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What Can We Expect, When We Pay So Little?

Stopping On A Dime from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 JD Hancock, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Healthy employment relationships require accountability. Accountability involves setting clear expectations, providing ongoing feedback, and inviting employees to step it up if performance falls short of expectations. This fundamental cycle of communication seems easy enough to grasp, in theory. In practice, many of us demonstrate a failure of nerve when it comes to holding church employees accountable. We grapple with whether we can expect much from our employees, especially when we pay them so little.

This is not an article about fairness or justice in our compensation practices, although we certainly ought to be striving for equitable pay practices and a livable wage. This is an article about the role that money plays in employee motivation and performance accountability.

There are four main reasons low pay is not a hindrance to accountable employment relationships:

  • The mission of the congregation is worthy.
  • Employment relationships are utilitarian in nature.
  • Money is not the most important motivator.
  • Good employees value mutual accountability.

These factors mean that churches can hold their employees to a high standard of accountability—higher, even, than employers that pay more for comparable work. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

The mission of the congregation is worthy.

A congregation’s mission is important in the lives of its employees, congregants, and community. If this is not true for your congregation, then you have bigger problems than accountable employment relationships. If we have clarity about our mission, and clarity about the contribution that each employee makes to our mission, then we should never be embarrassed to invite accountability. It should be a privilege to work in service to the mission.

The average congregation in the United States devotes 49% of its annual operating budget to payroll related expenses. For most of us, this is the single largest line item in our operating budget. Our payroll dollars are the primary resource available to us for the pursuit of mission. We cannot afford to waste the precious resources of the congregation on employment relationships that don’t work. Good stewardship demands accountable employment relationships.

Employment relationships are utilitarian.

Both the employee and the employer must experience usefulness in the employment relationship. If they don’t, the relationship doesn’t work long term. The employer offers a combination of things the employee values: pay, benefits, the opportunity to do something meaningful, the opportunity to work towards the greater good, and the opportunity to grow and advance. In return, the employee offers something the employer values: time, talent, passion, energy and loyalty. Money is only one of many factors that provide utility. So long as the employer and employee value what is offered and accepted, there is utility and a meaningful working relationship. When utility is lost, either because we no longer offer something that the employee values, or because the employee no longer provides what is needed, then something must be renegotiated or the relationship should end.

If an employee accepts the initial terms of employment, then the supervisor can assume that there is enough utility in the employment offer to sustain an ongoing relationship. From that point forward, the employment relationship requires accountability to sustain utility. Expectations should be continually updated and communicated. Feedback needs to be regular and consistent. The employee needs to be willing and able to close the gap when performance expectations are not met. The employer needs to be willing and able to provide opportunity for growth.

Some congregations are experiencing declining budgets. We are reducing the size of our staff teams or we are asking people to forego pay increases. We owe it to our employees and the congregation to be forthcoming about the changing utility in our relationship. We cannot simply ask people to do more with less. Nor should we accept lower levels of performance in exchange for lower levels of pay. We should have frank and honest conversations about the mission and ministry we can support with the payroll dollars available. The utilitarian nature of the relationship needs to be transparent to all.

Money is not the most important motivator.

Research shows that money does not motivate in employment situations, except when the tasks of the job are purely mechanical. Contrary to longstanding organizational beliefs, linking pay to performance has negligible impact on motivation, and in some instances, reduces motivation.

The lack of an adequate salary may keep a person from accepting a job, and it may cause enough dissatisfaction for an employee to leave a job, particularly when he feels unfairly treated. However, if the employee finds their level of pay basically satisfactory, money does not lead to higher levels of motivation.

Rather, motivation is produced by managing the more intrinsic side of the employment situation: greater autonomy, the mastery of an important skill, the ability to work in service to a larger good, etc. We strengthen these intrinsic motivators through accountability conversations and by gaining clarity about what is expected, offered and received.

Good employees value mutual accountability.

Over the years, the Gallup Organization has interviewed more than one million employees of various organizations about what they value in their work. Searching for patterns across organizations, Gallup identified key factors that provide strength in employment relationships. The most important factors include: a clear set of expectations, ongoing recognition for a job well done, a supervisor that cares, regular encouragement, feedback about needed improvement, and opportunities to learn and grow.

These elements of a good working relationship are also the elements of an accountable working relationship. Good employees value clarity of expectations and ongoing feedback about their effectiveness. They long to be given the chance to step up their performance, to learn, to grow and to contribute in meaningful ways. You may not be able to pay your employees at the top of the pay scale, but when you create an accountable environment, all involved in the mission of the congregation grow and thrive.

Susan Beaumont is a coach, educator, and consultant who has worked with hundreds of faith communities across the United States and Canada. Susan is known for working at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual vitality. She specializes in large church dynamics, staff team health, board development, and leadership during seasons of transition.

With both an M.B.A. and an M.Div., Susan blends business acumen with spiritual practice. She moves naturally between decision-making and discernment, connecting the soul of the leader with the soul of the institution. You can read more about her ministry at

Books by Susan Beaumont

Beaumont, How to Lead When you Don't Know
Beaumont, Inside the Large Congregation
Beaumont, When Moses Meets Aaron
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