Today is April 15, usually (except this year it’s a Sunday) the day income-tax returns are due. It seems to me a good time to dispel some myths about how priests are paid. I find that many Catholics have no idea about it, and that’s not good. Good stewardship on all sides means that we’re accountable to one another, and accountability means we need good and shared information. So here’s lots of information you probably never knew.
Priests are paid in an odd way that reflects church (and national) history. (I’m referring to what I am, a “secular” or diocesan priest who has no vow of poverty. It’s different for religious-order priests.) We get from the parish we serve room and board; an expense account for ministry-related expenses; and a living allowance (like a salary, but the church doesn’t call it that). Through the diocese (but paid for by the parish) we receive health, dental, and professional liability insurance; and a pension. All amounts are fixed by diocesan policy except the room and board (which we don’t see as cash), which is supervised by the parish Finance Council. The money we actually receive comes from three sources: our expense account and living allowance (both based on responsibilities and years of service and set at, in my case, $13,994 for ministry expenses and $6,048 for living allowance in 2017); and a share in the Mass-stipends and part of the sacramental offerings from weddings and funerals, which are divided equally among the priests on staff. (For 2017, my share came to $14,578). (Those offerings and percentages are also regulated by the diocese.) From that we pay our own auto costs, medical co-pays, clothing and recreational expenses, and pretty much everything else. We also pay income taxes on our earnings just as you do and (here’s a national oddity) Social Security / Medicare tax at the self-employed rate – 15.3%. (The parish pays no FICA for us. Why we’re treated as employees for some tax purposes but as self-employed for others is beyond me, but that’s what the tax code says.) And we’re expected to save to supplement our pension and Social Security with private savings. We can retire at age 72, and must offer to step down from administrative responsibilities at age 75. We can continue to do pastoral work as long as we’re able, should we wish. (If you’re interested in comparisons: according to Salary.com, the median annual non-Catholic pastor salary is $90,125 with a range usually between $74,098-$102,184.This amount does not include benefits, which often include a residence owned by the church.)
I’m certainly not complaining about what I’m paid; I have more security than most wage earners, and probably as much disposable income as many of you. But I do wonder whether some part of the priest shortage is caused by the crazy, dependent form that priests’ lives have. Most people expect fair compensation, and priests have the level of training of a doctor, an attorney, or another professional in our society. I wouldn’t want priests to be “in it for the money,” but it’s also true that societies always show what they value by what they’re willing to pay for. (Lay church employees suffer more that priests from unjust salaries, and their pay is truly a scandal in my mind; but that’s a subject for another day.) I’d much prefer to see a system in which priests were paid a “normal” salary and then we paid the market rate for housing, food, insurance, and all the rest. I think it would be good for priests, good for parishes, and good for the conversation between priests and people. But that subject, again, is for another day.
So there you have it. Now you know, and maybe I’ve dispelled some of the mythology around priests and money. If you have questions, I’d be happy to answer them. Again, we need healthy conversation about money for the good of our church, and of all our souls. Until next week, peace.
1. http://www1.salary.com/Pastor-Salaries.html. Data for December 2015. This is higher than most other surveys, which show a median in the $40,000 – $50,000 range; but defining the role across denominations is difficult.