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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Reality of Resolutions

Suppose General Convention decided at its gathering in Indianapolis in 2012 that mission was a high priority in the church. And, knowing that "all mission is local", it mandated, by canon, that, within the next Trienium (before the next General Convention in 2015) 25% of every congregational budget be designated for mission.

That would be an amazing commitment, right? Imagine what we could do to further God's mission in the world. The Episcopal Church would begin to come alive with possibilities.

People would give long speeches about how this was long overdue and how this resolution was a manifestation - A 'showing'. An epiphany! Indeed, the very incarnation! - of the justice of God.

Others would express concern about mandating ANYTHING at the congregational level by the UES (Upper East Side - aka "the elite") folks at 815 Second Ave in NYC and would raise questions - important questions - about monitoring and accountability.

Still, we would all agree - in principal - with the resolution and canonical change and then take it to the local level to work out the details.

Ah, and we all know that the Devil is in the details, right?

So, how do we define mission? How is that different from 'outreach'? Or, 'inreach'? Or, for that matter, how is mission different from 'evangelism'? Or even 'stewardship'? If we can't define mission except in the broad brush strokes of the Cathechism of the Church, is there at least a list of criteria which gives us some context and, perhaps, a few parameters so we can all be in compliance with canon law?

Some congregations would simply ignore the resolution - aided and abetted by diocesan staff who are already stretched too thin to monitor or police congregational compliance levels. Except, of course, when parochial reports are turned in and someone at the national level begins to do a random diocesan study and - oops! - someone calls "the suits". Who would, no doubt, tsk, tsk, and tut-tut but nothing would really change. As an institution, we just aren't built that way.

As difficult and frustrating as that would be, it really wouldn't be any different from many of the resolutions passed by General Convention. Even those that create canonical change - including the canons that prohibit discrimination in the ordination and deployment processes.

There are ways to get around the resolutions and canons. We've seen of late in the Diocese of South Carolina, which recently amended their diocesan canons to say they won't be in compliance with national canon if said canon is against their diocesan theology.

There are also ways to make resolutions do what you couldn't otherwise accomplish in the diocese - which may or may not be what the canonical change intended.

Take, for example, General Convention Resolution A138 which established the Lay Employee Pension System as well as A177. This resolution addressed social justice issues around adequate benefits for the Church's lay employees by canonical requirement that each diocese establish a "cost-sharing policy" and that it be "the same for clergy and lay employees who are scheduled for at least 1,500 hours of compensated work per year".

The deal was that, in those diocese which did not subscribe to the CPG (Church Pension Group) "Medical Trust", at least some of the "cost-sharing" would be seen in the diocesan subscription to the options in the Medical Trust through "lower annual premium increases".

Stay with me now. I know how I get when folks start talking finances and insurance policies and diocesan budgets. It can cause a severe case of MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over). This is really about as detailed as I'm going to get.

You can read the stuff for yourself at the Church Pension Group FAQ site concerning these two resolutions/canonical changes.

The canon is effective January 1, 2013.

I'm curious to know how other dioceses are handling the implementation of these two resolutions.

At the Clergy Day in the Diocese of Newark, where I'm still canonically resident (but licensed in the Diocese of Delaware), it got pretty hot. And, I'm not just talking about the weather.

So, just to give you some background information, turns out, the Diocese of Newark has been - like everyone else - struggling with the justice issues involved in parity and cost-saving.

After our Clergy Day gathering, I went and checked the minutes from the October, 2010 budget hearing. Here's part of what I found:
"The diocese has a defined benefit pension plan for lay staff at Episcopal House. While it is now closed to newly hired employees, it is still in place for a number of staff. It has not been funded through the budget for too many years -- this preliminary includes the annual cost in the salary/benefits lines. The Lay Pension Fund Contribution line shows an amount to begin to fund the previous underfunding of this plan."
A second slide showing what was "out of balance" that Diocesan Council would need to address in finalizing the budget indicated $100,000 as "lay pension plan current year and partial back funding."

It looks to me that the diocese decided, very sensibly, to put a freeze on offering a defined benefit pension plan for any newly hired employees so that it might begin to address the serious arrears in pension payments for lay staff who are already in place. I assume this means that the diocese would not offer positions that involved more than 1500 hours per year, so as to avoid the canonical requirements.

However, this was not the recommended course of action given by the Bishop's Advisory Commission on Human Resources (BACHR), which took a very interesting turn.

After a careful study of the impact of Resolution A177, the BACHR determined that there were approximately 17 congregations in the Diocese who would experience an adverse financial effect from having to provide pensions for their lay employees who work more than 1500 hours per year.

Their idea of "cost sharing" and "parity" (read: "justice") is to treat all employees of the church - lay and ordained - the same. So, the resolution being proposed by the BACHR for diocesan convention in January is that the new recommended diocesan standards for all newly hired clergy and laity (after January 1, 2013) who work 1500 hours per year (approximately 30 hours per week) be required to pay 10% of all health insurance costs.

Some of you are yawning now, scratching your head over your coffee or tea and asking, "Yeah, what's the big deal? It's happening all over the place. Been happening for a while. This is the real world. More evidence of the rapidly shrinking middle class. Suck it up and get used to it."

I understand. However, I have a few observations.

First of all, as I read it, this is NOT the spirit of the resolution of A177. Rather, I think, what the diocese has done, in its own house, is. Stop what you're doing until you can pay what you owe and then, going forward, stay in compliance with the canons.

Very sensible.

Or, as I've taught my Vestry and all of my seminarians, "If you can't afford to pay for a lay employee, you can't afford a lay employee." That means that, if the church determines that this program or mission is a priority, the clergy and folk in the pew need to roll up their sleeves to get 'er done.

That's cost-sharing the cost of discipleship.

This proposed diocesan resolution is being draped in the mantle of "justice". Well, as Fanny Lou Hammer observed, justice is not about "just us". It's about God's justice. It's not a selective thing which is done for the convenience of the institution. It's a corporate thing which is done for the Realm of God.

What does this resolution mean, pragmatically, for clergy and clergy families? Well, some of the folks from the Newark Episcopal Clergy Association (NECA) have done a little analysis of the situation and found that, depending on whether there is a single or family plan, as well as the type of insurance plan selected, this could range from $0 to $21,547 per year.

Not to worry, we were told. This would come right out of your pay check in easy monthly or bimonthly payments and - hey, here's an added benefit - actually LOWER the amount of taxes you have to pay. What a deal, right? You can be righteous AND save money while getting less money in your paycheck!

Don't ask us to explain it. It's just one of the mysteries of God's work in the church.

So what, right? Things are tough all over. Get used to it. This is the cost of the justice of parity and cost-sharing in our post (or pre or actual) recession/depression lives. It's the ecclesiastical manifestation of the amazing shrinking middle class.

Well, let's look at that for a moment.

On one level, a very basic, one-dimensional level, the obvious is that clergy and lay employees are both . . well . . .employees. I would submit to you, however, that everything after that is like comparing apples and spaghetti.

First of all, clergy have to meet certain very rigorous educational requirements which, unlike other professions, do not immediately guarantee employment. In almost all dioceses, aspirants and postulants and candidates for Holy Orders must attend and graduate from a three year, master's level seminary.

In some dioceses, like the Diocese of Newark, if the candidate has not graduated from an Episcopal seminary, an additional year of "Anglican studies" is required (referred to with no small amount of sarcasm as "Anglican finishing school").

Mind you, none of these requirements are subsidized by the diocese. Well, not the Diocese of Newark, anyway.

Indeed, according to statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center, the average seminarian leaves seminary with over $100,000 in debt in the anticipation of an average annual clergy salary of $36,000. (In the diocese of Newark, the average annual salary for full time employment is $42,000. The medium - the middle of the lowest of low and highest of high - being $64,000).

Lay employees have no similar educational or canonical requirements for employment.

You do the math. Is this justice?

Besides which, more and more seminarians are graduating and being ordained only to discover that full time positions are drying up and only part time positions are available. The old (sick) joke among clergy is that there is no part time work, just part time pay. That's a very accurate statement in my experience. No matter how many hours you actually work, you are - officially or unofficially - "on call" 24/7/365.

So, what is the effect in the Diocese of Newark? I mean, what is the actual impact on how many clergy and laity?

Well, according to a diocesan spokesperson, there are 105 clergy in 107 churches, 66 being full time and 39 being part time. Twenty-nine of the sixty-six full time clergy are paid at or near the minimum diocesan standard.

Let that last fact sink in for just a moment. Twenty-nine of the sixty-six full time clergy are paid at or near the minimum diocesan standard.

There are approximately 161 lay employees in the diocese, 85% of whom work less than 30 hours per week. This means that that there are 25 full time lay employees in 13 churches. We were told that there are, approximately 17 churches in the Diocese of Newark with lay employees who need to come into compliance with the canonical requirements.

To my ears, this is a congregational issue which can be addressed in a similar fashion as the diocesan plan: Freeze hiring of any further employees. Pay what you own. Figure out how you are going to move forward to do the programmatic, administrative and missional work of the church in the midst of a recession/depression.

When I asked a diocesan representative how it is a manifestation of justice to balance congregational budgets on the backs of clergy, the answer I was given was given in the form of a question: "Well, what about those 17 congregations?"

Look, I believe what I say - without crossing my fingers - in the Nicene Creed every Sunday, that we are "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church". Not only do I believe in the catholicity of the church, I have seen it.

I also believe that my call to serve God through the church means that I am called to live a life of sacrifice. I went into the ordination process with my eyes wide open. I knew I was never going to get rich at being a priest.

But, my momma didn't raise no fool, either. I'm a priest. Not a doormat. Besides, my grandmother always taught, "If it's not yours, don't pick it up." In Friedman's system theory, this is defined as "the self-diferentiated self" - something that bishops love to quote when they want clergy to figure out the solutions to their own congregational problems.

Looks to me like this is a congregational issue which the diocese ought to be helping congregations figure out how to do. That's going to take a lot more creativity and imagination than taking red pencils to the easy target of clergy compensation packages.

I believe in God's justice. With my whole heart. I am yet to figure out how this proposed plan of "cost-sharing" is evidence of that justice.

How is it justice that we pay for lay pensions by compromising clergy health care benefits? Really. That's a serious question. I'd love an answer.

What is our concern for clergy families and the children in those families? Do we compromise health care insurance for them? Is that justice?

Everybody is seeing their benefit package dwindle these days. Clergy are no exception. Except we say that the church operates on a different, higher standard than the rest of the world. We love to say that, especially during the Season of Stewardship.  But we seem to forget that when it comes to clergy compensation packages. Is that justice? 

How are we going to attract the best clergy to positions in the Diocese of Newark when our salaries are lower than other dioceses in Province II and will be, effectively, even lower if this new resolution is accepted? Is that justice?

I must say that I was most disturbed by the attitude displayed by the diocesan spokesperson for this proposed resolution.

Two comments struck me. Hard. "Well," this person said, "we've been trying to get you (clergy) to pay attention to this and it looks like we've finally gotten your attention, which is a good thing."

Oh, clergy have been paying attention. This "cost-sharing" scheme is not new. Indeed, it surfaced long before the 2003 resolution which established the lay pension system and the 2006 resolution which called for parity and cost-sharing. By which - please pay attention - they meant subscription to the Medical Trust plan.

We clergy just haven't said anything because we didn't agree and wanted to be polite. Politeness is an occupational hazard of ordained leadership. Sometimes, it's a form of institutional suicide.

The other comment was, "Well, if you (clergy) have to start paying at least a small part of your health care costs, maybe now you'll start paying attention to the particular plan you choose and begin to contain costs."

Like we're all narcissistic, mindless idiots who just select the most expensive health care plan without any regard for the impact this will have on the congregational budget.

I fear these two comments have more to do with the sense of the "justice" of this proposed diocesan resolution than any real sense of God's justice. But, maybe, after 25 years of ordained service in the institutional church, I've just become the jaded cynic I always said I wouldn't be.

The battle is on in the Diocese of Newark. The conversation was heated and, already, some clergy were being identified as "good clergy" and "team players" who "understand the catholicity of the church" and "the principles of justice".

It's the old triangulation routine. Sigh. We've seen this before. In the battle over the ordination of women, there were the "good deacons" who waited patiently for the church to "regularize" the ordination of women. No one said it, of course (we are polite, after all), but this meant, of course that the 11 deacons ordained in Philadelphia and the 4 in Washington were not. "Good". "Team players". Who "understand the catholicity of the church".

I don't know where this will lead. I trust it will lead, eventually, to God's justice. It usually does in the Diocese of Newark. Which is why I love it so and remain canonically resident there. It's also why I think this is a battle worth fighting - even from afar.

I was told by one clergy person to "Chill". He said, "Hey, look, this doesn't affect you or me. I'm fine and you have health insurance coverage and collect a pension. Just let them do what they are going to do - because they'll do it anyway - and let those new people figure how to negotiate their own compensation packages."

Except, I'm haunted by that little parable about God's justice which Jesus told about the workers in the vineyard. Seems to me that Jesus said that whether you show up for work at 8 AM or 12 Noon or a few hours before the whistle blows, you still get the same wages.

That's not fair. That's God's justice.

I'm not sure what scriptural basis the BACHR is using for their "justice" position. I didn't ask. Perhaps someone ought to. Maybe that's my next question.

So, I'd love to know what YOUR diocese is doing about the canonical change requirements. How is your diocese handling "cost-sharing" and "parity"?

See, I really do believe in the catholicity of the church. I think we can learn from each other about how to really share the cost of discipleship. We're so much stronger when we share our creativity and imagination about living into and out of the principles of the Realm of God than when we march, lock step, to the same institutional rules.

That's my resolution, and I'm sticking with it.

I hope to hear from you.


Matthew said...

A few comments, one with respect to resolutions generally. I believe it was Presiding bishop Browning who said he wanted every congregation to have a dialogue about human sexuality. When Katharine became our bishop, she discovered that only 2 of 35 had done so.

As for pay, it has also been the case in some diocese to recruit "volunteers" who will work 40 hours a week (or more) for the church for free. I have seen this repeatedly. They are all women of a certain generation who were not expected to work outside the home (and did not) so when their children were raised, they assumed full times roles (whether as lay or ordained) for free. There are quite a number of priests for example who have no "day job" but who work for the church for free. And church secretaries too.

JMB3 said...

I normally find myself agreeing with all of your blog posts but find myself conflicted by this one. While I want my Rector to be well paid, I think it is misleading to simply cite the average annual clergy salary as a starting point for the analysis of this issue. I live in the Diocese of Connecticut, not Newark, so I am not sure the compensation packages are calculated in the same manner but, in Connecticut, the Rector also gets either a house to live in with all utilities paid or a housing allowance of equivalent value. We also also pay for the Rector's share of Social Security, provide a housing equity allowance so compensate for the Rector not having building up equity, medical insurance and a pension. When we hired a new rector with two years experience, the compensation package totaled $79,000, not including the four bedroom house and utilities, which would probably add an extra $30,000. This is a complicated issue but, frankly, I am tired of priests complaining about their compensation when few of their parishioners live as well as they do.

Elaine C. said...

The discussion is underway in the Diocese of Southern Ohio as well -- I think I'll send the link of your post to our bishop. This is the kind of input he'd understand and use well.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

matthew- well said on both points

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jmb3 - it is a very complicated issue. I know clergy who are living in rectories that are substandard housing. I once had to wait two weeks for my monthly pay check which was, to be sure, mire than most of my parishioners but far less than my colleagues and well below recommended minimum diocesan standard. My pledge was also the largest in the congregation where everyone tithed.

Not everyone is as fortunate as your rector but I'm sure there are a substantial numbers of members who make far better salary packages than your rector. And, expect your rector to dress well, drive a good car, entertain and live in a style that is reflective of the image they have of themselves

Anonymous said...

The primary problem is that the Episcopal Church is dying because of its undying resistance to changing the business model for the conduct of mission and ministry. McDonald's will close and move an unproductive restaurant in a heartbeat, and put up a new one a block down the street.
There are far more efficient models that can and are being explored, where ministry and mission are filled with life, and employees (clergy and lay) are respected and compensated justly. Believe me. We are doing it.
Sherod Mallow, Rector
All Saints and New River Regional Ministry
Fort Lauderdale FL

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Elaine C - I think the more this gets discussed the better we'll all be.

We need to move the conversation from compensation to discipleship.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sherod - I'm sorry, my brother, but we are just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. It's not that I don't respect and on some level even admire the passion and commitment and dedication of your perspective. It's just that I don't share it. I must say that comparing the church's business model with that of Micky D's just leaves me shaking my head sadly.

I really want to move this whole conversation from the business of "building a better yesterday" to one of the cost of discipleship.

Mary-Cauliflower said...

The health and benefits issue is one where I agree with you. I am a lay person who has had some sharp things to say about ingrained clerical attitudes. But I have many ordained friends and have seen the shell game that goes on with medical and unemployment insurance.

This year I went on a brief mission trip to Haiti with a group of lay and ordained people. One priest did not have sufficient medical coverage to receive all of the pre-trip vaccinations and recommended meds. He managed to get some shots through a special program and paid some out of pocket. He couldn't afford the wide-spectrum antibiotic that is highly, highly recommended, however. Fortunately, I had some from a previous mission trip. As I work for a university (read: low salary, dandy medical coverage), I was able to give him my old Cipro and obtain a new prescription for myself.

I'm sure that as a nurse you are not so happy to read about this kind of med-sharing. (My friend and I have an in-joke about taking drugs together.) But our group did get an intestinal bug, and - given the fact that we were all exposed to the same food and water - if he hadn't had the meds, things wouldn't have been pretty.

Like you, when I hear "focus on mission," I want to feel happy, but instead feel suspicious. There are many ways to define "mission," and many ways TEC could be a force for good in the world. But I think they would necessitate reconsidering the way we've done mission up till now, and I don't know whether all of us are prepared to do that.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the cost of discipleship is moving to a different model. You are in a diocese where more than half of the churches are shrinking. I don't think that is Jesus' fault, nor does it seem plausible to blame the dedicated lay persons who make the parishes work. The blame most clearly rests on these highly trained professionals to whom you refer. The cost of discipleship is perhaps letting go of some of the bricks and mortar that is preventing mission, and (quite frankly like any industry) weeding out those, who despite their degrees and pedigrees, are not really fit to lead Christ's church in the 21st century

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mary C - are there clergy who are narcissistic and mindless idiots who have no regard for the congregational budget when selecting a health insurance plan? Absolutely. Are they in the majority? Absolutely not?

This institutional shell game has a name. It's called "triangulation" - setting up the laity vs the clergy. That was not the intention of A117 but that's unfortunately how it's being used.

Anyone - ANYONE - lay or ordained, who is doing mission work in a place like Haiti should have access to ANY prophylactic meds they need. Bless you for sharing your drugs with that priest. Ms. Conroy and I "do drugs" together all the time. Even with the co-pay, it's simply the most cost-effective thing to do.

Paul (A.) said...

"Twenty-nine of the sixty-six full time clergy are paid at or near the minimum diocesan standard."

So are the other 37 paid substantially above the minimum, or below it? Or some combination?

Allen Hinman said...

I agree with your comment that if you can not afford to (properly or fairly) pay a lay employee, you cannot have a lay employee.

Sadly, more and more congregations (at least 2/3) cannot afford to (properly or fairly) pay a priest. Part time (less that 1/2 time to get out of minimums and mandatories) is the future.

Models of ordination to a professional career are obsolete. The national church needs to research what to do with those we have and cannot afford to pay.

Allen Hinman

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anonymous - I usually don't allow anonymous comments but since you were neither abusive nor snarky, I'll allow it so I can comment on it. In the future, please at least give your name.

I don't think it's helpful AT ALL to ascribe "blame" to anyone. I was listening to an NPR program about synagogues celebrating the High Holy Days which have begun for our Jewish sister and brothers. In the synagogue system, the Rabbi is the Rabbi - the teacher - not the administrator. That role is filled by the laity. And yet, more and more synagogues are closing down and some are merging. The NPR story featured a Reformed and Conservative congregation which now share one building. It was cheaper for the Conservative congregation to modify the second floor of the synagogue to include a separate worship and kitchen space than to keep their former synagogue open. The Rabbis interviewed said that, even after the recession/depression ends, this is the model of the future.

I couldn't agree more. I think the Lutheran-Episcopal sharing is one model of this. We'll see more with Episcopal-Methodist sharing. It's a good model. It works. I suspect we'll be seeing fewer church buildings and more church activity.

On this point, we both agree. But, let's not play the "shame and blame" game. It's counterproductive.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul - my suspicion is that, while some are substantially higher, most clergy in the DON receive lower than minimum. Our salary levels are the lowest in the dioceses in the tri-state area.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Allen, I do not want to wait for 815 to do the research. I think we have to use our creative religious imaginations and allow new models to emerge organically. What I do expect from institutional people - especially at the diocesan level - is assistance (and, not just financial) at the local congregational level to help do just that without the unimaginative solution of taking a red pencil to clergy compensation packages, all in the name of "justice".

Matthew said...

In my diocese the vast vast majority of clergy aren't paid a dime.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - can you say more about which diocese that would be. And, what distinguishes clergy who are compensated and those who aren't.

JMB3 said...

Thank you very much for your reply to my comment yesterday and I agree that it is a complicated issue. In our diocese, however, all rectors with full-time positions are as fortunate as ours is. The diocese mandates the minimum compensation package even if it means depleting the endowment. There are few parishioners who make more than our rector, taking the free housing and utilities into account. This creates an inherent tension when the rector asks us to tithe, especially when the fruits of the tithe are going mainly to the rector and the building, not the poor and needy. I find myself agreeing more and more with Maggie Ross that the "force of the Matthean teaching of Jesus, 'You cannot serve God and money,' is one of the few biblical teachings we can take absolutely literally. To pay someone to be self-emptying is a contradiction in terms." (Pillars of Flame at 22). I agree with others that we need a new paradigm.

John Barton

Matthew said...

Of course. I live in Nevada where Katharine was our wonderful bishop (and we have a good one now too). I really miss my one-one conversations with Katharine. We knew her before she was famous. But i digress. Nevada, along with No. Michigan, Alaska and a few other places embraced total or baptismal ministry a generation ago. Most priests and deacons are locally trained or now go tp seminary online. Few Attend seminary. Some have never even been to college. Most have day jobs. In these congregations because being a priest is something you squeeze in, you cannot do it all so the laity do most of the work. I know priests that almost never preach because almost every Sunday a lay Person preaches. I know another congregation where the priest only led worship services once a month (Eucharist). The other sundays were lay led morning prayer which is still common here.

It's NOT a panacea!!! Like many things it came with tradeoffs. A parish could easily survive in this model with an ASA of 100 with a $5000 annual budget assuming the building is paid for. That should have left money for other things like mission and stewardship but in reality the money just dwindled and people gave less. It also hade a way of burning many locally trained priests out and they actually did work tons of hours for no money at all. Not a dime. Not even health insurance. Because the distinction between lay and clergy and employed and volunteer was supposed to be blurred. There are no "employees" lay or ordained in a way that we are all "ministers.".

Some of our churches rejected this model in whole or in part (about 5-7). Those are the few paid rectors.

It's a really long topic and i could go on for hours. Katharine inherited it and tried to make some reforms. But there are some good ideas embedded in it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JMB3 - Yes, well, CT has long been known by the stereotype of Yale and the "natural fiber set" with the dynamic that the way their clergy live and dress and drive is a reflection on them. That's no longer the demographic of Episcopalians in CT. That change is going to come hard. I'm all for justice. Sometimes that doesn't look very fair.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - Jesus had something to say about old wine in new wine skins. I think that happens, sometimes, in the best of Mutual Ministry starts. It's really hard to make the switch. I've heard of "disasters" all over the church - all with the best of intentions. Jesus also said that the worker deserves his wages. There's a happy middle in there somewhere. I think we're going to need a few more years to find it.

Having said that, I really think the Mutual Ministry Model is the way forward because it is the most congruent with the early, ancient, pre-Constantinian church.

Tom M. said...

Thank you for starting this conversation on your blog. It needs to be said that this is NOT a clergy only issue- it's an issue that will negatively affect clergy AND lay employees!

I was in the House of Bishops as an onlooker when they were discussing it. Before passing, the major debate revolved around the suggestion that churches (or even diocesan staffs) might begin to reduce lay employees below the qualifying limit for healthcare (less than 30+ hours per week) so they could get around it. It was a good point to raise because that has happened too often in cases with sextons, organists, etc. where they get 19 hours and don't qualify for benefits. But, the suggestion was shamed and A177 (health) and A138 (pension) were passed. As a clergy person, I was pleased that it passed because lay employees deserve to be treated fairly. I might differ slightly about the # of hours, but the principle was and is clear- find the true cost of employee lay people in positions and don't take the cheap way out!

My concern since the discussion left Anaheim was how it would be implemented on the ground. As you say, the devil's in the details. At first, I presumed it would be a conversation about
a) Determining how many churches have employees who will have to be extended pension (20+ hours, 1000+ annually) and/or healthcare (30+ hours, 1,500+ annually) then
b) Helping to find a way to creatively equip those congregations to do the right thing.

In Newark, we have a tradition of not requiring any cost sharing, and our clergy compensation package has been based upon that being our primary benefit. It seems an easy choice to extend benefits at existing levels. Isn't that the justice mentality behind the resolutions? This should be easy- especially if it's just a relatively small percentage of parishes. Turns out there’s only 13 maybe 17 churches that fall into this category. Out of 107.

But, instead, even before any facts were obtained about # of congregations affected, the conversation has been thrown at us as a “Sundae” of scarcity, covered with freezing chocolate fear, and some more scarcity sprinkles on top. What?! Where did the justice idea go? Again, I ask, “How many churches are affected and HOW CAN WE HELP THEM to do what is just and right?” Why do some members of the HR cmte keep saying that offering lay benefits means taking away clergy benefits? This sounds to me like Huxley’s “doublespeak.”

An integral point is that the current proposal from the BACHR is actually MUCH more detrimental to clergy (and lay employees) than even Elizabeth has suggested. You see, they are suggesting that NO benefits be reduced to EXISTING cures, (likely because of written agreements already in place) BUT that they SUGGEST cost sharing above 90% of the most expensive plan. That's where the 10% comes in, and, as you point out, any cost sharing is a real setback for clergy who are struggling financially already.

BUT........ Where the real injustice comes is the current wording on new hires- clergy and lay alike. For them, it says, there will be a new minimum cost-sharing for parishes at 90% of the average cost of SINGLE coverage. Anything above that needs to be negotiated, although they graciously point out that churches are encouraged to pay more. What happened to the 90% of the most expensive plan depending upon family needs in the above case? Not “tough” enough?

That's where the calculation of up to $21,547 cost to employees comes from. This would apply to clergy people who are called to a church where NO 30+ employee to "benefit" from cost sharing would even exist. This is the case in approx. 90-94 of our 107 parishes. Will some churches voluntarily fill the gap above the 90% of average single? Of course. Will some NOT cover the difference. Yes. Will all be tempted not to do so? Of course. That's what "the devil is in the details" means.
-Tom Mathews

Tom M. said...

“The cost of justice when shared by all”

As a point of interest, did you know that for clergy in the diocese of Newark who earn the minimum of $41,650, which is 29 out of 66 FT clergy, we actually qualify for reduced lunches for our kids in schools! Let that sink in.

I'm not going to get into an argument about clergy salary as some have on this blog. I do think it's unfortunate how some people look at clergy as volunteers who should almost feel embarrassed to be paid. I can tell you that none of us go into this vocation expecting to be rich, but we do expect our spouses, partners and family to be cared for.

No one wants a pity party, but we don't want to get sideswiped. I use the word "sideswiped" because the reality of implementing A177 and A138 should have NOTHING TO DO WITH CLERGY BENEFITS and yet the car keeps coming perilously close to hitting me in my parallel lane. Our conversation around these resolutions should only have to do with how to extend these benefits to our lay brothers and sisters. Many lay people, bishops, deacons and priests all fought TOGETHER to get these resolutions passed. The "bill" for this justice issue (and I say often that Justice isn't cheap- Jesus didn't say take up your hollow aluminum cross and follow me...) is something that we all must share. Those wanting to carry hollow aluminum crosses should watch out for lightening…

In terms of “cost sharing,” clergy are often some of the biggest pledgers in their churches, so they WILL be sharing in the cost. Just like the lay people amongst whom they serve. Most churches that have 1 or more lay employee who works 1,500 hours per year probably have 150-200 pledgers, all sharing the cost.

Now, I agree wholeheartedly that health premiums are overly expensive. But we need to constantly remind ourselves that the high price of healthcare is NOT the fault of the clergy or of the lay people who will be added. It is just the cost. In fact, one real, measurable benefit of getting more people into the Episcopal Medical Trust is to control costs of price increases, and we're already seeing that and will see decreases in premiums after 2013

The conversation going forward has to be about how to implement this justice issue AS a justice issue and IN a justice way. As a community of Christ, we cannot replace one injustice with another. There is a better way. Namely, stop looking at cutting clergy benefits to make room (read "budget neutral" as the corporate mantra) and start looking at how to equip the 13 (maybe up to 17) out of 107 churches to do the right thing. That's the spirit AND the literal meaning of these resolutions and the true goal. Anything else is a thinly veiled attempt to decrease clergy compensation under the guise of extending parity to lay people. Lower the bar so it's easier to pay for. No one's buying it.

If there are to be cost-sharing norms, why aren't reasonable models being explored and proposed? For comparison of cost sharing that teachers have to pay in NJ (a lot closer to our vocation than corporate model) click the link below to see a four year phase in. Using our min. salary level, they pay 1.7%5 up to 7% over a four years phase in. Could I pay 1.75%? I wouldn't want to, but I could see that as a more reasonable starting place.

From my view, the fact that so much of the current proposal deals with ways of reducing clergy benefits, and the fact that so much energy is being spent trying to raise awareness about the detrimental impact to our clergy, is proof that the current proposal has less to do with helping laity than it does with hurting clergy.

The conversation must become about equipping the 13 or so churches (out of 107) in our diocese that even have qualifying lay employees for health premiums. Equip, don't slash.

Let us do justice and love mercy, together.
-Tom Mathews

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Tom - Thanks so much for these two major contributions to the discussion. I've just learned that our neighboring diocese, the Diocese of NJ, has also had discussions on A177. At no time did the conversation include cutting clergy benefits in the name of "justice".

I fear another agenda by a handful of people - supported by 'team players' - that has nothing to do with justice. It's really pretty scary when it's not heartbreaking. Trust is being eroded and the spirit of community is being assaulted.

I applaud and admire and am deeply grateful for your energy around fighting the good fight on this issue.