Prepared by Dan Navarra
Edited by Adam McLane, Mark Oestreicher
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I once had a Senior Pastor tell me he “took an oath of ministry; not of poverty.” What he meant by that, he later explained, was that he believed that professional ministers should be compensated fairly, given their tenure, education, and other qualifications. While I found myself grateful for his guidance in my earlier years in ministry, I’ve since come to realize over my own dozen years of vocational youth ministry that he was in the minority when it came to Pastors putting their money where their mouth is. Youth ministry is a tricky career choice. Surprise! The hours are stereotypically long, the pay even more stereotypically low, and the pressure to perform and produce “results” is often unreasonably high.
Therefore, the aim and objective of this document is to present tangible data surrounding the compensation of full-time Youth Pastors in order to minimize vague speculation, while also providing concrete data and evidence, should a Youth Pastor deem themselves undercompensated. My research methodology was to simply ask full-time Youth Pastors to respond to a Google Form compensation survey spanning thirty-six questions. This survey, while certainly not perfect, was received with a great deal of goodwill among my fellow Youth Workers; many of whom felt like the data would be essential to them as they went into their annual performance reviews.
I’m grateful and fortunate to have had Adam McLane from The Youth Cartel partner with me in helping to formulate the final results of these findings. It’s also fair for you to know a little about who I am as the one who created the survey and compiled the summary of results. I, myself, have been a full-time Youth Pastor since 2008. I’ve also earned a degree in Philosophy with a Religious Emphasis and a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. My research began as purely self-serving; with my own ambition of illustrating data that would help warrant a raise in my own compensation. As my number of respondents grew, and feedback was given along the way, I realized two things: I was actually being compensated quite fairly when compared to those with similar qualifications to myself, but also many of my friends and colleagues were not so lucky. From these conclusions, I decided that this data needed to be published in a free and accessible way to help advocate for my fellow Youth Pastors. I hope you find it helpful.
The survey had 1,335 respondents in nearly three months of collecting data from November 2 of 2017 to January 23 of 2018. These respondents are comprised of 85% male and 15% female. Zero respondents chose to select “other” as a gender option.
The Numbers Say: Stay in School
I’m excited to report that 28% of participants have completed a Theological Masters or Seminary, and 59% of Youth Pastors have a 4-year college degree. Less than 6% have only completed high school. There were ten of you geniuses who have a doctorate (and one of them is a Junior High Pastor!). 7% have done some sort of ministry certificate program. Obviously, this points to education playing a critical component in youth ministry compensation. Specifically, the average salary of a person holding a seminary education or higher is about $51,000 (median salary $50,000), while those who only possess a 4-year undergraduate degree have an average salary just over $43,000 (median of $42,000). Youth Pastors with a high school education only, or who have done an unaccredited certificate program yield an average salary of $39,000 (median $40,000).
More than half of Youth Pastors carry personal debt for their education, with most people who have student loans possessing less than $10,000 left until they are debt free. About 23% of Youth Pastors have more than $30,000 of debt, with 5% of all Youth Pastors having more than $75,000. I hope your spouse has a great job, or you have a killer side hustle. ☺
About half of all full-time Youth Pastors have been ordained. These ordained pastors have an average salary just over $48,000 (median of $48,000 also), while non-ordained pastors have average salary of $42,000 (median of $41,000). An ordained pastor with a seminary education earns an average of nearly $53,000 (median of $51,000), and 82% of ordained pastors who are seminary trained are also getting a housing allowance to give them a further financial advantage.
For Those Who Wear Multiple Hats:
Interestingly, 40% of full-time Youth Pastors are also being asked to be the ministry lead for another ministry, besides those related to youth. This also must be taken into account when considering over 82% of all full-time youth workers are scheduled to be out at regularly scheduled church programs at least two evenings per week. 30% reported being out three times per week. Friends, I plead with you: find space for a Sabbath, or else you’re heading towards being a part of the burnout statistics, instead of the gainfully employed statistics. More on this in a moment.
63% of Youth Pastors have ability to lead worship through music. One would expect this to be a skill that affects compensation by deducing that more skills and abilities would lead to higher compensation. However, that was not the case! Those who can lead worship earn an average salary of $44,000 ($43,000 median). Those who are less musically inclined earn a $45,000 average salary ($44,000 median).
There are several conclusions one could draw from the stats on music and nights out correlating. I’ll make a few general observations. I believe this data indicates there is a workforce of Youth Pastors who “do” lots, but that doesn’t correlate to getting paid more. I’d advise this as a caution, considering the number of non-veteran Youth Pastors who participated in the survey: don’t let your job description expand without your compensation also paralleling that expansion, or else you could find yourself over-worked and under-paid quickly. The compensation average for those who are only out one night per week is nearly $46,000, while those who are out multiple nights per week are decisively not being compensated for this time out. In fact, the numbers indicate they are being paid less than their single-night-out counterparts by nearly $3,000 per year on average. This seems to indicate that churches who have their people out less evenings and assisting in other ministries are willing to give more compensation for specialization. Churches that require more time out in the evening from their Pastors, as well as a wider skill set from their people are often asking them to take less compensation to do more. Obviously, this data is not conclusive in this direction; but the numbers also don’t support the idea that “doing more gets you paid more.”
General Compensation Findings:
Only 22 respondents reported being paid by the hour. I would expect this number to rise over the next few years, especially in places like California as minimum wage (and therefore salary exempt) requirements make it increasingly difficult for churches to sustain exempt status for some of their lower paid employees. Less than 20% have opted out of social security, while nearly 60% receive a housing allowance. As previously stated over 80% of ordained pastors with a seminary degree receive a housing allowance.
Just to clarify for some who may not know: if you take a housing allowance, and do NOT opt out of Social Security, your church now classifies you as a self-employed W-2 employee. Therefore, they are NOT required to pay the typical 50% of your Social Security Tax. This is a nice way of saying, if you take a housing allowance, and you do not opt out, you probably are going to need to negotiate a higher salary from your employer, because you’re going to be paying a 15% Social Security tax on your salary. The most advantageous way for you to be compensated is to opt out (if that makes sense for you—talk to your accountant or financial planner), and to take a housing allowance to lower your taxable income. Then, make sure you save at least 5% minimum into retirement (403b or Roth IRA). If you don’t save, and you opt out, you’ll never retire.
When it comes to actual cash compensation, the numbers are fascinating. The basic average reported salary among full-time Youth Pastors for 2017 is $45,381. The median income is $44,000. However, this number is skewed by the inordinate amount of people who reported being paid LESS than the federal salaried minimum. If you’re new to the world of full-time work, federal minimum wage as of January 1, 2018 is $7.25. A full-time exempt (from overtime) employee must lawfully be compensated at no less than double their states minimum wage, calculated over a 40-hour work week. For instance, in Idaho, their state minimum wage is the same as the federal wage of $7.25 per hour. In Idaho, a full-time exempt employee must be paid no less than $30,160 annually ($7.25 x 2 (to double) x 40 hours per week x 52 weeks per year= total salary). In California, where the state minimum wage is $10.50, a full-time exempt employee may not be paid less than $43, 680, using the same formula. 11% (or almost 150 Youth Pastors who identified as full-time) indicated a compensation below $31,160 as their annual income. It should be noted that of these people, about 20% indicated receiving some sort of housing benefit from their church, which may have not been counted in their total compensation. Read: “I get twenty-five grand and a free house to live in for my family.” If you find yourself in that category, your compensation should be calculated based on what renting that home, fully furnished would be added in to your cash salary. Regardless, that still leaves well over 100 participants in this survey who reported not being paid a lawful minimum salary. If this is you, be kind, but firm when you show this to your Board or boss. We all have heard the horror stories of that conversation not going well.
Experience is King:
Only about 6% of participants reported being 20+ year veterans of youth ministry, while half of all participants reported being in youth ministry five years or less. 8% of respondents were in their first full-time year of vocational ministry—welcome to the family! The largest demographic of experience reporting was the 5-10 year spread. However, 75% of respondents reported being in their current position for less than 5 years, with most of those people (about 60%) being in the 3-5 years of continuous employment at one position range, thus indicating many Youth Pastors are beginning full-time ministry with one church family, and then within their first half decade moving on to a secondary opportunity.
Given my own experience on the job boards, there is an obvious difference between entry level compensation and those who hit the magic “3 years of full-time experience” mark. If you’re past year three, and have never gotten a pay raise, you might want to explore that with your boss or Board. To substantiate this claim that I’ve perceived for quite some time, consider the following: For people who have less than three years of full-time ministry experience, their average and median salary was $37,000. Once a pastor passes the three-year mark in full-time ministry, there is a considerable increase in average annual salary that comes with your experience. Below, you can find an illustration helping explain how years of experience affect salaries, and the percentage increases from one phase to the next.
< 3 Years = $37,000*
3-5 Years = $42,000 (+12%)
5-10 Years = $47,000 (+11%)
10-20 Years = $52,000 (+10%)
20+ Years = $60,000 (+14%)
*For those of you who elect to do college first, then seminary, and then go get your first full-time job, you can expect an average salary of $43,000 (median of $42,000) in your first three years, thus indicating that your education (paired with a lack of full-time experience) gains you about 14% pay increase when you begin ministry over your non-seminary counterparts.
Only half of those who have been in youth ministry for twenty or more years have earned a seminary degree. Therefore, if you want to be a lifer, experience seems to be valued at a higher level than education. 20-year vets with a masters earn an average of $63,000. 20-year vets without a masters earn virtually the same average annual salary. Interestingly, every single Youth Pastor who responded to this survey who has been in full-time ministry for over 20 years (6% of respondents) has at least a bachelor’s degree. What this tells me is, if you want to have a long fruitful ministry with students, experience is king, but not if it means dropping out of college. Finish your accredited degree.
A Note About Church Size & Budget Affecting Salary:
There was a quite wide variation in the data on how the size of church does or does not affect compensation, which is why you won’t see many stats on church size and how that affects how people are compensated. This seems to be mostly attributed to how many Youth Pastors are the “second pastor” at many smaller churches, and thus can sometimes generate a slightly larger income. However, the general data seems to point to small churches paying smaller dollars. Churches with more than 500 people in worship on a Sunday (35% of the churches involved in this study) average a $50,000 salary for the Youth Pastor, while churches who average under 500 people in worship on Sunday are paying an average just under $42,000.
Churches with an annual general fund budget exceeding $1 million reveal a salary averaging $51,000, while churches under the million-dollar annual budget line only pay an average of $41,000. Churches with over a $2 million annual budget average $54,000.
What You’ve Got to Work With:
47% of Youth Pastors shepherd a group of 40 students or less. These Youth Pastors earn an average annual salary of almost $41,000, while pastors who shepherd groups from 40-90 average $46,000. Youth pastors with a group larger than 90 students (which was 20% of our sample size) generate an average salary of $54,000. 50% of churches are giving their Youth Pastor an annual program budget of $10,000 or higher. Thankfully, only 6% of Youth Pastors have no program budget. 40% of Youth Pastors have at least one intern working for them, and only 18% of Youth Pastors have at least one full-time employee working for them. 75% of Youth Pastors preach in their church’s main service less than 5 times per year, with 22% never getting any pulpit time. However, nearly 75% of Youth Pastors are expected to assist in their church’s main worship gatherings a minimum of 5 times per year (beyond preaching the sermon). 40% of Youth Pastors assist with their church’s main services more than 21 weekends per year.
So, What Does It All Mean? Some Concluding Remarks To Consider:
Ultimately, God’s provision for you, your family, and your life is more than a data set. I don’t know all the factors which contribute towards your being paid what you’re earning. But I do know that God sees you. He hears you. He knows what bill is coming in the mail next. Nothing surprises him. And He reassures us that if the birds of the air have all they need, how much more should we believe that our Father has our best interests in mind? (see Matthew 6:26)
We all agree that ministry is about being obedient to the invitation God has put in front of us. I don’t want this document to tempt you to question the calling on your life, or the invitation God has you cooperating with. I want this to encourage you and empower you. As you engage with your church and boards in this next cycle of annual reviews and progress report check-ins; my hope is that this document offers you courage to ask your church to consider putting your compensation on the higher and healthier side of these statistics. Remember, the median salary is the middle salary of all 1,300+ respondents. That means 50% of us make less than $44,000 and 50% of us make more than $44,000. As you experience fair compensation, I hope that breathes health into your rhythms of ministry, your family, and your own formation more and more into the image of Jesus. And for those of you who will pastor your own churches in the coming future and maybe even employ one of my own children as your Youth Pastor…I hope you will remember the principles uncovered by this document and aim to not pay your staff the minimum, but to always strive to honor the offering each Pastor who serves under brings by compensating them so they can thrive in your ministry and not just survive.
I want to leave you with a blessing originated by Presbyterian Pastor Richard Halverson.
“You go nowhere by accident. Wherever you go, God is sending you. Wherever you are, God has put you there. God has a purpose in your being there. Christ lives in you and has something he wants to do through you where you are. Believe this and go in the grace and love and power of Jesus Christ. Amen.”
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