Living comfortably: the fiction of a stipend?

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This week’s Church Times reported “Clergy living comfortably“. However, my eye was caught by the paragraph that suggested all was not quite as well as the headline suggested.

Overall, about three-quarters of respondents indicated that, financially, they were “living comfortably’ or “doing all right’. Eighty-two per cent of ordained respondents were able to draw on other sources of income than that received for ministry. Those unable to do so were “much more likely to struggle financially’, with several reporting dependency on tax credits and benefits.

It took a while to track down the report, which appeared to be referenced neither in the CT report, nor on the C of E website in any obvious place. It turns out the project is on one of the many proliferating branded sites.

The material there says much the same: first, from the executive summary:

Ordinands report lower levels of financial wellbeing than ordained ministers, while higher levels of financial wellbeing are associated with ministers who are older, part-time, self-supporting and assistant/associate ministers.

Then, from the report:

While most ministers do not report that they are finding life difficult financially, the majority (82% of ordained respondents) are able to draw on personal or household income in addition to anything they receive for their ministry. The minority without additional personal or household income are far less likely to be able to save or to have adequate provision in place for retirement.

It is not entirely clear, at least to this reader with limited skills in statistics, exactly how the different figures relate. Nonetheless, it seems fairly clear there is a correlation between the numbers who find themselves struggling financially, and the numbers of those who are in receipt of the stipend as their only income.

Officially, the Church of England’s stance on the stipend is that it is not a graded or job-related salary, but a sum of money sufficient to live on, without needing to seek paid employment. That has always been partially contradicted by the reality that bishops, deans, archdeacons and canons appear to need more to live on than mere parish clergy. Why they need a higher stipend rather than a more generous expense account has always been something of a mystery to me. It is, at the least, hard to defend against accusation of hypocrisy.

This new research, however, goes further. It suggests that for whatever reason (and I suspect the reasons are complex) there are a significant number of clergy, dependent solely on the stipend, for whom it is not living up to its billing. It does not provide a sufficient sum for them to live on without making economies or enjoying supplements – whether a spousal income, private means, previous employment or state benefits.

This is not the only difficult question that comes out of these initial findings, but it does seem to me to be a rather important one. Is the stipend any longer doing what it says on the tin? If not, why not, and what is anyone going to do about it?

I commend the researchers for honestly asking the questions. I hope others will reflect on what action should follow.

8 Replies to “Living comfortably: the fiction of a stipend?”

  1. Thanks for this Doug – it is absolutely right. I remember when there was a serious stipend review about 15 years ago that there was a real shift away from the definition of a stipend in the way you describe it. I agree with you. It’s to enable us to minister without worry. But I remember there was a move towards seeing it as a remuneration, because, we were told, that is what it was. I’m wasn’t convinced then and I’m not now.

    I only managed to bring my children up on one stipend because of generous parents and and aunt we looked after. It would have been hard otherwise. With two of us working, as now, it’s a different matter. My first wife didn’t work, and we saw that, partly, as modelling a family life, al la ordination vows.

    As for Bishops and ADs getting more I absolutely agree. All ministers should get the same from Deacon to Archbishops. It should just be the expenses reflecting the tasks of office that change.

    I suspect you won’t make yourself popular with this blog.. well, join the club!

  2. “Living comfortably” (but only if Clergy have a second income of some kind). That Church Times headline is the most mis-leading whitewash of the actual reality.

    I have three dependent children. It’s the only in the last couple of years that my wife has been able to return to work and begin earning some money. In part, that was because the kids were young (our 2nd was born at the start of college life, the third just as we finished) and then we were travelling around from theological college to curacy and now incumbency. It meant that, throughout training for the ministry, curacy and now at incumbent level, we were trying to exist purely on a stipend or the training grants while training. The training grant days were unbelievably tough, the curacy was ok but not easy. Incumbency has been a little easier (because the “stipend” for that is higher than the “stipend” for curacy) but we still only get by each year by being topped up by Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. Not every year, probably every other year, we get some money around Christmas from a charitable trust managed by our diocesan bishop. It’s always such a godsend. Every year, I apply to various grant-making bodies. Sometimes we get some money from them, sometimes we don’t. When I last applied to the Sons of the Clergy, I was told “No” and when I queried that response, their letter instructed me to ‘fashion my life and household after the manner of Christ’ as I promised to do at ordination. So, apparently, it was my fault and we were spending too much. Sorry kids, I didn’t realise that vow meant we had to actually go barefoot.

    My kids are growing up. We are now facing £300 in bus pass costs a year for my secondary school age eldest. That will become £600 next year when my second child also goes to secondary. Let alone uniform, the odd club they want to attend, interests they want to pursue. Holidays happen by begging or borrowing a place to stay. We have no savings to speak of, my wife has no real pension arrangements to speak of (beyond her few years as a teacher in earlier days) either. I find it all to be of very deep concern.

    In this diocese, what makes it even more interesting is that while the General Synod recommended a 1.5% ‘pay’ increase for Clergy in 2017, our Diocese decided to freeze our pay. There was no pay rise here in April because of the whacking holes in diocesan finances.

    So to answer your question that you’re “just” asking but not answering, I’ll answer it. No – the stipend doesn’t do what it says on the tin. It is not a “sum of money sufficient to live on, without needing to seek paid employment”.

    Of course, as you also point out, I am sure that the Bishops, Deans and Archdeacons of the Church of England will be able to rectify the anomaly pretty swiftly that means they live off a ‘stipend’ that is higher than the rest of the Clergy are asked to live on. I’m sure that will come down to the same level as the rest of us pretty fast… either that, or perhaps they will clarify why it is that the sum of money that’s sufficient for them to live on has to be greater than the sum of money I have to live on.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful for a (mostly) warm and water-tight roof over my head. I’m glad that (if it ever wasn’t) there is someone to call to get it fixed. But to be told that actually I’m living comfortable feels like a joke. Not a very funny one either.

  3. This is excellent – thank you. I remember being astonished in a General Synod Q&A that a stipend is no longer regarded as a ‘living allowance’ and that indeed the assumption is that every priest will have a second income (normally, assumed to be from a much better paid other half).
    For those of us who are ‘single clergy’ life is marginally easier – but only marginally. Whilst the stipend goes a little bit further, there is the burden that come retirement the anxiety may well be bourne alone, and that a lifetime of service has built little or no equity compared to comparable vocational occupations.
    Equally, we live with those who think that “a free house” is as though we’ve been handed a golden ticket in life. But for many it is an impractical and expensive house we’d not choose by ourselves. Again, we must care for it (Diocesan Maintenance can be variable) and the quality can be, erm, different…
    Perhaps more Dioceses could one day provide either an increased basic stipend with housing allowance for those who want to buy themselves a house – or an equity sharing arrangement which builds savings.
    Like so many others – that’s not a complaint – but it begs the question: given what we’ve sacrificed to follow our vocation – compared to what we could have earned or had, is a “twinge of something” really anything other than a whistful recognition of the scale of the sacrifice we’ve made, rather than sour grapes?
    And as for the differential – I have an increasing sense of agreement. Of course, should I ever receive preferment (bad luck everyone) then I might change my mind when I see the difference that makes to the final salary scheme… #Justasmallnoteofirony

    1. Thanks for this – I hadn’t previously heard the remarks you quote from that Synod Q & A. Someone must have had a rare fit of realism!

  4. When the review of Stipend was done 15 years ago (as a comment above says) I made a written submisison (of which there were not many). At the time I was a Curate, on a lower stipend than my Training Incumbent with 4 children at school and married to an ordinand (not much time to give childcare and study and get any paid work). It was Tax Credits which saved the day and ensuring that all tax allowances were used. Not eligible for charitable grants because of a lump sum being saved for housing after retirement (if I had a house and were paying a mortgage I would have been eligible!). As you can tell – lots of moaning but it was hard. Now on General Synod so looking forward to a debate when the Business Committee include the topic…

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