PeaceBang has had nothing to say about clergy image for awhile, and has been blogging on other matters this month at PeaceBang.com.
I am thinking and talking a lot about the growing disparity between the high costs and expectations imposed on those who feel called to the ordained ministry vs the shrinking compensation packages and social status of clergy in the mainline Protestant church in America. I am talking about this with lay leaders and clergy of many denominations across the nation and I think it is a very important conversation.
How many times have I consulted with newbies fresh out of seminary who are earnestly trying to make a fabulous impression at a job interview for a position that pays maybe $25-34K a year (in the Boston area, this is a very low salary) and offers no health insurance, very little vacation and a the promise of exhausting work with a dysfunctional little religious community? Too often.
PeaceBang doesn’t want to depress you, darlings, but we’re losing perspective as a people of God. Remember: if you’re prepared to take on tremendous student debt to obtain an M.Div., spend your days and nights deeply tethered to a community of worshipers (and far beyond), and to make the necessary sacrifices with your family that parish ministry require,congregations should feel an equal obligation to make the work of ministry feel rich and fulfilling and worth your lifeblood.
Ministry is mutual. I’ve spoken with half a dozen pigeons in the past month who are accepting calls at congregations that are woefully under-compensating them. I understand the passion to do ministry: I feel it myself. But I urge all of you (especially newbies) to understand the unsustainability of trying to give of yourselves as generously as the ministry requires while living in poverty. Please, I urge you, do the math and work with a financial advisor to work out what you can actually live on. And negotiate with the congregation. If they cannot afford to pay a living wage for your geographic area, they should not be served by a full-time pastor. To do so creates a culture of exploitation and resentment and is bad for the church and the ministry.
This is the second finance-related post I’ve written recently, and for good reason: I’m concerned about the rising costs of graduate level education, food, gas, housing and cars vs. the struggling economic situation at the majority of mainline Protestant American churches. There is a serious gap there, and men and women of the cloth are laying their bodies over that gap and making themselves martyrs to the ministry.
As Miss Dolly Parton said in “Steel Magnolias,” “Get off the Cross, we need the wood!”
Of course I’m proud of you and excited when you get a job with the Little Church On The Hill in East Overshoe, Pennsylvania. But before we talk about your new professional wardrobe needs, I want you to get out that calculator and see if you can even begin to keep body and soul together on what they’re offering. Find out what a teacher in the area makes, or some other commensurate position that requires a graduate degree. If you have a spouse who makes good money, don’t let that be an excuse for a congregation to offer you poverty wages because they know that Mr. or Mrs. will carry most of the weight necessary to support your family. That sets up a church to get more minister than they can afford, and it’s unfair to the person who will be in the position after you.
For too long, ministers have jumped with joy at the very notion of getting a pulpit. It’s time to partner more respectfully and professionally with our churches, to negotiate ethical compensation packages and to nicely inform underpaying, over-demanding congregations that you’ll work X amount of hours or weeks for what they’re able to offer. Be clear about that hours, and keep them firm. Then get a second job at someplace local and interesting, tutoring or teaching or making coffee or selling books. The church won’t get into the cozy habit of exploiting clergy and you’ll get to hold a healthy boundary around your professional obligations to them, while staying in touch with non-parish sources of income.
Of course we all know that there’s no such thing as part-time ministry: we carry the community in our hearts, souls and minds 24 hours a day, every day of the year. But that doesn’t have to mean that you are on call all those hours. Not for the paltry compensation packages I’ve been seeing, my dears — it’s a justice issue.