Why do Swiss clergy earn so much?

A Catholic priest and a Protestant pastor blessed the new Gotthard rail tunnel at its opening in June 2016 Keystone

Are Swiss pastors really paid more than most other professions? A recently published guide to Swiss salaries revealed some outliers that intrigued our readers, so we looked into them.

This content was published on April 10, 2017 - 11:00 and agencies

The 800-page salary book, or “Lohnbuch”, published last month by canton Zurich's office for economy and labour shows typical starting salaries in the Zurich region for professions ranging from bakers to politicians.   

The salary book showed that a pastor at a protestant church makes CHF9,084 ($9,023) per month, putting them among the highest earners ahead of army officers, civil engineers and journalists, for example. However, that is for a 48-hour work week, eight hours more than most of the professions reported in the survey since normal full-time employment in Switzerland constitutes 40 hours per week. A Catholic priest in the Zurich region earns CHF8,595 per month for a 42-hour work week. Pastors’ working hours are typically longer because they visit parishioners and perform ceremonies in addition to their normal duties at churches.

Werner Näf of the Swiss Pastors’ Association explains that pastor salaries differ significantly from canton to canton in Switzerland. A pastor must also have a Masters degree, which takes at least five years to complete, and must serve as a trainee making CHF2,500 per month before being assigned to a permanent position.

Näf says that pastor salaries in Zurich are indeed high when put in an international context. But, he points out that salaries elsewhere in German-speaking Switzerland can be up to 20% lower and those in French-speaking regions lower still.

"The number quoted in the salary book is not representative,” he says.

Näf adds that many years ago, a rule of thumb was that a pastor working about 50 hours a week would earn about the same amount as a teacher at an upper secondary school for students planning to attend university. However, he says that rule no longer always applies since pastors’ salaries are generally lower than they used to be.

Churches in Switzerland are funded through taxes collected from church members directly through cantonal tax systems. A person declares to authorities which religion they belong to – if any – and is taxed accordingly if the religion is formally recognised by the canton.

Of course, when looking at Swiss salaries, it’s important to keep in mind that the country’s cost of living is among the highest in the world. The budget below shows what a typical middle-class family might spend their earnings on in a given month.

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