5 Worst Salary Negotiation Mistakes Pastors Make

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5 Worst Salary Negotiation Mistakes Pastors Make” is written by Sean Morgan. Sean is the founder of The Ascent Leader and host of the Leaders In Living Rooms podcast. Sean and Carey recently partnered together on The Art of Pastoral Succession, a new course in The Art of Leadership Academy.

As a leader, mistakes are inevitable.

But when it comes to salary negotiation and churches, the consequences can be dire – not just for the pastor but for the entire congregation. Unfortunately, many pastors lack the guidance and experience needed to navigate this delicate process. From personal experience, I know the pitfalls all too well.

But through trial and error, I’ve learned how to handle salary negotiations in a way that benefits everyone involved.

In this article, I’ll share the top five mistakes pastors and church leaders make during the salary negotiation process and, more importantly, how to avoid them.

Don’t let your next salary negotiation be a disaster. Read on to find out how to come out on top.

Mistake #1: Accepting the First Salary Offer

Pastors often let their conflict avoidance gene take over and combine it with bad theology. For example, thinking, “God’s got this, and I don’t feel I need to be hands-on with my compensation,” so they simply accept the offer that’s on the table.

I propose that negotiating a fair and equitable pastor’s salary can be done admirably and simultaneously honor God – instead of just sounding admirable.

After all, we don’t stop parenting our kids and say, “God’s got this,” and we don’t take our hands off the steering wheel while we’re driving down the highway and say, “God’s got this.” So, why do we do it with our salary?

We often use poor theology and sophomoric thinking to help us avoid conflict.

We often use poor theology and sophomoric thinking to help us avoid conflict. – Sean Morgan Click To Tweet

Is God in control? Yes, of course. And he has given you the ability to shape the conversation in a way that can allow you a more sustainable future in ministry.

With a shortage of young pastors entering ministry, churches are already feeling the pressure to attract top-tier candidates for their open pastor positions. But with inadequate salaries, many of these churches struggle to compete in the job market and are left without the leadership they desperately need.

Isn’t it time for us to use the resources available to initiate conversations about livable and honorable wages for ministry leaders? You can play a part!

Mistake #2: Assuming a Future Raise Will Come

I have seen this as the most common salary negotiation blunder, and to be transparent, I made this mistake twice in my career.

Salary expert and search firm owner William Vanderbloemen mentioned in a recent conversation just how pervasive this type of thinking is. I agree. In fact, I recently talked to a pastor who told me this was a pickle he got himself into just months ago.

It usually goes something like this: 

  • You get excited that you’ve landed a role you feel called toward 
  • The salary conversation begins, and a starting salary offer is made at or near your current salary level
  • You casually push for an increase citing a higher level of responsibility and cost of living, etc., followed by mild pushback from the church
  • The church focuses on the fact that they have a tight budget or are concerned with inflation, etc.
  • Either you assume (or in some cases, someone hints) that if giving grows, increases can be looked at again down the road, but it’s vague as to…What that actually means
  • Who will ensure it is done
  • Timeline for when it will be reconsidered
  • What the metric will be for determining if a raise will be given

And to make matters worse, often, the hiring authority or board member changes positions or leaves, making it difficult for them to follow through on important decisions, especially if they were never put in writing, which is a common problem.


Remember, the best time to negotiate salary expectations is immediately after an offer has been made, which leads us to mistake #3. 

The best time to negotiate salary expectations is immediately after an offer has been made. – Sean Morgan Click To Tweet

Mistake #3: Talking About Money Too Soon

Inexperienced candidates often sense early chemistry with the hiring authority and jump too early toward talking about compensation.

Patience is key.

If both parties haven’t mutually navigated conversations through the following three stages, it’s too early to talk money:

  • Deeper understanding of job, organization, and candidate
  • A good sense of the overall cultural fit
  • Mutual feeling that things look promising

Getting to this point can take a few weeks, 1-2 physical site visits (assuming an outside candidate), and 3-5 deep conversations.

If you bring up money before this point, it looks like all you care about is money.

You will be in the strongest position to negotiate a good salary once they’ve indicated you’re their #1 candidate.

#4: Not Having All of the Facts

Have you ever been surprised at the cost when you went to buy an airline ticket?

What was the next thing you did?

If you’re like me, you went to a competitor airline’s website to check prices.

Then, when you realized that all the airlines were charging similar rates, you had to face reality and decide how important the trip was.

If you decided to go on the trip, you had to increase your budget or make sacrifices in other areas.

Welcome to the same process a church needs to make when hiring pastors and staff.

For churches, you need to know the marketplace, and the good news is there are several tools available for you. The Vanderbloemen Compensation Report is widely respected for the vast amount of data points it has and is updated continuously.

If the role is important, then having comparable salary research is critical to hiring well.

Unfortunately, it has historically been typical for a church or hiring authority to assume their budget and current salary range is the main driver for what’s appropriate.

Actually, I would say that’s almost completely irrelevant. Sure, it’s what you can afford, but it doesn’t mean it’s competitive to attract the caliber of person you need.

If a church is only willing to hire for what they’ve historically been paying, they also need to be okay with making concessions as to the level of talent they hire.

If a church is only willing to hire for what they’ve historically been paying, they also need to be okay with making concessions as to the level of talent they hire. – Sean Morgan Click To Tweet

Here’s a helpful table to give you some perspective on where typical forms of salary information and opinions can be categorized:

IrrelevantSomewhat RelevantMost Relevant
ChurchWhat we used to payWhat a friend’s church roughly our size is payingWhat recent top talent has been paid
What currently fits in our budgetWhat we are willing to stretch to be attractiveWhat our recent salary survey revealed (~12 months old)
CandidateWhat I want to makeWhat a friend in a similar role and roughly the same size church makesWhat recently hired top talent is making on average
What I used to makeWhat I’m currently makingWhat our recent salary survey revealed (~12 months old)
Table: What Is and Isn’t Relevant in Salary Negotiations Between a Church and Candidate

Mistake #5: Missing Out on Non-Monetary Benefits of Compensation

While a competitive and appropriate wage is necessary for longevity, some of the most impactful ways you can feel cared for by a church have nothing to do with monetary compensation.

Here are a few things that are bound to provide flexibility and enjoyment within a compensation package, and some of them may open up the door for future earnings outside of the church:

  • Increased vacation
  • Increased study time and/or sabbatical
  • Increased leadership development budget
  • More robust health insurance
  • Intellectual Property rights for your sermons and other content that you develop, which may be used for a book, blog, podcast, etc.
  • Work rule flexibility to work certain days remotely
  • Larger budget for staff which can lead to a higher caliber team around you

Negotiating a salary for a Lead Pastor can be a delicate process, but by avoiding these five critical mistakes, the pastor and the church can avoid the negative consequences of a bad negotiation.

By taking the right approach, you can set the stage for many years of effective ministry, free from the bitterness and dissatisfaction that comes from being underpaid. Don’t let a bad negotiation spoil the work you’re doing. Take the time to understand the pitfalls and avoid them. With the right approach, you can secure a prosperous future for yourself and the church.

Increase Giving and Fully Fund Your Mission—Regardless of Where You're at Now.

When it comes to money conversations with your church, my guess is that you want the outcome (margin in your budget and a generous congregation) without the process (having to raise funds and talk about it).

The Art of Building a Generous Congregation is a proven method for increasing giving, creating a culture of generosity, and building financial margin at your church... without the stress and awkwardness.

Even if you don’t feel comfortable talking about money right now.
Even if you’ve never seen your congregation fully engage with that kind of conversation.
Even if you’ve tried other methods without success.

And yes, especially, if you could make a bigger difference by increasing your budget by 20%, 30%, or even 40%.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.