How Much Should a Priest Be Paid?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Now that summer is winding down and another work year is upon us, one of the issues that we’ll be studying in the Diocese of Providence is the question of compensation for priests. Although our priests, along with the lay employees of the Diocese, have regularly received modest “cost of living” increases, it’s been a number of years since the basic compensation structure has been reviewed. Hence the current study seems to be warranted.

Some basic information might be helpful for our readers.

You should know, first of all, that salaries and benefit packages for priests vary somewhat from diocese to diocese. In the Diocese of Providence, though, a newly ordained priest receives an annual salary of $28,800, an amount which increases slightly with each year of service. So, for example, a priest who has been serving for forty years and is still in active ministry receives approximately $38,000.

Along with this base salary, priests receive a $10 stipend for daily Mass, and a benefit package including vehicle insurance allowance, provision of health care, pension contributions, and a variety of specific allotments for retreats, continuing education, etc.

Our priests are pretty well-compensated for their services, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As clergy, however, we should always be mindful of and grateful for the generosity of the laity that makes our compensation possible.

Beyond the numbers the discussion of priests’ compensation is a complex and sensitive topic. There are significant financial, pastoral and spiritual consequences related to this issue.

First, it should be remembered that diocesan priests, unlike priests in religious communities, do not take a vow of poverty. Although in accord with the spirit of the Gospel and the law of the Church they are to “cultivate a simple style of life and avoid whatever has the semblance of vanity” (Canon 282) they are nonetheless responsible for many of their daily expenses and should have sufficient funds to provide for a reasonable lifestyle. The law of the Church also encourages priests to use “superfluous goods for the good of the Church and for works of charity.”

Our priests have entrusted their lives to the Church; they’ve made personal sacrifices; they often work very hard. They surely deserve just compensation for their labors. As Jesus himself emphasized when he sent his disciples on their mission, “the laborer deserves his payment.” (Lk 10:7)

Second, in discussing compensation for priests, it’s important to keep in mind the broader pastoral context, namely that some of our parishes and institutions have very limited financial resources and are struggling to survive. Paying for the services of a full-time priest is a pretty expensive proposition, especially for a small or financially strapped parish.

We should also think of the sacrifices the faithful make to support the Church and our priests. Members of our parishes often have daunting personal and family problems to deal with, while not enjoying the salary, benefits or lifetime security that priests enjoy. As priests and bishops we should ensure that our lifestyle never creates a burden for or gives scandal to the faithful whose servants we are.

As an additional consideration, in discussing compensation for priests, it’s critical to avoid any hint of a mercenary spirit or worldly “professionalism.” Priests have responded to a call from Christ – they have a vocation, not merely a profession. They never sell sacraments or charge for their ministry.

We should reflect upon the words of Jesus who said to his disciples, “You have received without pay; give without pay.” (Mt 10:8) And Pope Francis made an impassioned plea along similar lines when in a recent address to bishops and priests he insisted: “What you got free from Jesus, give it away for free. Please, please! Do not charge anything [for your service] . . . Our vocation calls us to let go of all selfishness, all seeking of material gain or emotional rewards.”

I need to confess that in approving the study of compensation for our priests I’ve wrestled with the many dimensions of this issue. On one hand, we have excellent priests who are dedicated and faithful; they deserve our generous support. But on the other hand, what does our focus on money say about the spiritual dimensions of our vocation? What are the consequences for our diocese?

I’m not even sure what question we should be asking ourselves. If we are to consider any increase, is it because we need more money; or we want more money; or we deserve more money?

Someone suggested, in a frivolous manner (I think), that priests and bishops should be compensated according to the results of a performance review done by their constituents. In this model, questions like these might be asked of the priest or bishop: “Are you meeting the pastoral and spiritual needs of your people? Are you readily available to your parishioners? How effective are you in teaching, preaching and leading the parish? Are you faithful to the priestly commitments you have made?”

Interesting concept, isn’t it?

So, all of this will be studied by a committee we’ve formed, a committee of both clergy and laity. I’ll await their recommendations which will then receive further consultation in the diocese before a final decision is made.

In the meantime, please pray for our priests and offer them your personal and spiritual support. Although it can’t be deposited in a bank, that kind of reward is priceless.