Who Should Know How Much Everyone Makes?
Pay transparency is a growing trend in the business world. Want to know how much each employee at social media giant Buffer makes? You can look it up on their website. Similarly, Whole Foods publishes the average salary for every position. Norway’s government recently took it a step further. They made each Norwegian citizen’s salary available via an online searchable database. But be forewarned, people can see a log of who looked them up!
Some states in the U.S. have legislated a measure of pay transparency. For example, South Carolina’s Act to Establish Pay Equity makes it illegal for employers to prohibit their employees from sharing wage information. Colorado’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Act requires employers to include compensation ranges with job postings.
Should churches proactively disclose staff salaries to the members? When a member or employee asks for the information, is it wise to share? Put simply, is pay transparency a good idea for the church?
When considering whether to share salary information with the whole church or one inquisitive member, try to process that question with two goals: build ownership and maintain unity.
GOAL #1: BUILD OWNERSHIP
Budget meetings in the church can span the spectrum from a simple FYI with no voting to accepting amendments from the floor. Some lean toward the simple, highlighting only high-level categories. Others prefer the detailed approach, showing every cent spent on every item.
My goal in our church budget process is to faithfully steward resources by aligning our budget with Christ’s stated purpose for the local church, which is to make disciples (Matt. 28:19–20). While our Chief Shepherd certainly does not need our money for his mission, our resources significantly impact the church’s work.
When each part of the church body works correctly, the whole body grows up (Eph. 4:16). This means members contribute to one another’s lives and have an active role in each other’s discipleship. The budget intersects with this culture because it’s a commitment to sustaining a gospel ministry. It’s a matter of discipleship. It follows that voting on or affirming the budget is part of overseeing each other’s discipleship.
But back to the question: how much information does the church need to know in order to own its budget meaningfully? Over the years, I’ve discovered an inverse relationship between the number of cells in a budget spreadsheet and the average person’s ability to understand it. Ownership minus understanding trends toward pie in the sky.
Prudence lies somewhere in the middle space, between only knowing the bottom number and being able to recite every line. When members have a working knowledge without being overwhelmed with details, they will feel greater ownership of the budget and the ministry.
That might mean sharing pay data. It could be helpful to know how much the church is investing in the ministry of the Word compared to other expenses like building maintenance. Both are important, but one is an obvious priority over the other. Members being in the know regarding staff salaries may also help curb pastors being underpaid. If churches understand the correlation between a pastor’s salary and the ministry of the Word, they will not underpay him purposefully.
Conversely, combining all salaries into a single line might be sufficient. This strategy can prevent less mature church members from becoming distracted by the specifics. If your church goes this route, I recommend taking the time to teach the congregation the church’s salary philosophy. The Lord gives us instructions for paying our pastors (1 Cor 9:1–14; 1 Tim 5:17–18). Members must be obedient and care for those who care for them.
I know of at least one church that lumps the bottom line for salaries but makes individual numbers available on request in the church office. This may be a good middle-ground solution. What should be obvious is that there is not a universal answer to this universal question. Knowing what will best serve each church takes wisdom.
GOAL #2: MAINTAIN UNITY
As believers, we’re all called to eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:1–6). A united church is a spectacular reminder of God’s eternal, cosmic plan to unite all things in Christ. Unfortunately, budget meetings and church finance conversations are notoriously divisive. Division, regardless of its cause, harms a church’s gospel witness. Budgets should not be a source of division in our congregations. So, let me ask you, church leader, would sharing individual salary data maintain or threaten unity in your church?
I know of too many churches recovering from financial mismanagement or sinful impropriety. Both scenarios erode the trust members have in their leaders. In the wake of a scandal, a bent toward honest transparency is generally the best course. Even apart from scandal, I can imagine other scenarios in which more detail, whether on salaries or utilities, will best serve a congregation. For example, if a church has come into maturity in valuing Word ministry and has worked overtime to compensate their lead pastor fairly, it may be very encouraging to share the information so they may be encouraged in the excellent work they did together!
We should share Solomon’s sentiment when he said, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (Pro. 14:30). While not always, envy often lies at the root of many arguments against pay transparency. If employees know how much everyone makes, envy sprouts up in the soil of the team. On the other hand, it may also be a cause for rejoicing that other brothers are being taken care of.
Paul presses on the churches in Galatia and us today when he says, “walk by the Spirit…you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). Those desires include enmity, jealousy, strife, and dissensions (Gal. 5:19–21). Interestingly, research by organizations like Payscale and WorldatWork suggests that transparency increases employee engagement, job satisfaction, and teamwork. I don’t think we should assume that church staff will necessarily choose to gratify their sinful desires. Instead, the Spirit empowers pastors and staff to trust the Lord for their daily bread and celebrate it being given to others as well.
So, is it wise to trust the Spirit and immediately sing salaries from the hilltops? Not necessarily. Having a compensation policy may also be a warranted defense against envy and division. That policy, given to staff and available to anyone, should outline things like a biblical framework for why the staff is paid, the principles for compensation, and an overview of when compensation is evaluated and who is involved in that process. That may be short of publishing pay data, but it goes a long way toward removing the curtain’s mystery and ensuring your staff understands the what and the why behind their compensation.
Additionally, I would encourage you to maintain unity by building a culture where it’s okay to talk about money in general and compensation in particular. Like every other member, pastors have bills, too. This is not an encouragement to fall in love with money. Elders should be above reproach in this matter (1 Tim 3:2–3). I’ve often found myself stuck, needing to talk about making more money but also suspicious of my own heart and fearful of being misunderstood. Regardless of your polity or staffing structure and regardless of whether you publish salary data, who is actively making it easier for church staff to talk about their pay?
Pay transparency in the church comes with significant risks. Some will be confused by total compensation made up of salary and benefits. Other members may be tempted to compare the pastor’s salary to theirs, risking envy and tension. As a pastor, I don’t love these conversations. But if sharing my salary helps to maintain unity and gives the church meaningful ownership of the ministry, then I joyfully accept.
Therein lies the challenge of shepherding; we must know our people and their needs. Sometimes, sharing information will build up; sometimes, it will tear down. Rather than hide information out of fear or carelessly publish it on the street corners, aim to shepherd your church toward meaningful membership and unity in Christ.