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”.

Keep Your Focus on the Congregation

1As a preacher’s kid and someone who’s been leading worship either as a volunteer or paid staff member since I was 12, I’ve had the opportunity to see the inner-workings of many church staffs, with all of the good, bad, and ugly stuff that goes on. It helps me understand why so many people who start off in ministry with eagerness and expectation end up dropping out confused and disillusioned.

Whether you volunteer or are paid on a church staff, you know what I’m talking about. On church staffs there are politics, power plays, and power blocs. There are certain people who are just plain difficult. There are emails that hit you from out of nowhere and leave you whiplashed. There are glaring areas of neglect that go on being neglected for years. There is mismanagement. There is competition. It’s enough to make you want to throw in the towel.

In order to stay sane, you have to stay focused on the congregation. You can’t let staff “stuff” distract you from your primary role of helping the congregation worship Jesus. You have to be able to put on blinders when necessary and not allow all-too-common church staff distractions to have a detrimental impact on your Sunday morning leading, and thus the congregation.

Living in D.C., you hear politicians use the phrase a lot that they “work for the people“, as in “the people” who elected them. I think worship leaders should have a similar creed. You work for the congregation.

And, let’s face it, your congregation doesn’t care what your title is, or who is upset with who, or what email got sent to what person, or what heated conversation took place, or who got the blame for breaking the copier machine. They really don’t care. They’re just hungry for something satisfying. And you can show them Jesus in all his goodness. Stay focused on feeding your congregation this Sunday, even if that means ignoring a lot of things swirling around you Monday – Friday.