The Rural Pastor and Debt

Debt is killing pastors.   Rural small church pastors are especially at risk because of the small pay packages that most rural churches can afford.  Lets just say that pastor Billy is just graduating Seminary.  Billy accepts a call to a small rural church.  Billy is excited about his first pastorate but struggles EVERY day because the financial struggle takes a heavy toll on his family.  Billy has consumer debt, student loan debt, and the every day bills we all have.  Oh yeah. .  . Billy also has two kids and a wife to take care of.  Billy’s wife is taking care of the kids at home because the cost of day care would exceed her income.  Here is what Billy’s  income to debt ratio might look like.

1.  Billy, like many of his church members, has more credit card debt than he should.  $200.00 per month

2. Billy has a mortgage b/c the church doesn’t have a parsonage and even if they did have a parsonage Billy and his wife prefer to live in their own home.  (Pastors like privacy and equity as much as the next guy.)  $850.00 per month.

3.  Billy, like most of his church members, has two car payments.  $400.00 per month

4.  Billy’s utilities shake out like this:

A.  Electricity = $110.00 per month

B.  Gas = $45.00 per month

C.  Phone / Internet = $75.00 per month

D.  T.V. = $60 per month

E.  Cell Phones = $70.00 per month

5.  Billy is still paying for his and his wife’s student loans:  $300.00 per month

6.  Since Billy and his family like to eat they go to the grocery every week:  $600.00 per month

7.  Fuel for the cars:  $240.00 per month

8.  Car Insurance:  $70 per month

Total Expenses:  $3,020.00 per month or $36,240 per year

Pay package for a Tennessee Church running 50 -100 people in Sunday School:   $41,785 per year

$41,785.00 – $36,240.00 = $5,545.00

$5,545.00 represents what is left out of Billy’s pay package to purchase health insurance, ministry reimbursement, ministry tools, and continued education costs.

Billy’s options: 1.  Billy’s wife reluctantly works two jobs.  One to pay for day care and one to pay bills.  2.  Billy works another job (if his church will let him) but this takes time away from ministry.  3.  Billy is forced to resign and go to a suburban church with a suburban pay package.

Published in: on August 19, 2009 at 1:41 pm  Comments (12)  


  1. What’s the answer to this?

    • Darby,
      Education is the answer. Our pastors need to understand that the borrower is always slave to the lender. Being out of debt is the only reason I can stay where I am now. Frankly, our churches need to pay pastors better or be okay with their “full” time guy being bi-vocational. The only guy that can bring churches to that point is. . . the pastor. He has to be patient and willing to tough it out.

  2. Billy needs to man up :-). His debt isn’t that bad and his salary isn’t either! Oh and his wife needs to swallow her “reluctance” and help support her family (welcome to the real world lady).

    I speak from experience not out of insincerity. My situation, without going into details, is about the same or a little worse than Billy’s (not sure if he is hypothetical or real).

    First, why does Billy’s wife have to work two jobs? Billy needs to watch the kids while she’s working her job (which should bring them health insurance benefits).

    Billy is already nearly $6,000 positive not including his wife’s take home pay. That 6,000 should be plenty for attending a conference or two, buying books throughout the year, and maybe even taking a course (he’s done w/Seminary so why’s he taking classes?) (ps avg course cost is about $300/credit hour or $12-1500/course).

    Billy’s making out like a bandit really. His wife’s job is bringing great benefits and all her take home money should be savings, or investment. After taxes and insurance for the family she’s probably bringing home at least $150/wk or $600/month. That’s another $7,000/yr. (His consumer debt is paid off in no time at that rate and $200/mo put back in his pocket)

    Also, in a 50 member church, it’s not unreasonable to think that Billy could Deliver Newspapers in the AM or get a job on the side. I don’t like this option myself but for a time it would be reasonable. I make $900/mo doing this. That would add another $10,800/yr to help him knock off School Debt and that Ugly Mortgage. At that rate he should accomplish that goal quickly and then quit the second job.

    I sound a bit unsympathetic, but I’m actually in Billy’s shoes. I pastor a 20-30 person congregation. The salary is what they can afford. I deliver 250 newspapers every morning and my wife works at the local hospital part-time and with that comes benefits.

    Financially, we break even. Our debt is way worse than Billy’s (a combined $1200/mo when consumer, student loan, and vehicle are considered). At the end of the day we don’t have money for “ministry tools” or “furthering education” (That’s what library’s are for).

    The reality! In my case and in Billy’s case if he were to pay off his debt, he’d be just fine. That debt is not the church’s responsibility, it’s Billy’s.

    Also, Billy needs to realize that most people in his congregation and in his community are in the exact situation or worse off than he is. He needs to recognize that, humble himself, and start a financial planning course where he himself is the prime example of how to get debt paid off and how to manage money. He needs to walk through this alongside his flock.

    This will allow him to free himself from debt, and connect w/his congregation. It will also make his need known, and may spark the interest or generosity of those who are better off.

    Get angry with me if you want… but the answer to this is toughen up. If Billy goes to the secular world he’s not going to be any better off. Mcdonald’s isn’t paying 40,000/yr these days and in this economy no one’s hiring anyway. Count your blessings, name them one by little one :-).

    • Why would I be angry with you? Debt and money management seem to elude many pastors. . . thus the post. I have walked in your shoes and our hypothetical friend Billy. I still have to mow lawns and watch the kids while my wife works as a photographer. The call of God on our life keeps us where he put us. I pray God continues to help you and I both to “man up” as we are used for His purpose and His glory.

  3. Billy is not living within his means. They can get rid of TV as a bill. They can’t afford two cars, so why do they have them? Save up that $400 a month and live with a car you can actually afford. Only your pride will suffer. This young family appears to continnually be making choices that further their lifestyle of debt. If you can’t afford it…don’t buy it! How is a pastor ever going to preach on the issue of Debt and finances when he is unable himself to live according to Biblical principles?
    Billy’s next class should be in something along the lines of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.
    As a rural pastor myself, I would also stress the importance of another local pastor coming alongside Billy to offer support, mentoring and accountability.

    • That is good stuff Scott. Many of the guys I talk to (rural pastors) do not have any sort of mentor. Ramsey’s book is a fantastic resource. Unfortunately there are a lot of “Billy’s” out there who never even seek help. Thanks for the input.

  4. Billy has about $460 per month of descressionary money. Unless he and his family are eating out, which I don’t see on this list, he should be able to live within his means. To only be paying $400 a month for two cars and be able to insure them for $70 a month is very good, although I tend to buy pre-used cars with low mileage for a small amount cash. His grocery bill does not sound huge for a family of 4 and the other expenses listed are rather reasonable too. They should be able to live within this amount with him having to work another job or his wife having to work two jobs.

    However, I fear this article has set up a staw man argument. I’ve known clergy to come out of college and seminary with an enormous amount of educational debt like doctors and lawyers often have. However, the reality of the small salary packages some rural churches can pay or will pay means even with good budgeting practices they can’t go to such a church.

    When are we going to face up that seminary educated clergy are within the top 10% of educated people in America, but are in the lower 25% of salary. We don’t seem to value clergy or school teachers very much given how important their contributions are and the amount of education they get.

    • John,
      Thanks for your input. Many guys are skipping educational opportunities b/c of the costs involved.

  5. Wow! I must be crazy for wanting to get into “Billy’s” shoes. I currently have a lucrative ministry position making a lot more than Billy does. However, we must go where God leads and trust that God will provide for us(Philippians 4:19). And God is leading now. My wife, (“she’s a stay at home mom”)our three kids (5, 4,& 3)and I are making preparations for heading out to the “great rural unknown”. Thank God for Dave Ramsey. We probably would not be able to do this without having worked Financial Peace University for the last four years. I definately remember how to do the second job thing. And when the Lord guides, He provides!
    Billy’s Cousin,

  6. As a young man I thought I had to have the best of everything in ministry, as an older man I have discovered to be content … Which brings me to my point, if you are truly called of God to a particular area of Ministry then you will have what you need to make it work; after all a mighty oak tree has deep roots but it will bend with the wind.
    At our little Church we do not even have enough to pay a salary for the Pastor (me) instead we prayed and found that we were able to have a child care facility on site that is able to cover the needs of my wife and myself, we both work the business and it allows me to have some time for ministry as well. Now I know that may very well be, (Bi-vocational) however I as the Pastor am at the very least still on site.
    I would suggest not to give up on a rural church, because it can be a true test of your God given calling.

    • Thanks for you input Ronn. Finding creative ways of sticking to the call is often necessary in Rural areas. Been here nearly 7 years. Excited to stay if God so chooses.

      • Thank you for this. I have excepted God’s calling and will go wherever He leads me. I have been told I need Seminary. But at the same time I do not want to go in even more debt. I am now 40. I have a degree in Computer Science and 10 years later I still owe on the loan. I know I should go to school, but at I am also financially challenged. Been considering LHBI to get started. Philippians 4:19 is a great encouragement.

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