Questions of compensation

Salary-setting can be a delicate subject in any industry but is especially fraught in faith-based institutions. Christian institutional leaders have to reframe the conversation.

Whether it is the multimillion-dollar renovation of the residence of the so-called “Bishop of Bling” or the undisclosed salary of a pastor at a Charlotte, N.C., megachurch, questions about the compensation and benefits of Christian congregational and institutional leaders have swirled in the news over the past few weeks.

While these are difficult and delicate matters in every industry, there is something about the way that compensation and Christian commitment comingle (or collide) in faith-based institutions, including congregations, that seems especially fraught.

Even mention the topic and one hears a variety of opinions about wealth and poverty, abundance and scarcity, transparency and privacy, ambition and consumption in the life of a Christian.

This array of expectations and assumptions complicates the budget-creating, salary-setting work of the Christian institutional leader, but it also underscores the need to have frank but generative conversations about compensation within Christian institutions.

The frame of thriving communities is helpful as we endeavor to lead these conversations.

For most of us, our workplace is one of the central communities of our lives, as many Americans spend more of their waking hours each week with their colleagues at the office than with their families at home. It is just honest for us as institutional leaders to publicly acknowledge that we are bound together by our work and that the welfare of each person matters to all people. Given this, we might say that compensation is one of the ways we care for each other, a way we help each other to thrive.

Yet, it is never just the monetary well-being of the individual that matters; it is also the welfare of the entire community that matters. For institutions to thrive, each of us individually and all of us collectively must thrive. As such, individual compensation must be set against the backdrop of the health of the institution overall.

A non-faith-based software company in Baltimore may be embodying this way of thinking about community and compensation as an institution more than many Christian institutions.

In a recent conversation on the BBC program “Business Matters,” the founder of Figure 53 software, Chris Ashworth, described the way his small company developed a practice of paying all employees equal salaries that are determined by the vote of all employees.

Of all that Ashworth said (and the interview is worth listening to), perhaps most interesting was the way he described the transparency he found necessary in order for all employees to vote wisely.

When his colleagues were well-informed of the financial health of the company, they made responsible -- and not extravagant -- decisions about their mutual compensation. They balanced the needs of the individual and the needs of the community by choosing a level of compensation that was only slightly higher than Ashworth’s imagined budget level.

Few of our Christian institutions are in a position to offer equal salaries to all employees or to allow all employees to vote on their compensation (nor would we necessarily want to).

But as institutional leaders, we can help our colleagues and boards reframe the way we normally talk about compensation and benefits. What enables individual thriving, and what ensures the sustainability and vitality of the institutional community?