Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders

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For the last decade, The Lilly Endowment has been offering grants to a broad collection of Christian seminaries, church bodies, and other related institutions to try to get a handle on the economic conditions of ministry. We know things have changed in the U.S. church in the last 50 years, and we, as stewardship leaders, are working to help congregations fund worthy mission even as we encourage broader thinking about what it means to be a steward. Elise Erickson Barrett offers a tantalizing twist, yet another way of thinking about “stewarding.”


Catherine Malotky, Center for Stewardship Leaders

Stewarding Pastoral Leaders

By Elise Erikson Barrett

As discussed so often in these posts, “stewardship” risks becoming code for “It’s Time To Set the Church Budget and We Are All Very Uncomfortable.” Luther Seminary, among others, is trying to deepen our collective Christian understanding of stewardship: how do we rightly take care of the resources God has entrusted to us for a time, to invest in God’s good work? These discussions typically center around our money or our time, the gifts we “own” and experience some sense of ownership to determine their use.

Let’s flip the frame just a bit. Let’s imagine that the steward is, instead of the individual church member, the church collective. What if the church understood herself to be the steward of one of her most precious resources: her pastoral leadership? 

Pastors are struggling. This isn’t new information. Research done in our initiative shows the erosion of salaries and calls alongside the ballooning of educational and living costs and while pastors often report deep satisfaction with their work, as a group they are increasingly unhealthy and at risk of burnout. Too often, financially struggling laypeople and financially struggling pastoral leaders sit across the table from each other in fraught board meetings, each feeling that the other doesn’t see their pain, each feeling toxic levels of what our learning community has learned to call “shame and blame.” Resources seem scarce. No one feels they have enough.

But what if our churches learned to see their pastoral leaders as a precious resource, entrusted by God to their care for a time? How, ideally, do we care for our most precious resources? 

We are seeing life-giving changes in the grantee communities involved in our initiative. 

  • We are watching what changes when a church says, “We care that you are suffering because of seminary debt incurred so you could be equipped to lead us: let us share that burden so you can be freed for ministry.” 
  • We are observing the difference that is made when a denomination or middle judicatory says to its clergy, “We see that your credit card debt started with a medical emergency for your child; let us help alleviate that burden and equip you to manage your finances more confidently.” 

We are watching the transformation that happens when financial shame and blame are transformed by courage and love. When pastoral leaders are seen and treated as precious resources to be stewarded with care by their church and their ordaining body, they are, as one grantee has said, “Freed to lead.”

Pastors who are stewarded well by their communities report that they find a renewed joy for their work. We hear stories of clergy on the verge of leaving the ministry who suddenly see a future again. Pastors who are supported and affirmed preach more hopefully, serve more gladly, lead more creatively. And as is often the way in God’s economy, the gift of that stewardship multiplies in ways we cannot predict. Joyful pastoral leaders raise up joyful disciples, and joyful disciples speak abundance into a world paralyzed by perceived lack. Financial freedom breeds the freedom to serve, and freedom to serve restores vocational integrity for pastoral leader and congregation alike.


  • For more information about the National Initiative Addressing Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders, visit
  • For more information and videos relating to Lilly Endowment’s initiatives addressing the economics of ministry, visit

About the Author

Elise Erikson Barrett serves as the Coordination Program Director for the National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders (, an initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc.

Image credit: Photo by Pedro Lima on Unsplash

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