US pastors paid up to $300,000 - are Church of England vicars getting a raw deal?

Willow Creek, one of the largest churches in the US, is one of many churches have gone multi-site in the last decade.Photo: Willow Creek

Vicars in the Church of England can look forward to an average salary of about £23,000 for most of their career. Ok, so they get a house (usually in the need of a new carpet or two), but this is nothing in comparison with the rewards of ministry in the US.

In the CofE there are no pay rises for good performance – delivering a life-altering sermon or seeing a record number of conversions, or bonuses for working on Christmas Day. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury only earns just over £70,000 a year, and being in charge of the Anglican Communion is no easy job.

It's a similar story in most denominations. If you become a pastor, minister, reverend or priest in the UK you're not beginning the path to riches – at least not in the material sense.

And perhaps that's how it should be. After all, we like to think that those going into ministry are following a call of the Lord, not a call of the wallet.

But a report released this month by Leadership Network, a church think-tank, and Vanderbloemen Search Group, a church recruitment agency, shows the economic opportunities for those working for large churches in the US.

Attractive pension plans, bonuses and salaries of up to $300,000 (£184,000) are just some of the rewards on offer at America's churches.

We are, of course, looking at a very different kind of church. The survey involved participation from 727 churches with attendance figures between 1,000 and 33,000 people. Of those, 91 churches had congregations of 5,000 people or more – a description that only applies to about five churches in the UK. That's a lot of prayer meetings, Alpha courses and bring and share lunches to oversee.

The report found that church size was by far the biggest indicator of the size of salary; the larger churches had larger budgets and paid higher salaries. Though interestingly, the study showed that the per capita income from giving declined with the size of church. Location also had some bearing, with the highest salaries found in the southern states.

According to the report's analysis: "Only 14 per cent of churches have a bonus structure in place for their senior pastor". That's probably 14 per cent more than any CofE church.

The average salary for a senior pastor in these churches was around $200,000. This figure includes any housing allowance that is given, and there is also private healthcare to take into consideration.

The analysis at the end of the report noted the "modest salaries overall, but especially at the top" when a comparison was made with CEOs of private companies. The authors cite research which suggests these directors might be earning about $10 million, about 257 times the average worker's salaries. In churches, however, the discrepancy between the highest paid (almost always the senior pastor) and the rest of the staff is nothing like this high.

There are, of course, churches that deviate from the norm. In one church surveyed, among the lower salaries recorded for senior pastors, all the staff were paid the same amount.

And for every wealthy pastor whose personalised mansion is featured in the press, there will probably be at least one, and probably many more pastors leading their churches by sacrificial living.

But still, for the vicar in a 'team ministry' in a shire somewhere in England, looking after five churches (and not in the 'multi-site campus' sense) while struggling to heat the vicarage, more news of the American dream could make uncomfortable reading.