The Awkward Salary Conversations

1Several years ago I posted some thoughts on a “worship leader’s job description and pay“. And of all the posts I’ve ever written in almost five years, that one post has gotten the most hits, the most Google searches, prompted the most interesting conversations (especially from one guy who’s apparently sold more records than The Beatles), and emails to me from various worship leaders from around the country asking for advice about how to negotiate their salary.

Since I am not currently having this conversation with my church I thought it might be a good time to share a few thoughts (for whatever they’re worth) on negotiating a salary when you’re serving in full-time ministry. I just received a question from a worship leader about this yesterday, and here’s basically what I said:

1. In principle, your church should pay you around the average income in your area, for a person of your age, with your experience, education, and taking into account whether you’re single, married, and have any children. Wikipedia has this info for most cities, I think! It’s not unreasonable to ask your church to pay you a fair salary. Too many church employees think that it is.

2. Bill Hybels says that “facts are your friends“. So, get your monthly expenses really organized and categorized. Put down what your monthly and/or yearly expenses are. Do it in transparent detail. Rent/mortgage, utilities, groceries, bills, savings, gas, insurance, etc. Does your spouse work? Put that down too. Get a complete picture of the facts of your financial situation.

3. Do this so that you can know what you NEED to make in order to be comfortable and to provide for your family. Throwing out a figure, or just guessing, or just wanting MORE is not a good idea. But do some research on the average income in your area. Then get your facts straight. Then put it down in a succinct, to-the-point letter to your boss and your pastor, and have a very specific ask. Ground it in the fact that it’s what you NEED, not what you WANT. Do it humbly but don’t feel guilty.

If they respond positively, then well done. If they respond negatively, then you’ll need to prayerfully (and with wise counsel) evaluate whether God is calling you to a situation where you’re not paid enough, or whether it might be more wise for you to look elsewhere.

Of course, God calls people all the time to serve in ministries and capacities where the compensation isn’t all that they NEED and they have to rely on raising support, or having a second job, or having their spouse work. If God has called you to this sort of ministry, then he will provide for you

This advice is for the full-time (or even part-time) worship leader who’s serving at a church that’s relatively stable financially, and able to pay him/her a salary. If that’s you, and you’re entering into those awkward salary discussions, then get your facts straight, put it down on a paper (in a memo, not a novel), and ask for what you need. And pray a lot too.

UPDATE: I forgot to add a very important thing: Very often, when churches can’t afford to pay you the average salary for your area, they can make up for it in other ways. Perhaps they have a house you can live in, or perhaps (and this is how my wife and I are able to survive in Northern Virginia) there is a family in the church who will rent you a place for a less-than-market-value rate. These are two examples of ways a church can help you and your family survive and be comfortable, even if they can’t pay you what a spreadsheet says you “need”.

7 thoughts on “The Awkward Salary Conversations”

  1. Jamie, I’m a new reader and have enjoyed your blog. I just came across this post and wanted to comment. I think you should have mentioned two other principles. First, all the stats you pointed out are important, but merit based on ability is also important. I think there are a couple of key figures in the NT that spoke to this by saying “The worker is worthy of his hire,” and “Do not muzzle the oxen when treading the grain.” To be fair, you alluded to this in your first post, but I think it bears repeating. Musical skill is obviously important, but there are so many other abilities and gifts that must be considered. Suffice to say that not all worship leaders have the same abilities, gifts, or skills; therefore, not everyone should be paid the same. A second principle is “assigned worth” of the position for the church. I suppose this is a bit of a capitalistic ideal, but I don’t think we can ignore that in the world in which we live, the church must consider how much the position and the person considered are worth to them. Of course, this is subjective, but I do not think we can avoid consideration of this principle. Last comment-I think you must be cautious about basing pay (even in part) on whether or not a person is married or not or whether a person has kids or not (I assume that you are implying they should be paid more if they have a family).Why should a single person without kids who will be able to give more time to the gospel (as Paul indicated) be paid less than someone with a family? And why would the work of a worship leader be worth more if they have a family? I think that this criteria is a bit problematic.

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for those additional principles. Good stuff.

      As for why I believe a church should take into consideration whether or not a person is married and has a family when deciding on salary: it’s mainly because if they don’t, they won’t be able to attract/retain people who are married and have kids.

      Thanks again,


  2. Therefore, the church should pay what it would take to attract ministers who are married and have kids regardless of marital and familial status.

  3. Using your logic, a single worship leader should attract singles? It doesn’t always work that way either. The outgoingness of the worship leader should be a better basis for pay as well as skill and knowledge. If they “call themselves a worship leader” or if they have been actually trained to be a worship leader should make a huge difference in salary.

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