Journal of Christian Ministry | 2023: Maslow’s Elephant: Economic Barriers to Flourishing in Ministry

2023: Maslow’s Elephant: Economic Barriers to Flourishing in Ministry

2023: Maslow’s Elephant: Economic Barriers to Flourishing in Ministry

Maslow’s Elephant in the Room:
Economic Barriers to Flourishing in Ministry

Elise Erikson Barrett, MDiv, PhD Candidate
Director, Coordination Program,
National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders
(an initiative funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and administered by the Center for Congregations)

We are fortunate in recent years that sustained, careful attention has been paid to the question of pastoral “thriving” or “flourishing.” Researchers like Matt Bloom and his team at Notre Dame[1], and Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell at the Duke Clergy Health Initiative[2] along with others have helped us identify what it means for a leader to thrive in the challenging vocation of ministry leadership, a calling that in unique ways offers both a high level of personal fulfillment and meaning as well as a high level of complexity and stress.[3] Flourishing in ministry is possible: flourishing in ministry requires sustained attention to multiple areas of well-being in a leader’s life.

One of these well-being factors identified by Bloom is “economic sufficiency.”[4] While we might suspect that whichever aspect of “thriving” a person struggles with most acutely creates the most apparent stumbling block (for example, if a pastor’s key relationships are in crisis or nonexistent, this may make it more difficult for her to experience a state of flourishing, even if her physical health is good), economic insufficiency presents a unique barrier to achieving most of the other aspects of flourishing. For a ministry leader to flourish at the level of personal integrity and vocational fulfillment requires that the leader’s most basic needs are being met. It is important to equip pastors and other ministry leaders with awareness of self-care tools and approaches that have been shown to support flourishing. It is equally important that in our eagerness to share practices and encourage healthy self-care, we do not overlook the economic realities of many ministry leaders’ lives, because in so many cases these economic challenges are the unacknowledged source of shame and stress, effectively barricading ministry leaders from accessing the very self-care practices that can allow them to thrive.

The Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders

Since 2007, Lilly Endowment Inc. has been funding grantee organizations as they attempt to address the economic barriers to the fulfillment of their pastoral leaders’ vocations. A multi-cohort national initiative (the National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders[5]) was launched in 2015, and the grantees leading this important work have learned a great deal about the specifics of the economic challenges facing their leaders. The challenges are contextual: a Christian tradition that requires years of seminary training and has a centralized polity may identify seminary debt and geographical constraints on spousal employment as primary economic challenges, while a Christian tradition that does not require formal theological education and functions as a decentralized network may have more leaders who suffer economically because they lack health insurance or access to other benefits. Grantees in the national initiative were funded to do original research in their particular settings in order to ascertain the specific nature of the challenges faced by their ministry leaders. Almost all of the organizations expressed surprise that the economic challenges were as significant as the research indicated.

C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler used the original research created by grantees along with census and other data to identify some primary factors that create the conditions for these economic challenges:[6]

1) Historically decreasing levels of income

Hadaway and Marler explain that “…incomes for clergy were once comparable to lawyers, physicians and other high-status professions, and as late as 1890 were 81% higher than the average worker in the United States and 210% higher than public school teachers. Clergy income has not kept up with other professions and now lags behind most. Average clergy income is now slightly below the national average for all adult workers and is considerably below the average for school teachers, other than preschool and kindergarten teachers.”[7] Multiple factors affect income level for pastoral leaders, including denominational affiliation, geographical location, gender, race/ethnicity, ordination status, and the size and income of the congregation being served. Black, Latinx, and Native American ministry leaders, female ministry leaders, and leaders in rural settings struggle disproportionately with economic insufficiency.

2) Retirement and health care

Retirement and health care benefits are uneven in American Christianity. In some cases, clergy and other ministry leaders participate in a denominational or other formal plan as part of their employment; in many cases, particularly for leaders who are considered part-time or bivocational, these benefits may not be available. Congregations, too, unevenly understand and make provision for these supports, and in many cases, the organizations that can access the fewest resources and therefore pay the least well also require their leaders to pay for their own health insurance and save for their own retirement. For this reason, a significant number of pastoral leaders choose to opt out of Social Security, thereby retaining a full 15.3% of income (since clergy file taxes as self-employed), but typically using that retained income for monthly needs rather than investing it in retirement savings. Not only does this mean that many pastoral leaders do not end up being able to retire, but it also means that they do not have access to Medicare. Health insurance, too, is unevenly provided, and is of uneven quality where it exists.

3) Debt and savings

Clergy and other ministry leaders are not immune from the national undergraduate educational debt crisis. Many ministry leaders, however, took on additional graduate school debt for required seminary training or theological education, and have salaries that make it unlikely that they will ever financially recoup the investment. Lilly Endowment Inc. also invested in the economic challenges facing future ministers, making grants to 67 theological schools to address seminary debt that was increasing far above the rate of inflation; by 2015, the Association of Theological Schools, which hosted the coordination program for this initiative, was beginning to see the impact of these grants on the average debt level of students in ATS member schools;[8] by 2020, it was clear that these positive trends were continuing:

In 2021, only 39% of graduates reported incurring educational debt while in seminary, down 15% in the last five years, and the lowest percentage of borrowers since we began collecting educational debt data in the early 2000s. Only 13% of 2021 graduates reported borrowing more than $40,000, the lowest percentage of high borrowers in the last 13 years. The average debt incurred by graduates in 2021 was $32,500, down over $4,300 since 2015.[9]

While this is promising news, an average seminary debtload of $32,500 for clergy, considered in the context of a median average salary in 2021 of $49,720[10] and compounded by an average undergraduate debt load of $37,574[11] becomes challenging quickly. In this case as well, unequal access to resources has meant that clergy of color and female clergy tend to have higher debt loads than average. And we still have a “donut” generation of pastoral and ministry leaders who came through their theological educations between the affordable decades prior to the 1980s and the interventions of the 2010s, and who are still paying on astronomical amounts of educational debt.

Like most other Americans, clergy struggle with consumer debt and low savings. The grantee organizations were surprised, however, to discover in their research that in many cases, “consumer” debt was not “too many trips to Starbucks,” but was rather initiated by events like a blown tire (that had to be replaced immediately in order to make it to a funeral visitation); a child’s dental emergency (with no dental insurance to soften the financial blow); or a spouse’s hospital stay. Insufficient savings mean that these emergencies can only be met by credit usage; credit card interest rates soon turn an initial large expense into a ballooning and intractable “consumer” debt burden.

Furthermore, in some contexts, particularly when racism or geography has led to chronic, systemic under-resourcing, pastors and ministry leaders are acutely aware of the economic distress of their congregation’s members, and grantee research revealed that they sometimes use their own personal credit cards to finance member needs. They may charge an urgent transportation repair, a payment to an electric company, or a month’s worth of rent on behalf of their member, partly because they know what is at stake (the ability to keep a job, a child’s access to heat and food, a family becoming unhoused); in other words, a pastor’s “consumer” debt may have been accrued precisely as a result of providing financial support to members of a congregation.

As we might guess, the extreme difficulties of ministerial leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing uncertainty that has followed have only exacerbated these existing challenges. Congregations have been on a trajectory of general membership decline for years now, along with other membership-based organizations, and the pandemic appears to have accelerated these trends.[12] Lower membership, buildings needing expensive maintenance, and increasing personnel costs squeeze the funds available for ministry leader compensation even more, and ministry leaders who are all too aware of these existential challenges to their settings hesitate to advocate for their own needs.

The Complexities of Ministry and Money

The economic challenges facing ministry leaders are not limited to the dollars and cents involved. A tremendous barrier to addressing these challenges is the historical and relational complexity of funding ministry. If we look back along the United States’ timeline to the year 1750, James Hudnut-Beumler tells us that we could have expected to see one church per settlement in the burgeoning American colonies.[13] Although the church could have variable origins—it might be a Puritan community, an ethnic Huguenot congregation, or an outpost of the Church of England—it was typically seen as a public institution, the necessary center of the community at which public events and business affairs, along with social support and transmission of identity, would be conducted. Economic support came from a combination of public funding and additional contributions, while economic expenditures supported staffing, buildings, congregational activities (including worship), and social ministries and services.

In many communities in the colonial United States, churches and their minister’s salary were often both supported by some form of public funding or taxation. Hudnut-Beumler argues convincingly that a crucial and rapid sea change in the funding of congregational activities and leadership occurred in the Protestant church from 1750 until 1800. Churches were hustled along a trajectory from public to private funding, from a cultural world in which church and state were complementary aspects of a single public life to congregations and ministers participating in a Great-Awakening-fueled marketplace of religious communities vying for funding for their mission, a trajectory that was both breathlessly rapid and durably unidirectional. The privatization of religious support would permanently set the parameters for congregations’ economic practices in the United States. And pressures on clergy changed accordingly. “What disestablishment did was, in effect, to turn every pastor, however willing or able, into a development officer among his own people.”[14]

With this shift, something crucial changed about the religious leader’s development role, which is at the root of the relational and emotional complexities around economic challenges faced by ministry leaders today. Pastors following privatization were newly faced not only with the familiar task of approaching wealthier congregants with the (missionally aligned and traditionally expected) request to offer additional monies to support the poor in their community, but now they were charged with finding narratives for asking for money for new purposes. Not only did they have to solicit resources for missional activities, including supporting those in need, an activity with clear biblical and traditional mandates surrounding it, but now they had to discover narratives of sufficient theological and personal integrity to allow them to fundraise also for the congregation’s building—as well as for their own personal salary and support.

Furthermore, it is a constant temptation for people of faith, especially those people of faith who happen to be called to more sustained or direct vocations of ministry, to overemphasize the spiritual at the expense of the material.  Early on in the economic challenges initiative’s work, it became clear that survey data gathered from pastoral leaders painted a different, much less accurate, much rosier picture of economic realities than survey data that included responses from pastoral leaders’ partners and spouses. This is not, of course, because pastoral leaders are generally less truthful than their partners. Rather, it appears to be related to a combination of factors. First, there is simple lack of awareness. “After all,” one leader likes to say, “Jesus told me to choose: God or mammon. I chose God. Why would I waste my time on mammon?” In some traditions, pastoral leaders feel as if thinking about their salaries or compensation—particularly with concern—is a sign that they are insufficiently faithful, refusing to trust that God will meet their material needs. This lack of awareness is sometimes theologically motivated, but it is sometimes a symptom of avoidance masquerading as spiritual prowess: the ministry leader is afraid to look too closely at their financial situation because they do not want to reckon with the mountain of student or consumer debt they bear, or they feel helpless to improve what they are certain is a rotten situation, and they would rather invest their time and energy in activities where they feel efficacious and as if they are making a positive difference.

Another important factor in the unique complexities of money and ministry is the presence of what we refer to as “shame and blame.” The intricacies of the relationships among ministry leaders and congregational leaders are significant, as we have mentioned, mediated by the realities that the livelihood of ministry leaders is funded by the voluntary contributions of congregation members. All too easily, these relationships become tentative, unsafe, resentful, or frustrated. Many congregational leaders do not understand the complexity of ministerial income, particularly the necessity of filing self-employment taxes, and many look at a “bottom line” budget number (which may include housing or benefits) and assume that their leaders are being compensated at a level higher than they are. For ministry leaders to advocate for an increase in pay, when they are all too aware of the financial circumstances of their congregants, may be fraught; either with guilt, if they are well-compensated vis-a-vis their particular context, or with resentment, if they are making less income than many of their members.

Another facet of this challenge is what many experience as the shame of financial precarity. David Wang and his team at Biola led a study into shame and the financial circumstances of seminary students; they concluded that “[o]ur findings demonstrated that the seminary population experienced shame in regard to perceived lack of financial well-being; shame was significantly and negatively related to financial well-being and significantly mediated the relationship between financial well-being and depression, anxiety, and spiritual well-being.”[15] Matt Bloom talks about shame and self-integrity, and wonders what happens to a pastoral leader’s sense of vocation if their resulting low level of income creates active suffering for the people who depend on them.[16] For a pastoral leader, someone with a generally high sense of morality, to stand in front of a congregation and ask members to tithe when he or she is unable to do so, can produce shame and avoidance.

None of these factors, of course, means that pastors are uniquely burdened by economic challenges. It does, however, create a complex and difficult set of systemic and relational circumstances within which pastoral leaders must navigate economic insufficiency.

Financial Wellness as Self-Care

The presence of significant economic challenges in the ministry setting relates directly to the practices of self-care that have been shown to increase flourishing in ministry, as a condition of constraint. Most obvious is the economic access problem: quality therapy and counseling, practices of retreat and spiritual direction, and personal health care all are made far easier and more accessible with funding, particularly when health benefits are not provided for the ministry leader.

However, economic insufficiency creates another painful constraint: investment in any of the self-care practices and variables we associate with thriving requires time (even apart from funding)—and discretionary time is constrained by economic need. Healthy relationships? A ministry leader needs time and space to connect with their people. Caring for physical and emotional health? A person needs to exercise and sleep and prepare healthy food and perhaps find a therapist, all of which require time. Developing competencies? You need time to study, time to engage in continuing education. And if in order to make ends meet for a family, a ministry leader drives Uber or waits tables on the weekends, their time becomes more and more constrained. This means the discretionary time that, when invested well, has the potential to increase flourishing in ministry, is instead siphoned off in an attempt to meet the most basic need of economic sufficiency. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reminds us that the most basic needs (physiological and safety needs like food and shelter and security) tend to attract human motivation before the higher-order needs like belonging, esteem, and self-actualization can receive attention. This means that all the good intentions in the world to take walks with friends and set technology limits and engage in spiritual or managerial development will crumble before the reality that there is no more money for groceries this month, and someone needs to find a few more hours of work, or there will be no dental care again this year.

The good news is that in many cases, certain levels of economic distress can be ameliorated by financial literacy training. It will come as no surprise to readers of this journal that most ministry leaders were not drawn to congregational vocations because of their strong interest and gifts in accounting practices. In some cases, profound and lasting change can be accomplished by providing ministry leaders with education and training in financial literacy. This is an activity deployed by grantees in the economics initiative: pastoral leaders are offered financial literacy equipping, often either in the context of a relationship with a qualified and contextually aware financial advisor, or in a peer setting with other pastoral leaders. In this way, the tools are delivered along with normalization of the challenges, support for the shame, and understanding for the specific ways in which money and ministry are complicated. Such approaches can have a powerful impact:

The program forced me to focus on what I really thought about money and how church leaders deal with it. I had to think more deeply about how my background and notions about money were shared or came into conflict with that of my congregation. The program also woke me up to the fact that money, though a neutral medium of exchange, is given power by me and by the culture in which we live. This awareness helps me be more mindful about how I deal with money personally and through the church.

Hope is a good word for what I and my family have experienced. This was not just a journey out of the shadow and heavy burden of debt. It is also a journey out of shame and embarrassment. My family and I see light at the end of the tunnel and are able to move forward in a productive and proactive way. In fact, I believe it will have a residual effect on my children and the way in which they deal with financial issues and concerns in the future.[17]

To be sure, our grantees did find that pastoral leaders were not often motivated by concepts of “self-care.” Rather, pastoral leaders who became convinced that their financial wellness would better empower them to lead and care for their congregations and family members were more likely to engage in these programs. In any case, ministry leaders who have access to sufficient resources can be profoundly empowered and relieved by financial literacy practices.

The Limits to Financial Self-Care and the Challenging Promise of Financial Co-Responsibility
We need to acknowledge that the best financial literacy resource management practices in the world do not make up for unequal access to resources, and in fact, can reify a narrative in which poverty and economic sufficiency are fully correlated with individual choices. Historically marginalized communities lack the generational resources, both at the family level and communally, that provide the necessary margins for financial sufficiency. Additionally, as congregational life in the United States continues its projected trajectory, more and more congregations will find it difficult to maintain buildings and pay ministry leaders a fair or living wage. The answer to this challenge cannot solely be financial self-care.

Congregations and leaders across the United States are already thinking creatively about economic models that might support sustained congregational ministry into the future; these models include different models for ministry staffing, along with the use of networked or hub models and multi- or bivocationality; different models for physical plant usage, including no longer having a church building or repurposing existing buildings for community development and missional needs; and different models for income streams that do not rely solely on giving, such as social enterprise experiments and community partnerships. Nearly all of these models require a model of economic stability for which the community takes responsibility in new ways.

A theological frame for our imaginations has been created by the leaders of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, who have offered a “theology of sufficiency.” According to Dr. Iva Carruthers, standing against the belief and experience of scarcity and “not-enough-ness” felt by so many, the theology of sufficiency reminds Christians that “God has created, in the creation and in creatures, enough…There is enough. People took according to their needs and received according to their needs, and people shared with a sense of a value for common good…looking at the whole issue of what it means to create new economies in the context of a global environment that speaks to systems, ultimately that leads to greater justice and equity.”[18]

Practices that begin with financial self-care can open the door to significant and meaningful conversations about our economic practices and assumptions, our implicit theologies of money, and the ways in which we understand ourselves as called to communally steward God’s resources. In fact, ministry leaders, by doing the hard, vulnerable work to address the reality of the economic challenges they face, have the potential to intervene into some of the most intractable and painful places in our common life, and maybe even to lead us into a future in which God’s abundance means enough for all.

[1] Bloom, Matt, Flourishing in Ministry: How to Cultivate Clergy Wellbeing (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

[2] Proeschold-Bell, Rae Jean and Jason Byassee, Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis (Ada, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018); see also “Clergy Health Initiative.” Duke Divinity School. Accessed February 21, 2023.

[3] Adams, Chris, “Tending the Shepherds: Helping Ministers Thrive,” APULife 29, no. 4 (2016): 15.

[4] Bloom, Flourishing in Ministry, 109.


[6] Hadaway, C. Kirk, and Penny Marler. “Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders: Report on NEI Planning Grant Research, 2015-2016.” National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders. Center for Congregations. Accessed February 21, 2023.

[7] Hadaway and Marler, ”Economic Challeges,” 20.

[8] Deasy, Jo Ann. “ECFFM Initiative Celebrates Growing Impact on Educational Debt.” Association of Theological Schools. Accessed February 21, 2023.

[9] Deasy, Jo Ann. “ATS Schools Continue to Address Economic Challenges Facing Students.” Association of Theological Schools. Accessed February 21, 2023.

[10] “Clergy.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 31, 2022.

[11] Hanson, Melanie, and Fact Checked. “Average Student Loan Debt [2023]: By Year, Age & More.” Education Data Initiative, January 22, 2023.

[12] For a helpful summary of the current research, see Gabbatt, Adam. “Losing Their Religion: Why Us Churches Are on the Decline.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, January 22, 2023.

[13] Hudnut-Beumler, James, In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

[14] Hudnut-Beumler, Almighty’s Dollar, 15.

[15] Wang, David C, Jordan E Blea, Christina L Kim, and Gabriel Lowe. “The Experience of Financial Well-Being, Shame, and Mental Health …” Accessed February 21, 2023.

[16] Bloom, Matt. “Keynote: Fostering Wellbeing in Ministry.” Vimeo. Center for Congregations, October 26, 2022.

[17] Testimonies from unnamed pastoral leaders participating in initiative programming.

[18] Carruthers, Iva. “Video 23: Theology of Sufficiency.” Gathering first fruits video library on Vimeo. Center for Congregations. Accessed February 21, 2023.