Thursday, January 31, 2013

The High Cost Of Serving A Small Church

There have been studies done on the high cost of being poor, and the extra expenses they have that are not born by most of society.  Yesterday it really occurred to me that the same could be said of those of us who serve small churches, especially small rural churches.  I already knew this as a reality, but didn't really put a name to it until a conversation I was having with other clergy serving in the area.

We gather every Wednesday morning for breakfast.  I have a 52 mile round trip to get there, and while I know that most of them are putting the meal on their expense account I am not because I don't have enough to do that, and so every week the meal comes out of my pocket.  They were talking about joining together to do an online class, and the more who joined the less expensive it was.  One of the other clergy, who is the only other one there who serves a small rural church, asked if the district would be paying for it, and he was told that it should come out of the church's continuing education line.  He replied "I don't have one," and I said, "neither do I."  I'm sure that we were the only two there who that was true for.

It is fairly typical for "new" clergy to be assigned to small rural churches in order to get broken in and pay your dues so that you can move onto something else.  Serving a small church means that you will be making minimum salary, which I do, and yet we also normally have the highest amounts of student loans due since we are just out of school, and thus it is bigger portion of our salaries.  These churches also have small and tight budgets which means that there is limited money for discretionary items like continuing education or other expenses.

Now I have taken some continuing ed classes online since I've been here, but I paid for them myself.  My mileage reimbursement last year was $1500.  I blew through that by April, not because I was incautious but because almost everywhere I have to go is a long distance away.  I then drove another 5094 miles for which I was not reimbursed (at last year's reimbursement rate that's $2082).  I will be honest that there were some hospital visits that I probably should have made, but didn't because the hospital most people end up at is 124 miles away (that's one way).  So for me to drive there is one tank of gas, or an extra $60 out of my pocket.  And anything I bought for children's time or other things I need to do my job, all out of my pocket.  I did not seek reimbursement for meals for annual conference, because I knew it would be tough for them to cover.  I did submit for my hotel room.  And books and magazine subscriptions?  Don't even think about it.

And then that doesn't count personal expenses.  The closest grocery store is also 26 miles away (one way) so whenever I need to go grocery shopping that's two gallons of gas, or $6.50 just to make the trip.  There is no preschool in the town, and so I have to take my youngest daughter into town three days a week for daycare, another $19.50 every week just in gas money.

And then there are the little things that the conference expects us to be able to do, like attend clergy retreats at $200 a pop.  For most clergy it's not a problem, but for those of us serving small churches, we're wondering which Peter we need to rob so that we can pay Paul, and yet the expectation is that we have to be there.  I had to get support from the district office for one of these events because it was simply the only way I could afford to go.  The church didn't have the money and I didn't personally have it available either.

There are lots of financial realities with which the church needs to deal, but one of the major ones is the disparity for clergy between larger urban churches and small rural churches.  Because there is a very high cost of serving the rural church that is simply not born out by other clergy members.

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