Healthy Church by the Numbers (Part 1)
We often get questions around what healthy numbers and metrics look like for churches, and we’ll be walking through some of those benchmarks in our new podcast series: Healthy Church by the Numbers.
In Part 1 of this series, Amy and I dive into healthy numbers when it comes to staffing and salaries. (Listen to Part 2: Metrics & Benchmarks for Your Front Door and Connections and Part 3: How to Find & Measure Leaders in Your Church).
STAFFING & SALARY BENCHMARKS
In this episode, Amy and I are discussing staffing budgets, competing with the marketplace, what the Bible says about compensation, and answering your questions:
- How much should churches pay their staff?
- What if you can’t afford to pay your staff well?
- Who determines the staff’s salaries?
- Should we try to compete with other churches or the marketplace?
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Over the last year, nearly every church has been asking numbers-related questions. What do our shifting attendance numbers mean? Does online viewing count? Is our budget really that healthy or was 2020 an anomaly? On this week’s podcast, Tony and Amy start a three-part series on gauging church health by the numbers. Before you listen today though, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’ll get resources to go along with each week’s content, including our leader conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive and bonus resources that you won’t find anywhere else. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now, let’s join Tony and Amy as they kick off our new series on healthy churches by the numbers.
Well, Tony, this week we’re kicking off a new three-part series called healthy church by the numbers. And I don’t know about you, Tony, but almost every church I’ve worked with this past year has been asking numbers-related questions. Have you experienced the same thing?
Yeah, I have, Amy. I mean, churches are wondering about a lot of different numbers. Of course, the question we get the most is around counting attendance with online services being a big part of most churches’ ministry offering. Now, churches are wondering, what do they count? Do they count? And if yes, how should we count them? And we’re going to get to that question next week. But today, we’re going to talk about healthy numbers when it comes to staffing. And because you spend a lot of time working with churches and the staffing area, I’m going to flip our roles today and ask you a few questions. And here’s how I’d like to start. When you go on-site to facilitate a Staffing and Structure Review, what numbers do you look at around staffing? In other words, what are some of the key areas you inspect and coach churches on when you want to have healthy staff numbers?
Sure. Great question. And you know, for a long time, Tony, we’ve talked about ratios to attendance, and of course, with the pandemic, we’ve had to kind of back away from that right now while we’re gathering new information. But the first number related to staffing and structure that I look at now is just what percent of a church budget is spent on staffing expenses—so compensation, benefits and all that. And you know this, at Unstuck, we recommend a healthy range is somewhere between 45 and 55% of the total budget on all staff expenses. But, when I say that, for our listeners, there are some exceptions I think we always have to remember. That’s just where we start. That’s how we try to norm it out a little bit, but every church is different. You know, they’re located in different parts of the country where there’s lower or higher cost of living. I was just at a great church; I’ve been there two or three times over this last season. And they live in an area where the cost of living is so high. They have a lot of people moving from California into their areas. So they have a high cost of living, but they have no debt or facility expense. And so their staffing was more in the range of 60 to 65%, but in their case, due to those factors, that was appropriate. Another church that both you and I worked with, if you remember, they were only at like 30 to 35% of their budget. But they’re a strategic partner of another church, and therefore, they don’t need as many staff to create strategies. And so they doubled down on hiring high-capacity, multiplying equipping leaders, and they’re able to run that lean. So every church is different, but generally, we look at that range of 45 to 55%. And I just gave an example of a healthy church being outside that range. But most times being over that marker—that 55%—indicates a level of unhealth. And when I see a percentage that high, it’s usually one of three things. First, the church has over-programmed. So they’re just trying to do so much ministry. Second, their staffing, they’re spending their staffing dollars too much on doers, people who are doing the ministry versus equipping the body to do the ministry. And the third is they are over-programmed and they’re hiring too many doers. So those are the things that drive those things up pretty high.
So when you work with churches that are above that 55% threshold, how do you coach them?
Sure. Well, first I ask them a lot of questions, you know, to understand why they’re at the percentage that they’re at. So if I know it’s for a healthy reason, you know, I can coach one way. If it’s for an unhealthy reason, you know, we dig a little bit deeper. And then we talk through ways they can make some progress on bringing that number down. And I often use the phrase progress over perfection because just taking some small steps is what creates that flywheel. So if the higher percentage is there because they’ve hired too many doers, we strategize ways to change that. For example, one church I’ve been working with these past several months is going full-court press on this. They realized that their staff was doing too much ministry, and to add additional stress on the staff, you know, coming out of COVID, their volunteer numbers, like most churches, have dropped. They’re also located in a region that’s very outdoorsy all year round, and people treasure their non-work time to be outside on the river, in the mountains. You kind of get the picture. But that lead pastor doesn’t want to hire the work away. He wants them to be an Ephesians four church that is giving ministry way. So part of the plan we developed was instituting the expectation that each staff member spends 20% of their time dedicated to working on their ministry versus in it. And part of that time is to be used to build relationships with attenders and invite them into serving.
Yeah, isn’t it? Another church is actually increasing their budget in the short term. It doesn’t mean, you’re over the threshold; let’s increase it. But what they really need to do is add another high-level leader to their team. They need another person on the team who can raise up the equipping skills on their team. In other words, there’s just too much on the few equipping leaders that they have.
That’s good. Yeah. Love those suggestions, Amy. So, what about churches that have a high percentage due to too much ministry programming? How do you coach them?
Well, I call that a solvable problem: just directly reduce your ministry programming. And I often quote the parable of the shrewd manager. You know, as a church, you’ve got a little bit of time and a little bit of money to accomplish your mission. And we don’t have time in this podcast to talk through pruning strategies, but it really just comes down to, in light of your mission, evaluating the fruit of each ministry. And I’ve said this on the podcast before, but every ministry should be pruned regularly to some degree. Yes, you prune the branches that bear no fruit, and you prune the fruitful branches so they can bear more fruit. And is pruning hard? Yes. Especially if you haven’t done it in a while. I love, you know, Jesus’s analogy with the vine: think of an overgrown vine; that’s harder to prune. Change is hard, but it’s necessary. So, again, we’ve done some podcasts on pruning before, but that’s just the hard step that churches need to make.
Yeah. And it’s kind of reminding me since it has been so long since we’ve done a podcast on pruning, Amy, maybe we need to come back to that topic again because I think it is a big challenge that churches often deal with. But it reminds me of a church that you and I have worked with. And this was a few years back, and they did some major pruning with the biggest change being moving to one style of worship. And for pastors that have been through that, you know how challenging that change is for any church, and it was for this church. But, now 18 months later, to look back at some of the wins that they’ve experienced by getting that type of focus and their ministry strategy, average worship attendance each Sunday is up over 30%. Their salvations have doubled. I think, you know, again, 18 months ago is just over 400 people had received Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and that has increased to over 800 people, Amy. Giving’s been up, and the pastor said this, “We have the most healthy, fun and passionate staff culture right now,” which just makes me think, “I guess it’s fun to win. Isn’t it?”
It is fun to win.
Alright. So let’s move on. A question I get asked a lot is, “How much should we pay our staff?” And how do you respond to that, Amy?
Yeah, well, what I don’t do is tell them what the salary should be. We aren’t experts in that area. We don’t collect that data, but here’s what I do tell them. First, I tell them to pay their people well. First Timothy 5: 17-18 begins by saying, church leaders who do their job well deserve to be paid well. And it ends by saying, you also know the saying, workers are worth their pay. And there’s many different versions of that scripture, but I’m a big fan of hiring fewer people and paying them better. But more specifically, when determining compensation for pastors and other staff leaders, I challenge them to gain an understanding of what the comparable marketplace jobs are paying—jobs that require professional degrees and/or experience just like some of our leadership roles on a church staff. So what do other professionals make in your region? And this is where I want them to start. And I’m not saying that this is what they have to pay for these positions, but they should at least have an awareness of an understanding of the value in the marketplace. And then it’s good to be aware of compensation, comparisons and other churches and, you know, for your size and your region, and our friends at Vanderbloemen are helpful when it comes to compensation studies. And the reality is, Tony, I think most churches can’t compete necessarily with the marketplace when it comes to compensation. But as I just stated, it’s a biblical principle to appropriately compensate the pastor and the ministry staff. So church leaders who do their job well deserve to be paid well. And I don’t know about you, Tony, but the good news is compensation is rarely the motivation for people to go into a ministry role. That certainly wasn’t my motivation when I switched from corporate back in 2002 to go into ministry. But what all my ministry employers had on the marketplace was their mission, including our mission, Tony, you know, to help churches get unstuck. I think we were just talking about this the other day. Weren’t we talking about both of us taking pay cuts for every ministry role that we’ve stepped into?
Yeah, we have, yeah. I’m just thinking back to my days. I mean the last three jobs that I’ve taken in ministry, I guess it’s been, I’ve taken a pay cut all three times. So if you’re looking for someone to help you negotiate a higher salary, I’m the last person you want to get to. But as you’re, again, recalling that passage from First Timothy, church leaders who do their job well deserve to be paid well. And I mean, you focused on that second part of that. They deserve to be paid well. But the first part, I think, is pretty important, too. Are they doing their job well? And there’s so many times, Amy, I just find that churches, once they hire their staff, they think their staff are really entitled to that position. And it’s very difficult for them to even know what the win looks like so that they can determine whether or not the job’s being done well. But then, if there’s any drop off in their ability to deliver on the position that they hired them from, the accountability around that sometimes is challenging for churches. And so I just think, again, if we’re going to stay true to that guidance from scripture, we need to both determine is the job being done well, and then if so, we need to guarantee that our staff are being paid well. But I do want to add my voice to what you just said. Church leaders should be paid well. I mean, especially now. The great resignation that we talked about a few podcasts to go, it’s a real thing not just in ministry but across the country. And we don’t want to lose great people to other organizations because of this issue. So when churches hire fewer people but pay them better, I find they tend to hire higher capacity leaders who are able to raise up other leaders and build volunteer teams. So more ministry gets done through fewer staff leaders. In fact, some of the largest churches I’ve served in a consulting capacity have had the fewest staff compared to overall attendance.
Yeah, I’ll add to that. Talent attracts talent. And when you have higher capacity leaders on your team, other higher capacity leaders take notice.
That’s so true.
Slightly off topic, but let me give you an example how this loops back to this topic. But when I was on staff at my church, I was in charge of hiring our worship pastors. We’re a multisite church, and I’d get push back now and again from my colleagues. And they go, “Do we even really need full-time worship pastors? Do they even work 40 hours?” And sometimes, honestly, the answer was no. No, I didn’t really need a full, you know, they weren’t really working a full-time job, but I used to say, I need full-time worship leader quality. Because when I had the right gifted leaders in those roles, you know what happened? They attracted more gifted artists who wanted to be a part of our weekend team. Talent attracts talent, and the same is true in the leadership realm. When you have higher capacity leaders on your team, other higher capacity leaders take notice. And those leaders might become future staff, or they might just become high-capacity volunteer leaders. But they look at who they’re going to be serving under and following. So if we don’t raise that bar, we aren’t going to raise the people that are going to jump in and help us be the body at the church.
Yeah. So what I’m hearing, and the worship leader is a great example, Amy, you’re not just paying them to do, to lead worship. You’re also paying them to build the team.
And when you have a gifted leader, they’re going to be able to do the job well. But more importantly, they’re going to build a great team around them, too.
At The Unstuck Group, we serve churches of all sizes. And when we’re working with smaller and mid-sized churches, I often run into a discussion around who should be determining staff salaries. How do you answer that?
Well, apparently, it shouldn’t be me because I would be lowering salary, but it shouldn’t be the congregation either. Your church should never be voting on line items within your budget, like specific salaries of individual staff members. And by the way, that includes the senior pastor. You shouldn’t be voting as a congregation on the senior pastor’s salary either. I once sat in an all-church gathering where the congregation was voting on the salary of the youth pastor.
It was an awful experience, Amy. Before the vote, everyone who disagreed with the student ministry strategy, and primarily this was older people who wanted a more traditional youth group, they were complaining that the youth pastor was making too much. Then the lower wage-earners complained that the youth pastor might make more than they did in their jobs, and all the while, other staff members were in attendance learning for the first time that their coworker might be making more or less than them, as well. So, needless to say, voting tends to create a lot of division in churches, especially when you’re voting on compensation.
I hope none of our listeners do that. I have to believe that, isn’t that obvious?
Let’s pray that that was the only church in all of the society that was doing it that way, Amy. Similarly, I don’t think the church’s board should be involved in setting each individual salary because they don’t work with the staff on a daily basis. I mean, there’s no way for them to appropriately judge the performance and capacity that would influence compensation decisions. It’s just like what I was talking about earlier. I mean, we should pay people that are doing their job well, but how do you know whether or not they’re doing their job well if you’re not engaging with them on a daily basis. So, ideally, there should be some system in place for the board to set the senior pastor’s salary. And then, the senior pastor should have the authority to make the final decision for compensation levels for everyone else on his or her team. The board generally does set the overall church staff budget. And that may also include some salary ranges for various positions as an example, but the senior pastor and his or her team should have the flexibility to set compensation as part of their leadership responsibility. And frankly, if the board can’t trust their senior pastor to make those decisions, then the board probably needs to find another senior pastor. I mean, this is something, it’s an issue of leadership: building a team and taking care of that team appropriately. And if you can’t trust your senior pastor to do that, then you probably have the wrong senior pastor. Amy, it’s been a great discussion. Any final thoughts before we wrap up?
Yeah, well, this series that we’re in right now is called Healthy Church by the Numbers. And as churches determine what to measure, we need to be looking forward, not backward. We’ve talked about that a little bit, Tony, but 2019 numbers were 2019 numbers. The pandemic shifted a lot of things. And so, churches, we need to get a fresh start and get a new baseline, and to help do that as a free gift for our podcast listeners, during the series, we’re making our vital signs assessment available for free. And you can access that at theunstuckgroup.com/vitalsigns. And we want to help you get ready to plan for a new year, and the first step is to understand your starting point. And then next week, as Tony mentioned at the beginning, join us as we dive into what churches need to be measuring related to in-person and online attendance, and that will definitely be a fun discussion.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. At The Unstuck Group, our goal is to help pastors grow healthy churches by guiding them to align vision, strategy, team and action. With every tool and process we develop, our priority is to help churches help people meet and follow Jesus. We’re here to help you get your church unstuck. Start a conversation with us by visiting us at theunstuckgroup.com. Next week, we’re back with another brand new episode. Until then, have a great week.