It’s Time to Talk About Money

By Mark A. Taylor

Do a Google search for “minister dropout statistics” and you’ll find a sea of bad news. Sorting out fact from fiction can be a challenge, but even conservative estimates say half of all ministers leave that calling for some other career.

The reasons for this are many, but research conducted by the Center for Church Leadership in Cincinnati found financial concerns as the top challenges facing the ministers they interviewed.

May31_MT_JNHeading the list was personal and educational debt; 71 percent of those interviewed mentioned this concern, according to a report to be published in the July issue of Christian Standard. As an example, the Center quotes one minister who said, “There were 27 students in my graduating class who entered ministry. Twenty-three have dropped out due largely to finances.”

More than half of those in this study (51 percent) “believe they cannot talk to their leadership about personal finances.” They feel church leaders are uninformed or disinterested in their financial challenges.

Among those challenges, two stand out: health care costs and retirement plans; 46 percent say they’re worried about one or both of these.

One way the Center is acknowledging these needs is with a Ministerial Emergency Fund to provide financial assistance to ministers facing unpaid medical bills, unmanageable debt, or no retirement plan. This is wonderful idea, and we can congratulate the Center’s director, Tim Wallingford, for initiating it.

But no parachurch ministry can compensate for a financial deficiency present in scores of local churches. Now is the time for church leaders to take steps that will prevent their ministers from leaving because they can’t afford to stay in the ministry.

The first step is a frank and open discussion. Churches with a designated personnel subcommittee have likely already accomplished this. This smaller group is a better place to discuss the minister’s compensation than with a church board or even all the elders. But some elders, as well as other church members with management experience, may be on this committee.

Or, instead of a committee, a subset of the elders (three is a good number) could have this conversation with each minister. Make sure you understand how much college debt the minister is carrying. Consider a plan to help pay down this debt. The church should make these payments directly to the lender so that the amount is not counted as taxable income to the minister.

Gather cost-of-living data and compare the minister’s salary and benefits to those of others in your community. Suppose your child were applying to be your minister. How would you feel about him trying to live on what you’re paying?

Even small churches that cannot provide health insurance can create a fund to subsidize the minister’s health care costs. The same goes for retirement planning. (These funds should also be paid directly to providers instead of counted in the minister’s taxable salary.) Although it’s true some low-paid or underpaid workers in America have no such benefits, are we willing for our ministers to languish in one of those categories?

The Center for Church Leadership plans a major initiative in 2017 around the theme of stewardship. This promises to bring welcome information and guidance. But every church can begin now to address the financial concerns that may threaten the effectiveness or even the existence of their ministry.


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