In defense of church workers

By | March 26, 2009

Knowing that our Letters to the Editor is the only place readers can express their views (as long as libelous statements or character attacks are excluded), writers are given some latitude in sharing opinions. The letter in question did not personally attack anyone. But sweeping generalizations about church employee salaries did offend some readers.

As two church ministers pointed out in follow-up letters to the editor last week, clergy members are underpaid when compared with people in other fields with similar educational credentials. The same could be said for lay employees, including myself and other diocesan and parish employees.

However, while I am a church employee, I’m also a journalist. Preserving another’s right to express an opinion overshadowed feelings of insult or the instinct to correct an opinion. Journalists are constant targets of criticism. Thick skin is a mandatory job requirement.

In this case, the thick skin blinded my compassion for fellow church workers, many of whom spend long hours, including nights and weekends, serving God and their church. It is not uncommon for men and women who were in the business world to trade their high paying jobs for lower-paying, yet often more meaningful church ministries. Nor is it unusual for church ministers to take on loans to pay for undergraduate and graduate degrees to qualify for jobs that traditionally pay lower than comparable jobs in the private sector. To ask them to again sacrifice and take an additional pay cut is uncharitable.

According to a 2005 National Pastoral Life Center study, the average salary of full-time lay ministers in six categories studied was $35,261. In addition, the National Association of Church Business Administration reported in 2006 that the median salary for Protestant, non-ordained, general pastoral ministers was $48,100 – more than $15,000 more than the average for Catholic pastoral ministers. (In some cases, however, these figures include housing for Protestant lay ministers.)

While the pay cut sentiment is understandable when the targets are CEOs in the financial investment and banking fields, it fails when applied to Catholic school teachers or other church professionals. At this moment in U.S. church history, when diocesan income from financial investments is shaky and diocesan fund-raising campaigns risk lower contributions due to the economy, taking aim at church workers does not contribute to the discussion of resolving our economic crisis.

In fact, the important role church workers play may only increase as people who are unemployed, or who face unemployment, seek guidance, counseling and spiritual direction.

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