Click here to go to the
Concerned Methodists homepage.

The system of providing a minimum salary for all United Methodist pastors appointed to a charge may, at first, seem to have little relationship to church revitalization. But it is symptomatic of a major flaw within our present structure. This program, which has been known by several names, was first called the sustentation, then the minimum salary, and finally equitable salary. It was designed to provide a floor below which no minister's salary would be allowed to fall. The issue, however, is not primarily one of the pastor's income, but of the impact of subsidy on the clergy and on the local church. The minimum salary for clergy is only one form of subsidy the denomination provides to individuals, congregations, church-related institutions, and various other groups. The equitable salary program is an excellent example for review because it is denomination-wide and involves a large number of clergy and local churches. It is symptomatic of a kind of ecclesiastical system of subsidy that is having a debilitating effect on both pastors and congregations.

The Development of Minimum Salary

The present minimum salary program grew out of the mission program of the church. In the period before Methodist unification in 1939, the presiding elder (district superintendent) would apply to the annual conference or General Board of Mission for support for mission situations. These included churches that could not afford to support a minister, but in which the services of a pastor were needed. Mission funds supplemented the amount raised by the local congregation.

There developed in the late 1930s the concept that every pastor should receive a salary adequate to support him (and at that time it was almost universally a case of male pastors) and his family. The General Board of Lay activities, which included stewardship as a program emphasis, made support of the minister one of its goals. The Discipline of 1939 provided that each annual conference "may adopt a Schedule of Minimum Salary support for its Pastors."1 To receive support, pastors were required to be serving full-time, but the amount provided could differ due to living conditions, number in the family, or any other reason.

Given the authority to subsidize clergy salaries, annual conferences proceeded to do so. The North Carolina Annual Conference was one of over forty to take such action. The Annual Conference Board of Lay Activities in 1940 asked the bishop to appoint a special committee to study the matter and make recommendations. This was done, and the following year a report was made. The committee stated that "adequate support did not mean a mere living just one jump ahead of the bread line ... but enough to give sufficient security to make for efficiency on the part of the minister."2 The report also pointed out that an automobile had become an absolute necessity for the minister. A salary schedule was set for clergy who were unmarried, married, and married with children. The funds were to be raised by a 2 percent apportionment on all money raised by each local church, except for buildings.

It should be noted that the minimum salary was inaugurated at the time when much discussion of a minimum hourly wage was taking place. The first minimum hourly wage was put into effect by the federal government on June 28, 1938. The church appears to have been influenced by events in the larger society.

With some minor modifications, the minimum salary program has continued virtually unchanged, even though the originating assumptions of a mission oriented support program have been lost. Each annual conference sets the minimum amount a charge must pay the pastor. The figure differs in each annual conference; the exact amount for which a particular pastor is eligible is determined by a formula that takes into account his or her status and possible years of service. An elder in full connection receives a higher minimum salary than associate members, probationary members, or local (lay) pastors. In conferences that consider length of service, a minister with twenty-four years service may receive a salary as high as 21 percent greater than one with less than three years. The difference between the highest and lowest minimum salary in a particular annual conference may be as high as 50 percent; however, in most annual conferences the difference ranges from 10 to 30 percent.

If it is determined that a particular charge needs a pastor, but cannot, after every effort has been made, provide the required minimum salary, the annual conference makes up the difference. Most annual conferences have a limit on the amount a charge may receive. The funds providing the salary supplement continue to be provided by an apportionment levied on each local church.

Back to Top

What Went Wrong?

The minimum salary program is based on two assumptions. The first is that an ordained minister could be sent to a charge too small to afford to employ a pastor, but where one was needed. It was hoped that the pastor might cause the church to develop to the point at which a subsidy would no longer be required. The second assumption was that minimum salary would guarantee that each minister would receive a modest, but adequate, income no matter where in the annual conference he or she might be appointed. However, the minimum salary program has not worked out as it was hoped. There are three reasons for this.

First, instead of providing a floor below which clergy salaries should not fall, the minimum salary has too frequently been interpreted as a ceiling or as the appropriate compensation for the pastor. Congregations look at the amount set by the annual conference and conclude that is about what a pastor should be paid. The currently popular term, "equitable salary," may further convey to the congregation that this figure is a fair salary, particularly if the membership is small and having a difficult time making ends meet.

Some congregations do not want to be known as a minimum salary church because this label calls attention to the fact that they are paying their pastor only what is required. To avoid what may be perceived as a stigma, they set their salaries slightly above the required minimum. This probably accounts for the fact that in many annual conferences 30 to 50 percent of the pastors' cash salaries will tend to be clustered around the required minimum salary, varying by only two or three thousand dollars. Thus the minimum salary program may actually depress clergy income by making a low level of compensation acceptable.

Second, the formation of charges with too few members to employ a full-time pastor is encouraged. Circuits that provide both an adequate work load and adequate compensation wish to divide so that each church may have its own minister. To do so, each church may pay a salary at or near the minimum. The churches may enjoy the status of being station appointments, but the ministers may be frustrated because they do not have enough to do. Each church will have to increase its expenditures for the minister's salary, but because each is supporting a pastor, the ministers now may actually be receiving less than their predecessors, who served a circuit.

Furthermore, the availability of minimum salary funds protects both local and denominational leaders from having to make tough decisions about a congregation's future. It is easier to subsidize a church than to make the arrangements for it to become part of a circuit. Such an action means change, which will be resisted by some. It also means assisting the congregations in facing up to their responsibility for ministry and outreach in the present, a task that is never easy.

Third, and most important, the minimum salary tends to shift some of the responsibility for ministerial support from the local church to the denomination. The fact that the pastor's salary comes out of the congregation's collection plate, either the one he or she is serving or from other local churches, is overlooked. It may not be realized that funds provided by the denomination originate in the congregations. When the clergy receive part of their salary from the denomination, the tendency is to perceive the annual conference as the employer. This creates a dependent relationship between the pastor and the annual conference. The action of the annual conference in setting the minimum salary levels can be more important to the minister than an increase in worship attendance in the local church.

Back to Top

Problems with Subsidy

Subsidy, even when it is essential, always has some negative consequences. There are instances in which financial support would be provided, but there are problems that must be recognized. The church has a long tradition of giving to support a wide range of ministries and to provide for those in need. This can be an appropriate response for those who follow Christ. The scriptures remind us that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35), a statement that has more truth than is often realized. While there always have been and will continue to be ministries needing financial aid from the denomination, the negative consequences of such aid must be recognized.

One negative consequence is the tension between the grantor and the recipient. This is due to the fact that the agency providing the funds is in a position of power. The individual or group receiving the subsidy, by the fact that financial support is needed, is reminded of an inherent weakness. The need for financial support constantly calls attention to weakness and is a source of irritation. No matter how gracious and understanding the granting agency may be, it is always in a position to discontinue the subsidy. The one thing that the person or agency providing the subsidy cannot expect in return is love. Resentment and animosity are more likely to be the results of long-term subsidization. Any mission board continually has to deal with the tensions conflicts that occur between the granting agency and the recipients of funds. These tensions and conflicts need not me destructive, but they are inherent parts of the relationship when subsidies are involved.

A second negative consequence is the dependency subsidization develops. The longer outside funds are provided, the more the recipient comes to depend on their continuance. The group receiving the subsidy comes not only to expect it, but also to perceive it as their right. As dependency increases, initiative decreases. It is always easier to accept outside help than to raise the necessary funds locally. The dependency produced by long-term subsidization results in a congregation that looks to outside sources of support instead of reaching out to new people and increasing the number of persons who participate.

An example of the negative impact of subsidization is the membership trend among United Methodism's black constituency. The recent revelation that the number of black members barely increased, despite the denomination's emphasis on ethnic ministries and that the numbers of black members in several other predominantly white denominations had surpassed those in the United Methodist Church, came as a shock.3 The most disturbing aspect of this formation is that it came after two decades during which the church had been putting millions of dollars into subsidies for ethnic churches and projects. It is impossible to get an exact figure, but the total would be substantial. The general boards and agencies have, over a long period, provided substantial amounts to minority churches and causes from their regular budgets; this would include such items as the minority Group Self-Determination Fund administered by the General Commission on Religion and Race, which for the quadrennium 1985-1988 is budgeted at one million dollars per year.4

There have been at least four church-wide emphases (The Temporary General Aid Fund, 1964-1968; The Racial Witness Relief Fund, 1964-1968; The Fund for Reconciliation, 1968-1972; and The Ethnic Minority Local Church, 1980-1988) that have focused on ethnic ministries. The expenditure of large sums has not resulted in revitalized local churches and increased outreach to minority people, but instead has contributed to the development of an increasingly dependent constituency, who tend to perceive continued subsidization as an entitlement. Well intentioned efforts seem to be achieving the exact opposite of what was intended.

The church, like many other institutions in American society, tends to attempt to solve problems by appropriating funds. Giving money is, after all, the easiest thing to do. Furthermore, providing money is a convenient way of dealing with any feelings of guilt.

For the local church, the problem is people first and money second. Subsidies may be needed in some situations, such as when a new congregation is being developed, but it is difficult to provide support over the long term without negative consequences. The length of time the subsidy will be provided must be carefully defined on the basis of how it can aid the mission of the church. Subsidies must be periodically evaluated as to effectiveness and must be terminated after a stated period of time. The inherent problems must be recognized and addressed, particularly when a local church is the recipient. Congregations, like individuals, have a tendency to become self-centered and self-satisfied. Support from the denomination lessens the incentive to reach out and bring new persons into the group.

Back to Top

Church Membership and Ministers' Salaries

The ministry is not and has never been a highly paid profession. The individual whose objective is financial reward is neither likely to enter the ministry nor should. When compared to persons in other service occupations, the United Methodist minister tends to be paid less than some and more than others. The ministry, like almost all service professions, will pay substantially less than law, dentistry, and medicine. But the ministry compares favorably with other service professions and even more so when benefits are taken into account. For example, the average (mean) minimum salary for ministerial members of fifty-six annual conferences is slightly over $15,000; this figure does not include such benefits as pension, insurance, and housing, most of which are tax exempt. The minimum salary for clergy, when the various benefits are included, exceeds the compensation of social workers, registered nurses, school teachers, physicians' assistants, police officers, fire fighters, and military personnel.

Clergy salaries are not determined by what persons in other occupations make, by the importance of the minister's task, nor by the amount of formal education required for ordination. The pastor's salary will be directly related to the strength of the charge to which he or she has been appointed. The larger the number of contributing members, the greater the potential for the congregation to provide the necessary funds for the operation of the local church.

There is a high correlation between the average attendance at the principal service of worship and the pastor's salary. An examination was made of the average worship attendance and the pastor's salary of ten annual conferences in different parts of the country. This indicated that the proportion of churches with an average worship attendance of 150 or more approximately equaled the number of ministers salaries, not including benefits, of $20,000 or more.

The point is not the obvious one that the greater the number of worshipers, the larger the offering. The point is that the pastor and the congregation must look to their own resources to develop and support their ministry, rather than to some agency for subsidies or for a more desirable appointment. The pastor who is ready for a greater salary - that is, a larger congregation - instead of building one, now expects the bishop to appoint him or her to such a church. Like the congregation that accepts minimum salary subsidies year after year, the tendency is to look to the denomination to meet the expectations. When the resources of an outside agency are available, they will be utilized; people and institutions will take the easiest paths. This also means that they will be less inclined to work hard at developing the local congregation, at reaching out and bringing new persons into the fellowship.

The issue is one of attitude, how the pastor perceives his or her ministry both in the present and in the future. Significant progress would be made toward church revitalization if the ministers viewed success as developing their present congregations, rather than looking to the denomination to provide what they perceive as a more desirable appointment. Abolishing the minimum salary would be a significant step toward achieving this goal.

Back to Top

Needed Results

To suggest any change in the minimum salary program, other than raising the amount, is not likely to be popular; to suggest that it be abolished will be considered heresy. Note that it is not being suggested that mission programs be abandoned or that every local church needs to be self-supporting. There are situations in which a United Methodist witness and ministry is needed and where, for any number of reasons, the local resources do not exist to provide the necessary support. New congregations need assistance until they can become established. Isolated rural communities in which there is no other church or certain inner city communities in which the level of social disorganization is high may require outside support.

What we are suggesting is that regular long-term subsidization, which causes congregations and pastors to look to the denomination for support instead of reaching out to people and, thereby, increasing the support base in their communities, be discontinued. Equitable salary is the place to begin. This will take some degree of adjustment by both congregations and pastors. Small stations would have to share a pastor as they become part of a circuit. Greater emphasis on lay ministry, a prominent part of early Methodism, would be needed. Congregations would have to make a greater effort to win some of the unchurched in their communities in order to have enough people to survive as an institution. Both old and new members would benefit from the process. Pastors would begin to understand that their future, as well as their present, ministry is directly linked to their ability to witness effectively in their community and to win persons to the church. The abolition of the minimum salary program is one of the few legislative changes suggested in this book; it is a change that could have beneficial results among our pastors and churches.


  1. Doctrines and Discipline of The Methodist Church 1939 (New York: The Methodist Publishing House, 1939), par. 816.
  2. Journal of Proceedings (the Third Session of the North Carolina Annual Conference, 1941), p. 87.
  3. "Ethnic Membership Barely Grows in 'Priority' Decade," The United Methodist Reporter (January 31, 1986), p. 1
  4. Forty-fourth Annual Report of The General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church (Evanston, Ill.: General Council on Finance and Administration, 1983), p. 147.

Back to Top

Copyright© 1987 By Abingdon Press

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, except as may be expressly permitted by the 1976 Copyright Act or in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission should be addressed in writing to Abingdon Press, 201 8th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37202.

Website maintained by Rev. John Warrener at

|| Home || Introduction || Stewardship Report || The Unofficial Confessing Movement || Lifewatch ||
|| Independent Committee on Alcohol and Drugs || News Update || Advisory Board ||
|| Case Studies || Testimonies || Interconnection into the United Methodist Church ||