Which Religion Pays Its Clerics the Most: Islam, Christianity, or Judaism?

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Jan. 12 2012 6:06 PM

What Type of Clergy Get the Highest Salaries?

A priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk into a bar. Who buys the drinks?

Portrait of a smiling priest.
Does being a priest pay well? How are the benefits?

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The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that religious organizations are largely exempt from anti-discrimination laws in their hiring and firing decisions. For those who are thinking of getting into the God business, which religion offers its clergy the best pay?

Judaism. The American Jewish newspaper Forward conducted a survey in 2010 comparing salaries for rabbis, protestant ministers, and Roman Catholic priests. The rabbis came out on top by a wide margin, with an average annual haul of approximately $140,000, including a tax-free housing allowance. Christian clerics earn more than $100,000 less than rabbis, on average, with Catholic priests making even less.* There are a couple of reasons why: Christian congregations tend to be smaller than their Jewish counterparts and often have multiple pastors. Also, rabbis typically spend more years in training than Christian ministers.

A Christian holy man could land a high-paying gig at a megachurch, but those jobs are rare. The average pastor with a flock of more than 2,000 people earns $147,000. The best-paid get more than $400,000. Even their underlings do pretty well, with assistant pastors at the biggest churches earning in the high five figures. Only 0.5 percent of protestant churches, however, can boast of such numbers.

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There’s no comprehensive survey on the salaries of Muslim clergy in America, but Islam appears to be the least remunerative of the major monotheistic religions. Imams only make around $30,000 annually and rarely receive a housing stipend. Many hold second jobs teaching in Muslim schools or as shop owners. They can earn a few thousand more if their mosque is funded by outside contributors. The Islamic Cultural Center of New York, for example, receives a large proportion of its funding from the government of Kuwait.

There’s some irony in the high salaries of rabbis. Moses Maimonides, one of the great minds in Jewish theology, argued that rabbis should refuse payment for their services in his 12th-century code of Jewish law, Mishne Torah. (It was easy for Maimonides to talk—he had a lucrative side job as a doctor.) Maimonides eventually lost that argument. Most rabbis were earning salaries by the 1400s, although some had to go door-to-door personally collecting the taxes that paid them. In the centuries that followed, many continued to supplement their rabbinical salaries with non-holy work. Seventeenth-century rabbi Leon of Modena had 26 jobs in addition to the rabbi business, including proofreader, matchmaker, epitaph-writer, and gambler.

There’s more to choosing an employer than salary, of course. In terms of job security, religions with a centralized governing structure are your best bet. The United Methodist Church, which pays most pastors at least $40,000 per year, doesn’t fire its clergy. When a congregation isn’t happy with its shepherd, the church simply transfers him to another location. The Roman Catholic Church is similarly (and infamously) reluctant to let go of a priest.

Vacation can be a sticking point for clerics. Virtually all denominations guarantee clergy a certain number of days off. Mosques, for example, tend to give the imam one day off per week and three weeks per year. But few religious workers take their full allotment of vacation days. People are always marrying, getting sick, or having marital crises. The Lord’s work can be stressful, and the lack of down time seems to be taking a toll. Recent studies indicate that members of the clergy are at increased risk for a variety of ailments, including hypertension and depression.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, Dan Rabinowitz of the Serofim blog, and Kate Rugani of the Duke Clergy Health Initiative.

Video Explainer: How Are Delegates Chosen in The Republican Primaries?

Slate V thanks Dr. Josh Putnam of Davidson College and the Frontloading blog.

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Correction, Jan. 17, 2012: This article previously referred to Christian clerics generically as "holy men." In many Christian denominations, women can and do serve as clerics. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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