To negotiate or not to negotiate . . . that is a question that I am often asked. Should a minister negotiate her salary with a church?

Here are some quotes I have heard from candidates over the years: “It feels so wrong to ask a church for more money.” “Ministry is about service, not about financial gain.” “This church loves me, and I know they will take care of me.” “There are lots of accountants at this church, and I am sure they know what my financial needs will be.” “The church will pay me as much as they are able to.” “If I bring up money, the church will rescind its offer, and then where will I be?”

Negotiating often feels unseemly. It seems so selfish. It makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps it is time we give some thought to negotiating and what all it means for us as ministers and why it is so important. So here is advice that I often share about negotiating:

Like all things related to the search process, my first words of wisdom are: Be prepared! Negotiating is not so much about requesting a larger salary as it is about preparing yourself financially for your future in ministry. Think about that for a minute! To be prepared for ministry YOU will need to do the math. DO YOUR MATH. Before you ever get into a serious conversation with a search/personnel/finance committee, you need to sit down and study your personal financial situation. Write down your monthly expenses–all of them. Take an inventory of your assets. Know your math!  You can’t make a good decision about your future if you don’t know your present personal financial reality.

Once you enter a serious conversation with a church, start doing the research. Investigate the area around the church. Check on average rent payments or mortgages. Figure out if the cost of living there will be greater than your present cost of living. Consider how much your housing budget will increase/decrease each month. Your utilities? Your grocery bill? There are some great websites that can help you with cost-of-living-comparisons. Check them out.

After you have a handle on your current expenses and some estimates of what those expenses will be should you relocate, think about your future expenses. If you accept this new position, will you need to buy a new laptop? A new car? How much will your monthly student loan payments be? How much debt do you have in addition to student loans? Do your present math AND your future math.

Once all the addition and subtraction is done, you will have a pretty good idea about the salary you will need in order to live comfortably–not extravagantly but comfortably. You should have a pretty clear picture of how much money you will need to bring home each month in order to cover your expenses and to leave you with some cushion.

My second piece of advice is this: Be healthy! Negotiating isn’t so much about requesting a larger salary as it is about being healthy. Your goal as you accept a new ministry position is to be the best minister possible, the healthiest minister possible for your congregation, and the grim reality is that if your income is not sufficient for you to pay your bills, you won’t be a healthy minister. If every single month you have to worry about making ends meet, if you are grossly underpaid, if money becomes a consuming concern for you, you can count on experiencing overwhelming stress. If that stress is long-term, it will result in discouragement, resentment, disinterest, and incompetence. Financial stress leads quickly to burn-out. Thus, the truth you need to recognize about negotiating is that it is an investment in your physical and mental health and your sustainability in ministry.

So when you sit down with your committee members, ask them about their commitment to your emotional, spiritual, and financial health. Have a honest conversation about what you will need to thrive, not just survive, but thrive as their minister. Don’t be afraid to share honestly with committee members about your financial needs. Talk to them about your student loans. You don’t have to share exact numbers but be as transparent as you can be. Some committee members  may not have any idea that a recent (or even not so recent) seminary graduate has debt or is still paying college loans.

Finally, think about this: if you aren’t willing to talk about money with a church committee before you sign on to be their minister, when will you be ready to do that? Most every ministerial job description includes leadership in financial planning, making budgets, and controlling spending. You will be dealing with money in your ministry, and talking about money during your search process will give you some clues as to how financial conversations will go for you in the future with this church. Negotiating can be part of the shared educational process… you will learn about them; they will learn about you. Negotiating can be an exercise in building good faith, and by negotiating you can lay the groundwork for a healthy future relationship with this congregation.

There is much more to say about negotiating, so this is the first part in the negotiating series. Next week, I will share some helpful resources that are available.

Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.