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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ask The Matriarch: where your treasure is there also will be your heart

Active involved and caring member of a parish wonders about how to raise the church's consciousness about paying fair wages to parish staff.

Dear Matriarchs:

I am a layperson and a member of my church’s governing body (as of the Spring this year). I have been an active, involved, voting member of the parish for 5 years. I have been horrified to learn in recent Vestry discussions that all of our staff are currently paid at about 75% of replacement value. We have had the same Rector for many years; most of the other staff members are also long-term members of the parish (another and different issue!) and are very dedicated and devoted.

I work for my state government, so I am well familiar with being underpaid and staying with it for the benefits (tangible or intangible) as well as intense belief in and support of my vocation.

The problem has only come to attention because our wonderful organist has left, and to get a new person of the caliber we have come to expect over the last years, we would need to pay that person…an amount that would stretch the budget…and would also mean that our Music Director would be paid approximately half of what the organist would be making. The inequity, and his inability to live on his current small salary would probably mean him leaving, at the same time that he is recommending and supporting the higher salary for the organist!

The rest of the vestry has been aware of this and doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. I am trying to learn from my rector: why as a congregation we are not aware of this; why as a vestry we are not actively addressing it and making it a major priority of our stewardship campaign.

I hope that someone else can shed some light on whether this is common (I fear so), and how it might best be addressed.

From Matriarch Jan:
Dear Beloved Saint of the Church and Vestry -
How incredibly blessed your congregation (and staff) are to have you among them. It is a gift to have someone who is concerned about equity and paying staff fairly.

Having said this, I just don't know what the answer is, especially in this particular economy. We pay our own choir director and organist much less than they are worth, but they serve only limited hours and earn their primary income elsewhere. I frankly believe that this could be the future for clergy too, for better or for worse.

If you can't afford to pay your staff either you won't have any staff and you will have to get by with what you can afford. Or you will perhaps find volunteers who - out of passion for gorgeous worship for example - might serve for free or for minimal compensation.

This is indeed a common problem and it's probably going to become more common in the next decade. My own denomination's required health/retirement package is forcing many congregations to get rid of their association pastor positions. They just can't afford to keep them.

Jan - A Church for Starving Artists

Rector in Hawai’i writes:
One of the priests in our diocese sends out a survey every fall asking what the salaries of our parish staff are. This helps him to make sure he is at least keeping up with other parish staffs. But paying staff fair salaries has been a chronic problem in churches. It's a matter of justice for us. It's the staff who keeps the day-to-day operations of the parish going and it's the staff who support the ministries of the parish. But the staff must be paid a livable wage in their location. It would be pretty embarrassing to have staff live on food stamps and other welfare benefits. But the vestry must be educated about compensation as a justice issue and must be given the opportunity to figure out how each of them could live on the salaries paid their staff. Often one of the biggest problems in this issue is the rector who doesn't push for a fair wage him or herself. If the rector isn't paid based on experience and education, then it's hard to make the argument that the staff should.

There also needs to be a compensation schedule in the diocese for minimum salaries. This gives more strength to those who are trying to give fair compensation.

The vestry isn't addressing the issue and the congregation isn't aware of it often because no one wants to be the thorn in the side of the way "its always been done." Someone needs to speak up and challenge the vestry and make the information available. This doesn't mean that the vestry will do the right thing re compensation, but they will be forced to decide publicly and intentionally on the issue of compensation.

Just as an aside.... I hired a musician who wanted twice what our choir director was making. I said no, that I couldn't let our choir director be paid less than the church musician. We found other ways to give her support, like mileage and continuing ed money. My own goal for the next couple of years is to bring the salaries of the choir director and musician in line with American Guild of Organists (AGO) recommendations and with what I see parishes of a similar size being paid in urban areas on the mainland. I've told both individuals that I would be doing that. It took 6 years to get our parish administrator at a respectable level for salary and compensation; now it's the turn of those who supply our musical prayer and worship.

Rector from New Jersey had a surprising discovery when work hours were studied. She also recommends the AGO web site for help with fair wages and contract suggestions:
Just last year we went through a very similar situation. We did a very careful time study and slowly began to realize that while our organist was at the church for more than the number of hours we paid him, he was, in fact, teaching students in the choir room. So, in fact, we were subsidizing his private teaching practice. We cut the position from 3/4 to 1/2 time and kept the salary the same. We were able to attract many wonderful, talented, creative musicians who considered the job at remuneration consistent with AGO standards.

One learning we obtained from that process, besides the importance of a time study, was to go to the AGO website and look at the suggest rates as well as the suggested format for contract. Print out the information and bring copies to your wardens and vestry as well as every member of the choir.

AND, post it on the bulletin board in the back of the church. Stand up on Sunday and make the announcement that the information is available in the appointed space. That way, everyone gets educated.

If you think there will be resistance to that, stand up in church at the announcements anyway and let people know the web site url and/or let them know that you have copies of the print out.

In these times of economic worries - what do you recommend? What is happening to wages for the staff at your church? What about health insurance, pension, and other benefits? What other ideas do you have for active layperson?


  1. I have no recommendations, only shared concerns. We too ran with the AGO suggested guidelines. It's steep for many congregations, but it is the going rate. Education, it seems, is essential. People forget that the church staff is not simply doing the work out of the kindness of their hearts. This is their vocation and profession more often than not.

    That being said, we are completely hamstrung by salaries right now. We are spending an incredible percentage of our church budget on staff...more than 60%. This has led to all kinds of financial gymnastics that I am uncomfortable sharing here. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Incredible mess.

    As our congregations move forward, we'll have to get inventive, rethink what it means to have a "professional" staff and a "vocational" staff. It may have once been a sign of the Kingdom to have Dr. So-and-so in the pulpit and pay him handsomely. But now I am not so sure any of us should be looking in that direction at all. We have to be tent makers. And it is a bitter pill to swallow.

    Here' a follow-up question: Should clergy be paid as professionals?

  2. I think I hear you, and Jan, too, saying "not." It's hard for me to separate the follow-up question "What will this mean for churches" from the more personal follow-up "What will this mean for me?"

    Churches will survive, no doubt, in some form, perhaps reverting to their counter-cultural origins.

    I, on the other hand, as a 47-year-old with no other skills and a "pre-exisiting condition," will face unpleasant possibilities. It's not like I answered this calling in a spirit of greed, after all. But if my reality is to be squeezed out, well, that's pretty depressing.

  3. Songbird,

    I too think it is supremely depressing. I like the life of a full-time pastor. It's not opulent by any stretch, but I love the focus provided by a salary and a parsonage. Shifting away from that will be incredibly painful...Let's hope it does not come to that.

  4. Even as a pastor in the 30 and under age group, I can't imagine what would lie ahead if I ended up being forced out because of money. I'm here because this is where God called me and gave me the gifts to succeed. I can sincerely say that I would not be nearly so gratified in other work. A pastor/mentor of mine once told me, "Don't go into ministry if there is anything else you can do." Well, I never could come up with anything else since I know this is where I'm supposed to be.
    It's a difficult thing for churches to face, especially because they want the energy and attention that a full-time pastor (or any staff member)can provide.

  5. I think that compensation is tied to the budget - it is a scary but sad truth that when the budget suffers, you have to pay the heating and lights bills... and the rent/debt costs, and people and programs hurt as a result.

    I could well be out of a job by January because of the economy... despite all that, I keep pressing on. You may see me selling at Best Buy! :)


  6. I suspect that church musicians have it rougher than those in pastoral or other ministries. Our Music Director is in charge of our music, and directs two other major non-church choirs in the city; he occasionally sings in a third, which means rehearsals/practices MTWRF and Sunday mornings. And a parishioner asked, "But what do you do FOR A LIVING?" He explained, "all of the above, plus teaching two classes at the college level". Response: "Jeez, you must be rolling in it."
    I notice too a great incomprehension and reluctance to pay the church-music licensing if the people whose music we use, without fee, on Sunday, can somehow "live on admiration". Or something.

  7. I have been thinking about this a lot since it seems that I am the only paid staff person at my new church. I have a secretary who seems eager to do whatever I ask, for as many hours a week as it takes, yet she has never been paid.

    We also do not have any paid cleaning people. It used to be that people would take turns cleaning the church but fewer and fewer people are signing up. When I suggested we consider hiring someone to do the job if we can no longer get enough volunteers I was told it wasn't in the budget.

    I worry what will happen if my secretary every decides she wants a break or needs to retire. They will NEVER be able to replace her without paying someone. I can't deal with it now but someday I want to have a conversation with her about how she feels about not being paid. I also want to encourage the council to pay her, even if she chooses to turn around and give it all back it is still the right thing to do.

    I haven't been here long enough to know how or if we pay our choir director and organist. I imagine we pay something but it can't be anywhere near AGO guidelines.

  8. Seems to me that if the church wants paid professional ministries - the members need to know what that means in terms of the budget and do what is needed to raise the money. Pensions, health care, fair wage are justice issues - for ourselves and all who serve the church in whatever capacity.


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