The sin of the clergy pay gap

January 21st, 2016

Last week, my fellow clergy sisters and I were hit with a gut punch when the new information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics was released. For the first time, clergy income was reported, and, lo and behold, women made seventy-six cents for every dollar that men made, a substantially larger gap than the eighty-three cents to the dollar nationally. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but knowing that there’s a gap is different from seeing those numbers in black and white and seeing them in comparison to other, similar professions.

No one goes into ministry for the money (some televangelists and prosperity gospel preachers, excluded), though we did hope to make enough to pay off the student loans we accrued from attending four years of college and then acquiring a Masters degree and to support ourselves and our families. These numbers encapsulate clergy as a whole, when some denominations do better than others, and many report their own statistics. Some denominations have mandatory minimums and other guidelines for clergy pay, though others do not.

Oftentimes, when statistics like these are released, the blame comes flooding back on women themselves. We should "lean in," asking for raises and promotions when we think we deserve them instead of waiting for someone to offer them to us. We need to learn how to negotiate better, never mind what society thinks about women who aggressively stand their ground and demand to be paid what they are worth. Much of the time, we only learn these lessons by making mistakes and paying the price. In the midst of learning Koine Greek and church history in Divinity School, I never learned how to negotiate a contract or letter of agreement.

The embedded silence around money as a societal and ecclesial norm also does not serve us well in negotiating for fair pay. For many of us, money can be a source of shame, something that we don't talk about, particularly if we are struggling. In my short time in ministry, I've heard several clergy colleagues confess to financial worries, from solo pastors in smaller churches to pastors in very wealthy congregations. The design of churches’ compensation and call systems is from another era — one where their clergy was a married man with a wife whose primary work took place at home. Despite a changing world, this is still the mindset of many congregations. Stories abound of male pastors receiving a raise when a new child is born, whereas women are more likely to have hours and pay cut when they marry and have children.

So if women are going to the same seminaries, coming out with the same amount of debt, going through the same ordination processes, and doing the same work as men, why are we being paid less? It's ridiculous, and it's sinful. Denominations with women clergy: how can we be so forward-thinking and committed to equality but then we pay women a fraction of what we pay men, to the tune of $12,000 a year? Frankly, it’s tempting to leave church ministry when faced with statistics like that. A fellow young clergy woman even responded to this news with the statement, “And that’s why I chose to work outside of the church.”

Rev. Jeremy Smith at Hacking Christianity compiled several reflections from clergy women on these numbers, how contracts get negotiated and how women tend to get called or placed in lower-paying positions in the first place. As a church, we must do better, or we may find ourselves missing out on many of the gifts and talents of women clergy as they flee the church in search of more equal pay.

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