Context Staffing



Pt. 4: Pay Deacons, Not Elders


By: Justin Anderson

If you haven't unsubscribed to this depressing series of blogs, my hat is off to you. We have been talking about how much we should be paying people on our staff and if your email feedback tells me anything, you don't like hearing this. I get that; but don't forget that I am advocating for you to get a raise first, so if you can pull it off, you owe me a drink.

The question that underlines all of this though is, how do you pay market rates on a church budget?

In the second blog of this series, I outlined a very simple process for how to start. I'll reiterate it here briefly. Take 50% of your projected income and allocate it for salaries. Start with the LP and pay him a competitive salary that will prevent him from being enticed to look elsewhere for purely financial reasons. Then go to the next most important role in your church (likely worship) and give them a similarly competitive salary, and so on until you are out of money. That may not take long.

When you have run out of money, you will likely find that you don't have enough staff members to run your church. This is why churches are always tempted to pay bad salaries. They see this problem but the only solution they can come up with is to pay more people less money. This is the wrong solution. This solution assures that you will get subpar people to suffer financially until they burn out. Not a great solution.

Instead, here are some alternative solutions that I think will have much better outcomes.

First, pay to get the best people you can. Really good leaders are a lot more valuable than mediocre ones. It's not 10% more, it's like 200%. It's why every NBA team has 1-2 max contracts and then a bunch of dudes making minimum salaries. Superstars have an outsized impact on an organization.

Before you get all preachy about superstar pastors, that's not what I'm saying. What I am saying is that I would rather pay $100k for a dynamite worship leader than $65k for an average one. In fact, I'd rather find a volunteer than pay an average employee anything. The difference between a volunteer and a mediocre employee is less than the difference between a mediocre employee and a really good one. 

Save your money for people who can really make a difference. Combine two positions into one and pay them double, you'll get more out of the one guy who can handle two jobs than two mediocre people. To be clear, I am sure they are good people, they are simply mediocre employees.

Like an NBA team, I think it's a better use of resources to pay the people at the top really competitive salaries and then, with the rest of your money, pay small salaries to executors.

Most of our churches spend way too much money on elders and not enough on deacons. This is not a theological issue, it's a practical one. Most elders are the breadwinners of their families and thus require breadwinner salaries. These are expensive and should only be given to people who are very good at their jobs.

Deacons, on the other hand, are less likely to be breadwinners. They are second incomes or young people without households. Thus, they are cheaper. 

You are more likely to find men who feel called to eldership and would do so in a lay capacity at 5-10 hours per week for free. Most of the guys we hire full-time would be better off volunteering one day a week to pastoral care or teaching a class, rather than being full-time salaried employees. It is also common to find retired men who don't need a salary but can do much of the eldering/shepherding work for free or nearly free.

Deacons are often responsible for making sure things get done and therefore need the accountability of payment to assure that it happens. It is rare to find a volunteer who has the time, capacity and responsibility to fully execute something and make sure nothing gets dropped.

So, how do we pay competitive salaries on a church budget? Here are the principles in bullet form.

1. Only hire high-performing, high-impact pastors

2. Utilize the free labor of elders in training, lay elders, and retired pastors

3. Hire deacons to execute plans because they are cheaper.

  1. Lastly, and I can't guarantee this but it is my strong opinion (most of my opinions are strong though) that if you only hire really good people at the top and pay them well, your church will grow. Really good preachers, leaders, and worship leaders make churches grow and when they grow, the budget will grow too and you can start to add some middle management to your staff.

But as you do, maintain the discipline of these principles so that you don't bog down your organization with over-paid, mediocre (but otherwise wonderful individuals) employees. Do leadership development, give annual raises, and hire deacons to make sure that all of the many wonderful ideas that your elders have actually get done.

That’s the plan, that’s how you build a great staff in a bad economy. Now, go do it!