New model for ministerial compensation

Despite the small buzz around the PDF release of the Commission on Appraisal Engaging Our Theological Diversity report, I wonder if the more important report for the future of the Unitarian Universalist Association concerns the mundane — but not unimportant — matter of ministerial compensation.

I’ve written before about fair compensation for ministers and church staff, and now more than a year and a half with a secular employer, I think it would be hard to go back to conventional parish ministry. The money’s not there (I’m making more now in a middling position in a non-profit than in my last pastorate), the prestige of past generations isn’t there, but the stress and troubles have multiplied.

The old Total Cost of Ministry formula, I think, gave to a sizable number of parishoners an inflated idea of how much ministers earn. On the other hand, I well remember the mid-year (uncompensated) fee hikes in my crummy individual HMO. Any other clergy out there get the cold sweats writing those SECA checks?

The new model, beginning in 2006, calls for a simple salary plus housing rate, placed on a continuum based on parish size and geography plus benefits. Kudos to the Church Staff Finances people. (But why isn’t fundamentally a UUMA project? Why should ministers be dependent for advocacy on an arm of an organization that has its primary loyalty to the congregation-employers? Not paying my UUMA dues and quitting is the best money I never spent.) Yes, it will make planning salaries a bit harder, but that’s what you’ll need to attract and keep staff.

Download the 2006 salary recommendations and background document here.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I note that in my area, the reccomended Minimum for the minister is more than the medium family income of this area –
    certainly more than the usual master’s degree in public service…
    And the rate for custodian would put one in competition with local factories (what few remain)….

    of course, with health insurance and other things, we might be comparing apples and oranges here….
    … but so much for those stories of my grandfather, an United Brethren minister, being paid in chickens one month….
    and he had a doctorate!

    How does the UU salary compare with other churches?
    Is there a surplus of UU ministers?
    How many smaller churches rely on part time or shared ministers or none?

  2. I have come to believe very strongly in the need for most of us to get out there and be bivocational. It’s a reality in campus ministry right now, as well as in more marginalized religious communities; the mainline is going to be there in 50 years, if not before.

    The plusses are pretty significant–it forces the laity to see themselves as ministers of the church, as they don’t have a professional person to fall back on, it gives the church’s leadership more latitude to say and do prophetic things, and it frees up a huge chunk of money to do other things with. Not to mention easing expectations on the pastors to do all and be everywhere.

  3. Bivo — as Chris lauds — certainly will be a solution in some places. Team ministries for an association of churches might also work, but less likely for Unitarian Universalists or any other group that has small “regional” churches (so distance would be prohibitive) or values independence too highly.

    Steven — I think that ministers ought to be paid more than median, since it is a profession. But your point about local salaries isn’t lost on me, or, if you notice the new standards. But a bigger problem is the possibility of spouse employment — singles with a choice try to avoid low population areas because there are few options for finding someone; this was reason #2 for me coming to Washington — and if employment options are few or offer low prospects for advancement — well, it won’t matter how kid-friendly the town is (for those for whom it matters) or how cheap the housing is.

    In short, the problem for smaller towns and cities is probably going to get worse even though there is a surplus of UU ministers. I suspect most will choose to leave parish ministry than move to an undesirable location, like I did.

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