Just for fun, you know, I thought I’d take a look at the latest Abilene Christian College data on preacher salaries in the Churches of Christ. They gather data each year to help churches know what to pay and preachers know what to expect. It’s interesting stuff.
And the data tells us a lot about ourselves. It may be a step in overcoming some of our problems.
This is a chart of 2007 Church of Christ preacher salaries vs. years in ministry. The straight black line is a trend line determined by regression analysis — a statistical method for averaging complex data like this.
The straight trendline shows that salaries do indeed go up with years in ministry, on average. But the increase is $127 per year of service! Work for 50 years and your wages will have gone up $6,000!
Well, this didn’t seem quite right, so I added a trend curve — which you can see. It matches the data pretty well, and shows that salaries top out, on average, at between 25 and 30 years in ministry. Wages start at around $30,000 and then top out at $55,000 or so. And then they decline.
Obviously, there are a lot preachers making more or less than the average. But it’s still very telling.
Now, there’s more than one way to interpret the data. It may be that congregations don’t want preachers older than 55 or so. Or it may be that congregations don’t want preachers who were trained more than 25 years ago — that is, preachers who’ve not kept up with the current trends in how to do church or who represent theology as taught in the 1960s. The curve may just show that the younger preachers are more theologically compatible with the churches willing to pay higher salaries — and I think there’s a lot of truth in this.
The next chart compares total compensation (includes fringe benefits) to weekly contribution rates –
Now, this tells us a lot about ourselves. There’s a nice, linear correlation between preacher compensation and weekly contributions. In fact, if annual contributions go up $52.00, the preacher’s salary goes up, on average, $1.60. The rate of increase is about 3% of the growth in the total church budget.
Obviously enough, there’s quite a lot of scatter. Some preachers get paid very well for a church with modest contributions. Some of this is due to inaccurate data (some churches double counted the housing allowance, and it’s hard to tell all those that made this mistake in filling out ACU’s ambiguously worded form). Some is due to varying congregational priorities.
Also, the average salary of a preacher for a very small church is in the $50,000 range (including benefits), which is not bad.
Comparing the two charts, it seems that for a preacher to gain a substantial increase in pay, he has to either move to a wealthier church or else grow his current church. We pay based on performance.
Now, this sounds very commercial, even mercenary, until you realize that average weekly contribution is a pretty good proxy for church size. The next chart compares compensation to attendance.
This is a funny-looking chart. That’s because ACU bunches congregation size into brackets. The x-axis is built on the midpoint within each bracket.
The trend for salary versus attendance is very linear. However, as the curve shows, the trend flattens at the high end.
Nonetheless, on average, a preacher gets a $54 raise for every one person in increased weekly attendance. Get 110 more people there, and compensation goes up, on average, about $6,000.
This means that a 110-person increase in attendance is worth about as much as 50 years in ministry, which suggests that the longterm ministers only generate about that much in church growth. As the average church size in the study is 277, this represents a 40% increase, or an annual rate of growth of about 0.7%, which is reflective of Churches of Christ as a whole.
Again, no church actually pays on commission. Rather, church growth is seen as an indicator of good work and is rewarded.
Now, for one more chart–
This chart compares salaries to the number of years a preacher has been at a given church. The linear trendline is almost exactly flat, meaning that salaries do not go up based on years at a church.
There was so much scatter, I tried to match a curve instead (second degree polynomial), and it shows that the wages actually decline with tenure! This doesn’t mean preachers get pay cuts. Rather, the preachers who never leave are just not very well paid.
And you can’t help but notice that the highest wages are clumped toward the left of the chart. The highest paid ministers haven’t been at their churches for long! With two exceptions, the preachers making over $100,000 have been at their churches 12 years or less. And these are, of course, the largest, most successful churches.
What the data shows, I think, is that, to get raises, preachers change congregations, moving to larger, wealthier churches. The preachers who never move are the preachers who aren’t in demand.
Preachers seem to have one of three career paths –
* They can build their church, see attendance and contributions rise, and be paid more accordingly.
* They can minister to a plateaued church and find their salaries plateaued.
* They can move to a bigger, more prosperous church and be paid more.
Some do a bit of all the above.
So what’s the point? Consider these –
* Elderships generally credit the preacher with growth in attendance and contributions. As these go up, the preacher is rewarded.
* Bigger, wealthier churches compete intensely to hire the most talented preachers. These tend to be younger (mid-50s or less). The competition bids wages up among these churches.
* Smaller churches with excellent preachers will lose their preachers to a larger church unless they grow and are able to pay him what he’s worth.
* Not many preachers are able to stay at a church and build it. Rather, churches either grow by hiring a new, better preacher (often getting a one-time bump in attendance) or they just grow. But it seems unusual for the growth to be preacher-driven.
You see, if growth were truly preacher driven, then the growth would continue over the long term with the same preacher in the same congregation, and we’d see preachers making more money as a result of long tenure with their church. And we just don’t.
Now, the first and last bullet points seem to contradict. Here’s what I think happens most of the time. A church grows. It outgrows its preacher. The preacher moves on. And the church hires a better preacher.
The new preacher gets paid more than the old preacher. After all, the church had to lure the new preacher away from his old church.
Now, this sounds terribly cynical, but it corresponds to my observation. And there are a couple of ways of looking at all this that might be true.
It may be that the new preacher really does create growth, but that he eventually tops out. As the church grows, it outgrows his skill set, and so he moves to another, smaller church to start over.
If this is so (and there is some truth to it), then it tells us that our preachers just don’t know how to grow big churches. As the churches grow, either they don’t know how to organize a bigger church, and so it plateaus, or else they fail to mature the eldership to oversee a larger church (or the elders refuse to mature). Either way, they top out.
Or it means that churches typically grow for reasons independent of the preacher — often due to population growth in the surrounding community. The church attracts more people and, again, the preacher fails to keep up and so the elders hire someone who can handle the bigger church.
Now, this should be of great concern to us in the Churches of Christ. We have only one megachurch — Richland Hills in Ft. Worth. We have a handful of other churches in the 1000+ range. (The survey includes 9 churches over 1,000 members, which is likely close to comprehensive.) We don’t have a single church that’s a threat to hit 10,000 in the next 10 years, with the possible exception of Richland Hills. None are growing at that kind of pace — although there are scores of Protestant churches in the US growing that fast and faster.
Worse yet, we just don’t have much growth where the preacher has been responsible for growth for year after year. I mean, where’s the high-paid preacher on the right end of the chart? I count only 3 with 20 or more years at the same church making $60,000 or more — and $50,000 is about average pay for preachers at the smallest churches in the survey!
But then, we just don’t have that much growth at all. The Churches of Christ are not, on the whole, growing. The 0.7% per annum rate means we aren’t even keeping our own kids in church, as explained here. And one very real reason is the absence of very large churches that drive growth and set an example and prove methods for other churches.
When Churches of Christ go looking for help on how to grow, we turn to Saddleback and Willow Creek, not sister congregations in the Churches of Christ!
There is something missing, something holding us back. We aren’t growing, we aren’t producing very large churches, and we aren’t producing preachers who can help churches grow at high levels.
I don’t know that I have the answers, but I have some ideas. We’ll talk about them as the posts continue.