What can we offer?

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I’ve just been participating in a conversation about what churches pay, specifically what they are currently offering Youth Workers/Ministers.  The conversation was started by an observation that a lot of jobs are being advertised at around £23k.  Incidentally, a quick check on both the Evangelicals Now boards and Premier’s suggests that there are some churches offering more than that but not by much (£25-28k). 

I probably came across as one of the ogres in the conversation because I, perhaps controversially, suggested that it wasn’t unacceptable.  If a church is only able to offer £23k p/a then it is perfectly acceptable for it to offer that. It is also perfectly acceptable for potential employees to turn that pay offer down. They have two options, they can either choose not to apply at all, or they can apply for the job and then if offered it, they can discuss terms and see if there is any wiggle room, not because they are trying to get rich but because they have worked out what they need to live on.

So, before, we go any further, here are some practical thoughts on those kinds of conversations. First, of all, I would encourage a local church to be fully aware of what the cost of living is in their area, to think about what an employee will need, what it means for them to live in that community.  That means as well as the cost of housing, food, clothing, heating, you’ll also want to consider what it costs to be part of the community, engaging with the culture, being friends with non-Christians etc. Don’t forget to include pension contributions (both employer and employee) in your calculations and remember that the employee may need to build up savings to cover future one off capital costs. The church should then look at what it is able to pay.  This will start with the congregation but it can also look beyond itself to seek support through grants, wider mission support etc.  It may be that it is able to draw on some reserves as well.

A potential employee should also have done their research to demonstrate accurately what they will need to live on.  They may find it helpful to arrange for someone to represent them in the negotiations rather than having what feels like an awkward conversation.   They may also want to ask some questions about the church circumstances.  For example, does the church have reserves and what are they planning to do with them.  For the first few years of my previous employment, the church was primarily using reserves that had been built up to enable them to pay a worker. In fact, I had a choice between taking £x over 2 years or a smaller amount over 3.  I opted for 3 years preferring to commit for as long as possible and then we were surprised as God provided for 5 years and in fact, God enabled us to work there for 10 years and afford an additional worker for the last few. 

It is important at this stage to recognise that there might be a mismatch between what a worker genuinely needs to live on and what the church can afford to pay, even after all additional avenues have been explored. This may mean that the process has to stop there but not necessarily so. Here is why.

First, it is true across the board, in all kinds of Christian employment and in secular employment as well that (and has long been true), that the salary that an employer can afford may not be enough for a worker to live on. Therefore, workers are often having to make decisions about what to do. Most notably, it has meant that many households depend on two incomes to make ends meet. Now some might balk at that because they assume there is a theological principle that only the husband should work and that he should be the main bread earner. If we believe this is generally true then we are likely to expect it even more of the full time church staff. However, as I argue here, I don’t think that is the case. So, in our situation, it has been the case throughout our married life that my wife has been the main earner in our family.

Secondly, I think that faith needs to play a part. My rule of thumb in terms of attitude is that the church should seek to be as generous to its employees as possible and employees should be willing to make sacrifices.  Both then are committing to step out in faith. The important thing is that both parties recognise the sacrificial faith needed on the other side but do not demand it. In effect, what the church is saying is “We recognise that this is a huge, costly step of faith and we want to show, as much as possible, that we are taking that step with you. We are in this together.”

However, the background to my comments in the conversation was this.  The reality is that although it is difficult to hear, anyone in Christian ministry can expect to be paid significantly less than they might in other careers.  I know that I was paid substantially less as a full time pastor than in my previous career, both in terms of what I was on when I left for Theological College and what I could have been on if I’d continued with my previous career path.

Secondly £23-25k is less than a graduate salary but not by much. Thirdly, the reality is that many churches are struggling financially, post COVID and within the context of a cost-of-living crisis.  Not only are members struggling financially affecting giving but costs such as heating, and maintenance have gone up substantially. This means many churches may not be in a good financial position but that doesn’t reflect on the spiritual health of the church.

All of this means that I would be very cautious about deciding an arbitrary figure in terms of a salary offer and assuming that this means that a church is trying to get away with the bare minimum or isn’t bothered about looking after its workers well. It is possible of course that they are doing that but it is also possible that they have carefully looked at their context and their own financial situation and worked out what they can afford. It may also be that they are proactively seeking ways of ensuring that workers are cared for when additional financial reward is not possible.

Now, it is possible from the church’s point of view that if they cannot afford to pay someone a living wage for their context, that they should also reconsider whether it is right to add another full-time worker at that point.  Admittedly, I’m a little cautious about employing full time youth workers. I’m not saying that you should never do this but you need to have a clear idea of the role they play in the strategy and vision of the church.  It simply isn’t a good use of resources to pay someone full time in order to ensure your midweek clubs can run. 

As for the worker concerned, I believe that they need to have a clear sense of whether or not this is work they have been called to do.  If so, there does need to be a step of faith, trusting God to provide. This may not necessarily be through the church wage, it could be through gifts from others or through a spouses’ wage, but it may also be that over time, God grows the church and giving in the church in order to enable it to fully support the worker. 

The fascinating thing about this conversation is that these conversations are rarely hypothetical if we are involved in Gospel ministry. Right now, I am (as I have for some years), still trying to encourage people to come and join us and get involved in pioneer church planting.  I cannot offer you prestige, power or status, I certainly cannot offer you a salary (I have none of these myself). There may well be other things we can offer should you choose to come.  I doubt that this is an attractive prospect to many. However, it may well be that this is something you are at least willing to start a conversation about.

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