Just a head’s-up: I’m not going to answer this question. I’m a law professor. A significant part of my job is to complicate questions that appear, on first glance, simple. Like this one. If you want a simplistic yes or no, I’m sure you can find it somewhere on the internet.
The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported that the general authorities who are paid make about $120,000 a year. On the comments to Kevin’s recent post, there seemed to be some significant disagreement on whether they were over- or underpaid, or if their salaries were just right. So which is it?
That’s a tough question; there is no objective “right” amount that people should be paid. And the question is complicated a little by the fact that they’re paid in lockstep, meaning the amount probably represents a raise for some of these general authorities and a pay cut for others.
To determine whether they’re overpaid, then, we have to find an appropriate comparable. And that’s a whole lot harder than it seems. (Note that, because they’re in the U.S., and because they’re paid in dollars, and because it’s a whole lot easier for me to find data on the U.S., I’m going to use U.S. comparables, rather than international comparables.)
Median Mormon Income
The Census doesn’t ask about religion, so we don’t have any precise information here. We can use Pew data to help, though it’s only kind of helpful.
According to Pew, about 47% of Mormons make less than $50,000, 38% earn between $50,000 and $99,000, and 16% make $100,000 or more. These numbers line up pretty closely to the American public at large.
Under Pew data, then, paid general authorities are in the top 16% of Mormon income earners. But note that only 28% of Mormons have a college degree or more; I haven’t looked closely, but I suspect that all of the paid general authorities have at least a college degree. So what’s the appropriate comparable here? Median Mormon income? Median income for college graduates (which, actually, we don’t know)?
Median Utah Income
We can get finer-grained information about Utah. And, of course, Utah isn’t a perfect comparable, because 40% of the population is not Mormon, but 60%-Mormon is the most concentrated portion of Mormons of any state.
And in Utah, the median household income was $60,727 in 2015 dollars. (Note that the average household income in Utah is significantly higher, at $76,531.)
And, in fact, there’s an additional problem with these numbers: they don’t take into account age. In general, income increases as we get older. And Utah follows those trends: median household income increases with age, up until 65. It drops after 65, presumably because of retirement.
But general authorities skew old, so it probably doesn’t make a ton of sense to compare their income to median income, because the median income includes a lot of younger workers.
Median Clergy Income
According to the BLS, the median clergy annual salary is $48,150. Of course, that presumably includes everybody from the Jesuit priest who has taken a vow of poverty to the pastor of a small church to Creflo Dollar. So I’m not sure how helpful that is.
Average Nonprofit CEO Income
The average pay for the CEO of a nonprofit in 2014 was $118,678.[fn1] While the prophet, apostles, and first couple quorums of the Seventy aren’t technically CEOs, the C-suite strikes me as a decent comparable for at least the First Presidency and probably Quorum of the Twelve.
Also, we can get more granular than just average salary. The CEO of a nonprofit with an operating budget of between $2.5 million and $5 million had an average salary of $125,899, and as the operating budget increased from there, so did the average salaries.
Median CEO Base Salary In For-Profit Firms
Some individuals like to accuse the church of being essentially a big for-profit company. That makes no sense for a number of reasons I won’t go into here but, for the heck of it, let’s pretend it’s true. Also, let’s pretend the estimate that the church has about $7 billion in annual revenue is accurate.[fn2]
In that case, the median CEO is earning … oh shoot, that data doesn’t tell me that. Okay, let’s pretend it has about $1 billion of revenue: in that case, the median CEO’s base salary (without bonuses or stock options or anything else) looks to be about $1 million.
So Which Is It: Over- or Under- or Just Right?
With the comparables I’ve laid out, you could argue any of the above. But any such argument requires assumptions, particularly about what the best comparable for a general authority in the Mormon church is. I think all of the comparables I’ve laid out here are viable, and I’m sure I haven’t exhausted the possible set of comparables.
But they all push in different directions, and even picking one requires a number of assumptions and nuances. And that kind of ambiguity is probably right. At the very least, as we criticize or defend the amount the church pays its leaders, we need to be willing to both lay out and question our assumptions.[fn3]
[fn1] And yes, I know I’m jumping between median and average, but I kind of have to deal with the data I can find easily online.
[fn2] Actually, that estimate was just donations, not returns from various investments. But let’s just go with it.
[fn3] Also, ftr, each of the Google autocompletes is a real screenshot. One of the few professions where everything to come after the “[Profession] are” was positive toward the profession was, of all things, hockey players: