Are Clergy Underpaid?

Coral Gables Congregational (UCC) Sanctuary - photo by Greg Smith

Coral Gables Congregational (UCC) Sanctuary – photo by Greg Smith

New Research

In the March 2016 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Mark Chaves (author of one of my top ten faith enriching books) and Cyrus Schleifer offer the most in-depth quantitative analysis of American clergy compensation compared to American compensation in general and among the college educated workforce.  Unique to their work is the inclusion of housing allowances, conversion of income to hourly rates using self-reported working hours, and comparison to two sets of workers: all college educated workers and all workers except those in the top paying thirty-five professions.

Overpaid, Underpaid, or Appropriately Compensated?

Chaves and Schleifer don’t exactly answer whether or not their research means clergy are overpaid, underpaid, or appropriately compensated.  They, do, however, find the following to be true of clergy employed in full-time roles:

  1. Clergy Participating in SW Florida 2015 PFLAG Convocation - photo by Bob Kelly

    Clergy Participating in SW Florida 2015 PFLAG Convocation – photo by Bob Kelly

    Clergy earn less than others of comparable education, age, race, gender, marital status, and location (and clergy serving congregations earn less than those who serve in other settings). 

  2. Clergy work less today than in prior eras: 2013 – 43 hours a week, 1979 – 52 hours a week, 1934 – 76 hours.
  3. Clergy lost earnings ground between 1976 and 2013 relative to all college-educated workers, but improved their relative position when earnings inequality is considered.  The latter sort is significant since all other worker wages are losing ground to the top group as income inequality widens. 
  4. The clergy wage disadvantage dropped by about $3 an hour between 1982 and 2013, but remains significant at around $9 an hour.
  5. Entering the ranks of the clergy is associated with an average wage loss of 15% per hour while exiting the clergy for other work is associated with an average wage gain of 7% per hour based on wages in the year before and year following the change in working status respectively.


Clergy enter ministry for a variety of reasons. Many understand the role as a calling from God.  Very few enter vocational training with lifetime financial earnings as a primary concern.

Regardless of compensation, clergy are happy about their work: more than six in 10 clergy say they are “very happy” in their work, but just over three in 10 Americans express similar satisfaction (Briggs citing Schleifer and Chaves’ reporting of GSS data).

Other Considerations

The authors note several important limitations of their research, including the need to place the statistical changes in the larger perspective of the changes in American religion. Since 86% of clergy are employed by congregations, changes in congregations matter. Over the last 30 years the following changes likely contributed positively to wage increases on an hourly basis for full-time clergy:

  • decline in number of congregations with full-time clergy (those remaining are, on average, likely better able to pay higher wages than the entire group was on average when full-time clergy were normative)
  • implementation of denominational minimum salaries
  • shift toward housing allowances instead of manses.

So What?

This data matters to me as someone who follows the Way of Jesus and seeks to be a part of a community of faith.  It also matters as someone who has experienced the transition from another field into ministry and, more recently, from fifteen years of full-time ministry to a position outside of ministry.  I also recognize my ministerial income was well above average, and that my higher than typical compensation was the result of serving congregations far larger than average.

This research sheds new light on an important piece of an ever changing puzzle relevant to individuals, churches, and seminaries.  It will certainly inspire additional research.

  • Are you surprised to learn that clergy make on average $9 less per hour than other college educated workers? Why or why not?
  • Do you expect hourly wages for clergy to rise or fall relative to other workers outside the top 35 highest paid professions over the next decade?  What do you think are a few of the key reasons why the outcome you chose is likely?

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