Are you paid less than you’re worth?
It’s a question you’ve probably asked yourself at some point, regardless of whether or not you work for a church. Though I’ve specifically geared this article to church employees, learning how to negotiate salary is a skill that will help you regardless of your career track.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons for a church employee to willingly accept a below-market salary, or even volunteer his or her professional services, especially when s/he is a member of the congregation s/he serves. I will not try to persuade you otherwise. Instead, I will focus on helping those of you who expect to be treated (and paid) as independently hired professionals, subject to the pay grade of the open market.
Ditching Your Sense of Entitlement
Many of us feel that we’re not paid fairly. For purposes of this article, I define fair as “in step with the market rate.” We can grouse all day about how our churches (and our culture) don’t value music as much as they should, but it won’t change the fact that the larger market for music and musicians only bears so much in terms of salary and benefits. Instead, if you truly want to be paid better, focus first on delivering value to others so that they will appreciate what you’ve given them. However deserving you are of a pay raise, you are not entitled to it.
Understanding Your Church’s Costs
Continuing as the devil’s advocate for a moment, I want to point out something else. Remember that your church, like any other employer, incurs quite a few costs in employing you, some which you may not have considered:
- In the United States, your employer pays half of your Social Security and Medicare tax liability, which means that it costs them around $10,800 to pay you $10,000. You would never know this from looking only at your own paycheck.
- Your employer pays someone to keep the books, withhold payroll taxes, and write checks, all of which they wouldn’t have to spend as much money on if they had a smaller staff.
- In some cases, your employer pays someone to assist you with administrative tasks.
- Your church pays more in energy costs every time you use the building for practice or teaching. They also pay for all those photocopies you make (and the ones you screw up, too).
OK, OK, I know that some of these points are fussy. But seriously, you should be fair to your employer and recognize that they invest in you in ways that you can’t see on a paystub. You are not entitled to better pay simply because you’re exceptionally qualified and educated. However, you do deserve a salary that accords with the local market for your job type and your experience level. This is the most fair-minded viewpoint on how to balance your needs for a sustainable living with your employer’s need to keep costs as low as possible.
Why it’s difficult to determine the market rate
Are you paid less than you’re worth on the open market?
The only way to establish a reliable answer to this question is to identify what comparable positions pay in your geographic area. Unfortunately, we church musicians are at a major disadvantage compared to many forms of traditional employment. The sheer variety of church jobs, and their lack of standardization from place to place, makes it difficult to pin down a “fair market value” for much of anything. An HVAC installer in Tuscon can expect to have roughly the same duties as another who lives in New York. (The salaries will most certainly differ, though!) Meanwhile, one church’s “Director of Music” leads worship but does little else, while another in the same town leads mission and outreach programs.
A further complication is that the salaries offered in public job postings often don’t reflect what the selected candidate ultimately earns. Employers offer a range of salaries, usually with the assumption that their candidate will negotiate the salary if s/he is offered the job. This means that some candidates end up earning more than the posted range, and that some will earn closer to the bottom of that range.
How to use imperfect and incomplete data
A problem many of us encounter, especially in small and medium cities, is that there aren’t enough (or any) comparable jobs. This makes it very difficult to estimate a market rate! In this situation, you can expand your search to include all church music positions in your area, including those not entirely similar to yours, and approximate an hourly rate based on what you learn.
Another thing you could do is find comparable positions in a different geographic area, and then calculate an equivalent salary for your area that takes into account differences in cost of living. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes exhaustive information on cost of living by metropolitan area. This allows you to compare as objectively as possible the cost of living from place to place. Just be aware that this sort of calculation carries some limitations. The supply and demand for a specific job type can vary widely from place to place. This of course influences the overall wage level for everyone with that job, regardless of living costs.
One small but important detail about compensation
Keep in mind the critical difference between total compensation and cash compensation. The most objective way to compare the pay for two jobs is to figure each employer’s total cost to employ you. It is simple enough to make this comparison between two jobs that pay only a cash salary, i.e., no benefits such as health insurance, pension plans, or the like.
The picture is more complicated when comparing jobs that offer benefits. In this case, you must somehow devise a cash value for the benefits and add it to the cash salary for the job in question, arriving at a figure for total compensation. I made this type of calculation when moving from full-time work (with benefits) to part-time work (without benefits), so that I could take into account the need to purchase health insurance on the individual market.
The best solution for researching market rates
Because of these complexities, the best solution is usually to talk to as many of your colleagues as possible and ask them for details about their job description and their compensation. I know this sounds terribly uncomfortable (and it usually is). But if you truly suspect that your pay is out of step with prevailing rates, it is well worth the trouble of doing your own research. You will come away from these conversations armed with very useful knowledge.
Explain to your colleague that you are considering a salary review and need information about the local market for your job type. Ask them to confidentially share information about their compensation. You will find that most of your colleagues will be happy to help you, especially if you offer to share with them the results of your survey. (You never know when it might help them, too!) I once asked for salary information from a colleague I had never met in person. Not only did he share the information I requested, he also offered his permission for the hiring committee to contact him directly if they needed to verify what he told me.
In all cases, your data will carry the greatest weight in a salary negotiation if they can be verified directly with the source of the information. Anonymous information is notoriously unreliable, and employers are wise to ignore it. Be sure to keep careful track of who supplied the information.
Applying the Technique
I am not an expert on negotiation techniques—though I’ve had plenty of practice with them lately! For this part of the process, I suggest that you check out Don Asher’s website, which has a great deal of information on salary negotiation.
That said, here is the gist of Don’s advice. One simple sentence can earn you thousands: “I was hoping it [my salary] could be more than that. What can we do?” This places you and your employer on the same side of the table, rather than in an adversarial relationship. Another really important thing Don advocates is to always start a negotiation with the cash portion of your compensation, because that is the amount on which future raises will be based. For example, if you can add $1000 to your starting pay, you win an additional $30 when a 3% cost-of-living increase is added to your paycheck later.
Don’s advice is golden. You should check it out!
Get the timing right
As I said before, there is no better time to negotiate salary than after the offer is made but before you’ve signed an agreement and begun work. Many people fear that their prospective employer will retract the job offer if they ask for better pay. Now of course, the degree to which you can afford to negotiate aggressively varies from situation to situation. Nonetheless, I have a hard time believing that any employer worth working for would retract a job offer simply because the candidate asked politely for a higher salary.
What if I want to be paid more at a job I already have?
If you’ve already signed a contract and begun work, the game changes a bit, but you still have options. One good time to bring up salary concerns is during the annual review process, or failing that, during budget revision and approval. For many churches, these processes take place between December and February. Your church will likely be able to offer more flexibility on compensation if you raise your concerns after the annual budget conversation has begun, but before the new budget is finalized.
Beyond these opportune times, there really isn’t a bad time (or a particularly good one) to discuss compensation. Depending on your specific workplace culture, size of staff, and bureaucratic structure, you might still be able to negotiate a better salary mid-year. It never hurts to try, as long as you go about it respectfully. This means being sensitive to your employer’s needs as well as your own.
The Upshot (TL;DR)
Learning how to negotiate salary is worth the effort. It is never wrong to ask for fair compensation, and if you don’t ask for it, you likely won’t receive it. That said, if you want to be paid more, the burden of providing evidence in favor of that falls to you. Do some basic research using job postings, and check your facts by talking to local colleagues about their actual compensation. When you’re ready to talk to your employer, be sure to time the conversation appropriately. You will have the most leverage before you start work. I recommend Don Asher’s advice for specific negotiating techniques.
For more articles on the church as workplace, check out the Church Music Sense blog.
I want to hear from you! Is there a specific piece of advice in this article that really worked for you? What did I neglect to mention that you think others should know about? Leave a comment or drop me a line.