Do We Pay Pastors Too Much? Understanding The Costs Of Pastoral Education (Part 1 of 2)

So, let's talk about pastoral salaries.  Are they too high?  In the case of some prosperity teachers and mega-church pastors, that may be the case.  However, for this post we are not going to examine the extreme cases but the typical Lutheran parish pastor.

To begin with we need to understand that a pastoral education is equivalent to an education a lawyer receives.  In other words, a Juris Doctor graduate degree is comparable to a Master of Divinity graduate degree.  Like a lawyer in training, a seminarian must also complete 3 years of education after completing a four year undergraduate degree. (Note: Typically a Master of Divinity degree is required before entering the ministry and before ordination in most Lutheran contexts.)  Where the Juris Doctorate attempts to train lawyers in a scientific approach of logically handling the law, a Master of Divinity degree attempts to train pastors in properly handling and dividing the scriptures through the learning and application of Koine Greek, Hebrew, Systematic Theology, Church History, Pastoral Care, Missiology, Preaching and Biblical Interpretation.  

Cost of Education:
Not only does a Master of Divinity degree academically meet and sometimes supersede the academic requirements of a Juris Doctor degree, the Master of Divinity degree generally costs about the same too.  Typical Juris Doctorate credits start around $600 per credit hour and can be as expensive as $1,200.  On the other hand, Concordia Seminary charges $615.00 per academic credit hour and Lutheran Brethren Seminary charges $340 per credit hour.  Lutheran Brethren Seminary is able to charge substantially less due to the seminary being graciously subsidized by the CLBA denomination.  Without the denominational subsidization, Lutheran Brethren Seminary would be around $900-$1000 per credit hour, making the total cost of seminary well over $90,000.  Therefore, an average Master of Divinity Student from Lutheran Brethren Seminary is responsible for $40,000 of out of pocket education expenses. ($340 x 96 credit hours = $32,640 + Books + Extra Fees = $40,000)  Keep in mind that this does not factor in the cost of living, health insurance and moving expenses.  Debt can also be incurred for seminarians not only in tuition charges but also in the realm of living expense due to the impossibility of having a full time job while being enrolled as a full time student.  Furthermore, many students also bear the responsibility of the expenses for a previous four year undergraduate degree.  

Starting Salaries:
Usually obtaining a Juris Doctor degree is worth it because the average starting salary for a new lawyer in 2010 was $84.111 plus benefits.  From the starting average of $84,111, lawyers can increase in salary up to the six digit income bracket.  Is this the same with a starting salary for a new pastor?  According to the 2010 Church of the Lutheran Brethren Clergy Compensation report, for pastors under the age of 30 the average compensation is $44, 517, not including pension or health insurance.  From the starting average in the mid 40's, pastors in the Church of the Lutheran Brethren can increase in salary up to the mid 50's or low 60's. (Note: 2010 CLBA Average Salary is $54,264 plus insurance and pension benefits.)

The Need For Understanding:
Churches many times expect and want the professionalism of a pastor trained with a Master of Divinity degree but then fail to realize the time, energy and expenses that go into obtaining a Master of Divinity.  With the financial burdens of getting trained combined with modest pay after seminary, newer pastors can struggle financially in the parish yet be hesitant to bring up these financial struggles to their new congregations because they don't want to be perceived as greedy.  Please don't misunderstand me though.  For myself as a pastor as well as other pastors we certainly don't go into the ministry to make a fortune, but pastors do want to make an average living and many are barely able to do just this.  In other words, I am not advocating for lawyer salaries in the parish but merely 'understanding' on behalf of congregations. 

Support And Aid:
What can churches do to help individuals that are considering seminary?
  • Local Churches have adopted seminarians, helping with costs and praying for them through their seminary journey.  My local church, Sidney Lutheran Brethren Church, is sponsoring a seminarian.  The church raised over $8,000 to offset 25% of his tuition costs.  This is a wonderful way to bless a seminarian and also a future church that will receive his ministry of the Word and Sacraments.
  • Individuals and congregations can financially support a seminary like LBS or Concordia in order to help fund the school's operating expenses.  By doing this, the operating costs are not passed on down to the average student training for the ministry.  
What about after seminary?
  • A very good friend of mine in the LCMS incurred over $76,000 in debt to obtain his undergraduate and Master of Divinity Degree.  The church that he was called to did a fundraiser and raised $7,000 to pay down his balance.  What a blessing!
  • I also heard of a story in the LCMS where 12 parishioners got together and each parishioner decided to give the pastor $250 a month to offset his monthly student loan payment.  Great!
  • Churches can be proactive in inquiring from pastors about any debt that they might have and creatively explore ways in which they might help offset any potential financial concerns.  
The reality is that seminarians/pastors are trained to be a blessing to the local church body.  Each seminarian/pastor devotes 3 years of his life to read thousands of pages and study the scriptures in order to faithfully bless his future parish.  

So are Pastors getting paid too much?  A better and more appropriate question for us to ask is, how can we as members of local churches support, encourage and "yes" financially invest in Pastors?  My friends, we invest into the pastoral office because we value the Word!

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Disclaimer/Note: For the record I am very happy with my compensation at Sidney Lutheran Brethren Church and I believe that I am treated very well.  A wonderful thank you to my board and church family for your financial support and love. 


Chris said…
It seems like we are circling the same beast. Here is my series on Seminary debt:
Pastor Chris
Thanks Chris. I will check it out!
Neo said…
As the son of a LCMS minister I definitely don't think we're paying pastors too much. The salary levels you quote are broadly consistent with what I've seen in various Lutheran churches and all things considered seem fair to me. If anything it would be ideal if they could be increased slightly, while acknowledging they will never be equivalent to professional salaries (I had a higher salary upon graduating college than my father after twenty years of ministry)