Are clergy underpaid? New study reveals rising wages, shorter hours and a diminishing wage gap

The wages of battling sin are getting better for men and women of the cloth.

Non-Catholic clergy have experienced significant increases in income even as their work weeks declined by more than 15 percent in recent decades, according to a major new study of clergy compensation.

Overall, in inflation-adjusted wages, non-Catholic clergy made $4.37 more per hour in 2013 than they did in 1983. That figure is more than double the wage increase of the average worker with a college degree.

Like most everyone else in this age of increasing economic inequality, clergy are continuing to fall financially behind other elite professions such as doctors, lawyers and hedge fund managers, the study found.

But the price of their calling is declining along with the wage gap that separates them from other college-educated Americans, according to the study following Current Population Survey data from 1976 to 2013.

Just how much? The study found clergy are gaining ground financially faster than more than nine in 10 Americans with college degrees.

The study is believed to be the first to address what had been a particular difficulty in comparing wages of clergy by taking into account the benefits they receive in the form of housing allowances or living in church-provided residences.

Not everyone is better off.

There are vast differences in the situations of individual clergy, from those serving small rural or urban churches who often work for low wages without benefits to the high-end salaries of some prominent megachurch pastors. Catholic priests are by far on the low end of the scale, earning about half as much as other clergy.

But the overall picture for clergy is generally one of improvement in both wages and working conditions, suggests the study by sociologists Cyrus Schleifer of the University of Oklahoma and Mark Chaves of Duke University.

Here are five major trends lifted up in the study published in the current issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion:

More financial blessings: The 35 highest-income occupations in the U.S., from investment bankers to physicians to engineers, are running away from everyone else. But excluding those professions, the income gap between clergy and other college-educated Americans is shrinking.

An analysis of Current Population data from 1983 to 2002 – a period where occupational codes allowed more direct comparisons – showed that non-Catholic clergy earned 32 percent less than other Americans with college degrees, excluding the top 35 professions. By 2002, the gap decreased to 26 percent.

Wages rose at an even higher rate. The $4.37 per hour boost in pay for non-Catholic clergy more than doubled the slightly more than $2 an hour increase for other working Americans with a college degree.

The clergy wage disadvantage dropped from about $12 less per hour in 1983 to about $9 less per hour in 2013.

“It seems likely that the implementation of denominational minimum salaries, the trend toward housing allowances rather than manses, and improved benefits packages all have contributed to improved clergy compensation in recent decades,” the researchers noted.

Greater work-family balance: A time-use study in 1934 found clergy put in a 76-hour work week. The work week of modern clergy declined from 52 hours per week in 1979 to 43 hours a week in 2013, the study of Current Population data found.

That is now nearly the same as the average 41-hour work week for other workers of similar education, according to the study.

The decline may be attributable in part to the fact Americans are spending less time in church – it is rare today to have Sunday evening or midweek services requiring separate sermons.

There also is an increasing recognition by clergy and their employers of the need to have a healthy balance between work and home, just as is happening in the larger society.

“They (clergy) are not motivated by money, but they are motivated to take care of their family,” sociologist Cynthia Woolever, co-author of “Leadership That Fits Your Church,” said in an interview.

A place of their own: Living in a parsonage next to the church used to be the norm.

As recently as 1976, 61 percent of clergy lived in church housing. By 2013, just 14 percent lived in church housing.

Having their own home away from the church not only helps preserve the privacy of ministers and their families, but is a financial asset with great potential for building equity.

The pulpit wage penalty: Clergy working as chaplains, teachers or administrators or in other nonchurch settings make 19 percent more than their peers working in congregations, the study found.

It appears easier for clergy working for larger organizations such as schools and hospitals to receive more competitive salaries and benefits than clergy dealing with the boards of individual congregations.

Money isn’t everything: On average, clergy earned about 7 percent more per hour the year after they left the profession; those who became clergy earned about 15 percent less per hour.

“Clearly, people paid an immediate wage penalty when they became clergy, and people who left the clergy received an immediate wage boost,” the study authors said.

In part, this is likely from second-career people willing to choose a calling more for personal satisfaction, Woolever said.

Examples that come to mind in her experience include a retired judge who became an Episcopal priest.

So are clergy underpaid?

It is a difficult question to answer, the researchers noted.

Clergy salaries are still lower than the pay of many college-educated Americans.

But wages and working conditions overall are improving. There are also the less tangible benefits such as the joy they receive from doing work they are passionate about, researchers said.

More than six in 10 clergy say they are “very happy” in their work; just 32 percent of other Americans express similar satisfaction, according to General Social Survey data from 1972 to 2010.

“Compared to other people,” Schleifer said, “they’re super-happy folk.”

All things considered, Schleifer and Chaves report, it is difficult to conclude that “clergy are underpaid relative to other workers.”

Image by Thomas Leuthard, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

4 Responses to “Are clergy underpaid? New study reveals rising wages, shorter hours and a diminishing wage gap”

  1. Larbi Megari says:

    Very useful article.

    In Algeria 5North Africa), Imams are underpaid, but for some reasons they are cot complaining. May be this is because they have not a lot to do, except Friday preaching, and some minor tasks during the week days.

    Again, thanks for sharing this infos on religious leaders in the West.

    Larbi Megari

  2. Taylor W Burton-Edwards says:

    But how about with a graduate degree in their profession? Many denominations require the MDiv PLUS additional internships and testing by their “guild” before being admitted to orders.

    Further, these educational requirements plus the slower rate of younger persons entering the ranks means the universe of employed clergy is older, more educated and more experienced than the universe of college graduates generally. Yet your study notes clergy remain $9/hr behind college graduates generally.

    So the apples to apples comparison may well be with attorneys and physicians, not with college graduates generally.

  3. Carla says:

    Your article is very enlightening, and parallels my husband’s and my life. My husband left the full time ministry in 1967, after a nine year stint and serving three different churches. He returned to using his first degree as an electrical engineer. While being employed as an engineer, he, also, served as a pulpit supply minister, and upon retiring from his engineering career, returned to serve as an associate minister for seven years. We are both happily retired, I as a RN, and he as both a cleric and engineer.
    One point, that I either missed, or you omitted, was that to become a cleric in a mainline church, a man or woman must have a three to four years post graduate degree in theology from an accepted seminary. That equates to seven to eight years of study to attain ordination. This educational journey is similar to what is required of lawyers, dentists, psychologists, and physicians.
    The salaries paid to clergy, by the Methodist Churches in the 1960s, were abysmal and the hours were long, leaving little time for a family. The clergy were expected to become involved in their communities, as well as serving as full time ministers.
    Yes, housing was supplied, but it was not kept in good repair, and was nothing that most of the parishioners would have chosen for themselves. It was not in good repair, or modernized, for two reasons.
    One: The minister did not have the funds to make the renovations, plus he/she would not be there for many years to make these renovations worth his/her time or money, if he/she had the time or money.
    Two:The ‘parsonage,’ ‘manse’ was not inhabited by the parishioners, thus they had no interest in making renovations, and would only repair, or have repaired, what was absolutely necessary for the safety of the minister.
    More and more clergy are opting to purchase their own homes, and asking for a housing allowance from the church. This makes sense, to me.
    What makes even more sense, is to have smaller churches in cities that have several, small, struggling churches, of the same denomination, merge to form one large church and pay the pastor a wage commensurate with his/her education. Many clergy have large college and post graduate loans which they must pay.

  4. Betty J Cosper says:

    This is exactly why our church has been running in the RED!

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