pastor. Regardless of the method of support, the primary goal of the minister must be the proclamation of the gospel.

Fiduciary Responsibility

Pastors and church board members have a fiduciary responsibility to make financial decisions that best serve their congregations. The laws and regulations that govern churches and other nonprofits stipulate that the officers and directors must put the well-being of the organization above the well-being of any individual.

As part of their fiduciary responsibility, pastors and church board members must align the congregation’s finances with its mission.

To navigate the rapids ahead, we need a clear understanding of pastoral ministry as a vocation. We need congregation leaders who take their fiduciary responsibility as a sacred trust. We need pastors and church board members willing to wade into the economic disorder, to sit and ponder until patterns begin to emerge within the chaos. Perhaps then they can work together to create new financial models that bring finances into alignment with the missio Dei. This is hard work, but essential in these days.

Keith Schwanz is a writer and editor. He previously served the church as pastor, church musician, and seminary educator.

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