Mar 29, 2001

From the Archives

Pastors Paid Better, But Attendance Unchanged

The Protestant churches of America are more numerous and are raising record amounts of cash each year, but attendance remains mired at its lowest point in the past decade according to a newly released survey conducted by the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California. The study also revealed that the compensation package of the typical pastor now exceeds $38,000, marking nearly a 9% increase over 1999 compensation levels.

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In its annual survey of the Senior Pastors of Protestant congregations, the Barna study explored attendance, budgets, staffing, theological leanings, pastoral compensation, and the background of pastors and youth programs. While most of the data reflect the consistent nature of church life, the survey also brought to light several surprises.

Church Attendance Stuck

The average number of adults attending services at a Protestant church during a typical week remains stuck at 90, the same total as measured in the prior year’s study. This reflects a 10% decline from the 1997 level (100 adults), and a 12% drop from 1992.

Church attendance was highest in the South, where the typical church has 100 adults who show up, while the lowest figures were recorded in the Northeast and West, each region averaging 80 adults. The Midwest fell in the middle, with 90 adults participating in a typical week.

Churches associated with charismatic denominations (such as Assembly of God, United Pentecostal or Foursquare) had the lowest average turnout (80), while black congregations had the highest median attendance (120). Mainline churches were above the norm (98), as were churches described as “seeker-driven” (100). Baptist churches, which comprise the most prolific category of churches in America, were consistent with the national average (90).

The survey also revealed an intriguing anomaly. While churches affiliated with a charismatic denomination attract an average of just 80 adults, churches that describe themselves as charismatic but are not aligned with a charismatic denomination attract more adults than the national average or the norm for charismatic churches. Those churches – a combination of mainline, independent and evangelical congregations – average 150 adults per week, which is nearly 90% more than denominational charismatic churches.

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Money for Ministry

The typical operating budget of Protestant churches for the past year was $115,000. That is about $5,000 higher than the previous year, and represents a rise that slightly exceeds the increase attributable to cost-of-living jump. The figures exclude funds donated to special funds, such as building campaigns.

The churches that have the largest operating budgets were those in the South (median: $130,000), while the smallest budgets were found among churches in the Midwest ($96,000). On a per capita basis, churches in the West received the highest amount of funding, while churches in the Midwest garnered the smallest per capita giving.

Pastoral Compensation Hits Record Level

The median value of pastoral compensation for America’s Senior Pastors is presently $38,214. (Pastoral compensation is a mixture of salary and benefits, such as housing allowance, car allowance, insurance, and retirement payments. Current laws make it advantageous for pastors to receive part of their compensation as housing and auto allowances, thereby reducing their taxable income.) That is a 19% increase since 1992 – significant in dollars, but still lagging inflation during that period. In other words, despite the rise in compensation, pastors effectively earn less today, based on constant dollars, than they earned a decade ago.

The highest-paid pastors are those serving the largest congregations: for instance, the median income among pastors whose church has more than 250 adult attenders is $56,429 annually. (Recognize that these churches represent less than one-tenth of the Protestant congregations in the country.) Pastors of churches with less than 100 adults earn, on average, just $29,808 annually.

Other pastors whose income is above average for the profession include those leading mainline congregations ($41,364), seminary graduates ($42,083), pastors with more than 10 years of experience in full-time ministry ($42,035), and those leading a congregation in the West ($40,313).

Among the lowest-paid pastors are those serving churches in charismatic denominations ($36,591) as well as those pastoring black congregations ($36,875). Other low-paid segments included pastors who have been in full-time ministry less than five years ($35,667), Baby Busters – those under age 36 ($33,438), and pastors who have not graduated from seminary ($31,500).

There were two other patterns worthy of note. First, Senior Pastors in suburban ($42,500) and urban ($42,424) churches earned more than their counterparts who lead rural congregations ($33,456). Second, Internet use among pastors seems to be related to income: pastors who use the Internet ($40,694) earned substantially more, on average, than did those who were not online ($28,846).

George Barna, who directed the study, also pointed out that clergy compensation is especially noteworthy because more than two-thirds of all Senior Pastors have a graduate-level degree. Other professionals with that level of education earn average salaries over $60,000 or more, depending upon their profession. He pointed out that many church-goers, however, expect their pastor to earn less than the national average because they are involved in ministry, regardless of their school loans and family obligations. Pastors who have a seminary degree receive an average compensation package of $42,083 – significantly above the average for pastors without a seminary degree ($31,500), but notably below the national norm for professionals with advanced degrees.

Senior pastors with seminary degrees represent two-thirds of the pastors in the Northeast (67%) but just half of those in the West (49%). Such degrees are most common among mainline pastors (89%) but unusual among pastors of churches associated with charismatic denominations (29%) or black churches (48%).

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Pastoral Profile

The demographic profile of Protestant pastors has changed little during the past decade. Most pastors are male (95%), married (94%), have graduated from seminary (60%). Relatively few (13%) have ever been divorced – half the rate among their parishioners. The median age of pastors is 49. On average, they have been in full-time ministry for 17 years, and have been pastoring their current church for 5 years.

While some churches have bi-vocational pastors (i.e. they receive their income from an outside job, pastoring the church without pay) or part-time pastors, 87% of Protestant churches have full-time, paid pastors. However, only one out of every four churches has more than one pastor on the payroll. Often, when a church has multiple pastors, a youth pastor is among those paid for ministry. Even so, just one out of every five Protestant churches (19%) has a full-time, paid youth pastor. This reflects the limited number of teenagers who attend the average church: 15. Full-time, paid youth pastors are least common in the Northeast and in black congregations. Less than one out of every twenty Protestant churches has a youth ministry that attracts 100 or more teenagers.

Most Senior Pastors say they have the spiritual gift of preaching or teaching (63%). No other gift is mentioned by half as many pastors. Other gifts named by significant numbers of pastors included pastoring (28%), administration (13%), prophecy (13%), leadership (11%), evangelism (8%). Leadership was most likely to be identified by pastors serving in the West (18%), by those in Baptist churches (15%), and by pastors under age 35 (22%). The leadership gift was least likely to be claimed by pastors in the South (9%), those in mainline congregations (9%), and by pastors over the age of 50 (9%).

Interestingly, Baby Boomers (the group born between 1946 and 1964) now dominate the pastorate. Among all adults in the country, Boomers represent nearly four out of every ten adults. However, Boomers now hold 61% of all Senior Pastor positions in the nation. Their predecessors, the Baby Busters (born 1965 to 1983), constitute about one-third of the adult population, but currently fill just 7% of the pastorates in America.

Theological Leanings

Most pastors describe their church as “evangelical” (83%) and as “theologically conservative” (79%). While a majority says theirs is “seeker-sensitive” (54%), only one-third say their church is “seeker-driven” (34%). Four out of ten claim their congregation is “fundamentalist” (40%), while lesser proportions claim the descriptions “charismatic” (23%), “Pentecostal” (22%), or “theologically liberal” (13%).

Mainline churches – with the exception of United Methodist and American Baptist churches – comprise the bulk of the congregations that adopt the label “theologically liberal.” (Most United Methodist and American Baptist embrace the term “evangelical” and are much more likely to say they are theologically conservative than liberal in their doctrinal stance.)

Among the churches that claim to be “seeker-driven” nearly half are located in the South and about half describe themselves as “fundamentalist.”

Survey Methodology

The data described above are from telephone interviews conducted in July and August of 2000 among a nationwide random sample of 601 Senior Pastors of Protestant churches located within the 48 continental states. The sample was balanced nationally according to the incidence of denominational affiliation, with a random selection of churches chosen within each denomination. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All of the interviews were conducted from the Barna Research Group telephone interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of adults. The survey is an annual tracking study that has been conducted by Barna Research for the past decade.



Church Statistics, 1992-2000
adult attendance at Protestant churches9090102
annual church operating budget ($000)11511082.1
median pastoral compensation package ($000)


About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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