How much does a sermon cost?

I’ve been corresponding with a good friend and minister about the planning and scheduling of preaching and swapping pulpits. At work, I’ve been doing up budgets for grant funding. So I wondered: how much does a sermon cost, say if someone wanted to sponsor one or if (in some magical world) there was a grant to apply for.

I don’t mean the worship service and its costs, like the building, utilities, musicians and printing. I’m assuming only the sermon, and so the costs are only for a minister’s labor. (Office costs are sunk, and from the schedules many of my friends keep, they’re largely done at home.) I’m assuming a sole pastor in a small — just under 150 members — congregation, living in Geo Zone 3 (the middle of five zones used by the UUA to determine living costs) making the recommended median salary, plus all the recommended benefits, but excluding conference travel. For the sake of health insurance, I’m using the UUA plan and assuming a minister born in 1960, living in a certain city in the Midwest. (I won’t say which because I discovered there was someone very close to this profile.) So immediately, you can tell these numbers can vary wildly, but this isn’t an unfair test case.

Which brings us to the big woolly problem of how to allocate time. Like many other salaried professionals, ministers rarely work 40 hours for full-time work, and it certainly isn’t evenly distributed. But remembering my own habits, folk wisdom and panicked Facebook updates, I think it’s fair to say it takes 10 hours of time per week to produce original sermons, including the actual preaching, long-term planning and getting out those horrible newsletter blurbs. Sometimes more and sometimes less, but if I was planning a budget for reimbursement, I’d go for 10 hours. (You are free to disagree in the comments.) I know describing ministers’ work in hours is out of fashion — the “blocks” model is preferred in the literature — but nothing else makes as much sense here, and it adds the message that a quarter of one’s work week needn’t magically expand just because a minister’s time is undervalued.

So how much is that sermon in my test case? $390. That’s not an inconsequential amount of money in a small church, and that’s mostly what we have in the UUA.

Which makes me think two things:

  • This explains, rather than encourages, why in smaller, cash-strapped churches the conflict between getting as many sermons out of a minister but the laity, the minister or both knowing it may not be the best use of his or her time.
  • That supply preachers can’t afford to preach original sermons every time on the going rate. And shouldn’t be expected to.
  • Likewise, that sermons are a valuable resource and good ones deserve more than one hearing. Indeed, there’s an economic argument for pulpit exchanges, which were more common in horse-back colonial New England than they are today.

3 Replies to “How much does a sermon cost?”

  1. My congregation is in search for a new minister. At a cottage meeting today (~ 10 members) the consensus was that we could stand fair or mediocre skills in leadership, staff supervision, pastoral care, outreach, social service, social justice. But we want excellence in preaching. In our past, when the preaching has been so-so, attendance dropped off, and all other aspects of church life became more difficult when the pews were empty – the volunteering dries up.

    So how come — when we have a visiting UU minister, the attendance is usually noticeably less than when our regular minister is in the pulpit. These visiting sermons are often better than our minister’s average sermons. As you’d expect – they only recycle their better sermons, and they’ve practiced them more. But the people are less likely to show up when a visiting minister preaches. Why?

  2. @David T

    Why do more people show for the regular minister, even when he/she is less gifted than some of the guests? It has to do with relationship. Their is an aspect to preaching that is relational. Sometimes the power of spoken ministry depends on the quality of the relationship between the speaker and the listener.

    I have very good sermons that fell flat at churches where I have had no real prior relationship with the congregation. But the same sermons has increased power in the church where I regularly serve, as well as in a small, rural UU church where I have been a regular guest preacher for the last 11 years.

  3. I think it’s an interesting exercise to try and come up with the cost of a sermon. Do you factor in study time and continuing education into your cost structure? My guess if you did that the costs would go up. I, for example, probably spend about 15 hours a week studying and another 10 in direct sermon prep.

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