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Monday, November 28, 2011

To Compensate a Mystery

Well, the fat has hit the fire, so to speak, and things are heating up.

The realities of implementing General Convention resolution A177 are now before many dioceses - my own included, which has postponed the whole debate from our Annual Convention in January until a specially called convention in June, 2012.

Yup. It's that red-hot.

You can read the entire resolution by clicking on the link above, but the purpose of the resolution was to establish a Denominational Health Plan for "all domestic dioceses, parishes, missions, and other ecclesiastical organizations or bodies subject to the authority of this church, for clergy and lay employees who are scheduled to work a minimum of 1,500 hours annually".

The idea is to provide health care plans for ALL church employees - lay and ordained - by reducing the overall cost of insurance, over time, through the establishment of a denominational health plan.

I supported Resolution A177. Lobbied for it. Although, I had my own misgivings about this part:
"each diocese has the right to make decisions as to plan design options offered by the plan administrator, minimum cost-sharing guidelines for parity between clergy and lay employees, domestic partner benefits in accordance with General Convention Resolution 1997-C024 and the participation of schools, day care facilities and other diocesan institutions (that is, other than the diocese itself and its parishes and missions) in The Denominational Health Plan;".
Turns out, my concerns were not without warrant. The reality of each diocese "making decisions" about "minimum cost-sharing guidelines for parity between clergy and lay employees" is beginning to hit the realities of tough budget decisions in a fragile economic climate.

LDS Statistics
Just this past weekend, the Diocese of Missouri passed a resolution to "pay 100% of the cost of individual health insurance coverage (selected from the offerings included in the Denominational Health Plan and administered by the Episcopal Church Medical Trust) for all lay and ordained employees working 1,500 or more hours annually, in accordance with Title I, Canon 8 of the Episcopal Church and to be implemented no later than January 1, 2013".

AND: " . . . that Congregations within the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri and the Offices of the Bishop shall not reduce existing coverage or increase the cost of existing coverage to employees to comply with A177 or this resolution;".

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Oregon, passed a resolution during their diocesan convention, November 10-12, "that congregations and missions are encouraged to assume 100% of cost related to clergy and lay employee health insurance premiums as has been tradition, however, they may exercise a premium sharing arrangement with employees who shall assume a maximum of 20%".

Ya gotta watch those "however's" and "may's" in any church resolution.

Apparently, the good folks in that diocese followed the lead of A177 which allowed dioceses to practice "local option" and allowed individual congregations to do the same.

A very pragmatic approach. Thoroughly Anglican.

And, I would submit, places the church on a very slippery slope when She's already in very turbulent baptismal waters.

I grow very weary of hearing discussions which compare clergy to teachers or employees in a not-for-profit "charitable" organization.

I'm tired, as well, of the "professionalism of the priesthood".

Weary and, quite frankly, frustrated and yes, angry.

I must say that I grit my teeth when I hear clergy talking about how many "units" they are working in determining whether or not they can "make" a meeting or be on a committee or do anything on their "day off" (in some places, known as "Sabbath time").

I understand that there are courses in some Episcopal Seminaries that have titles like "Career Paths for Priests". The course seeks to help seminarians find the good "jobs" that will lead to the better "jobs" - and, although it's not said outright (although, I understand it is discussed over coffee in the refectory) - might get them elected Dean or Bishop.

LDS Statistics
Back in the day - when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a seminarian - we devoured books like John Snow's, "Impossible Vocation" and Henri Nowen's "Wounded Healer" and anything Evelyn Underhill had to say about the church and the priesthood.

Mind you, the premises of these books have been misunderstood and abused. I am always stunned to hear aspirants for Holy Orders tell Commissions on Ministries that they are seeking ordination because it is their way of working out their issues of.... oh, name an issue... adult child of alcoholics, their own addiction issues, their childhood abuse. They sometimes point to Nowen's "Wounded Healer" as the basis of their claim.

That's NOT what Nowen was talking about! It's not about narcissism dressed up in clerical garb!

It's about living a life of the sacramental embodiment of a heart so filled with gratitude for what God has done in your life, through Christ Jesus, that you commit yourself to the standards of excellence and generosity of Jesus, so that whatever personal sacrifice is made to achieve excellence and generosity, it is made from that place of gratitude.

A priest's whole life is to be that "outward and visible" sign of the inward and spiritual grace of gratitude so as to inspire the church to "go thou and do likewise". The life of an ordained priest is to be that 'sacramental presence' of the 'praise and thanksgiving' of the 'everyday Eucharist' of "ourselves, our souls and bodies".

A priest is a "parson" - a person - with a very public practice of ministry who has been ordained by the institutional church to, in all things, "nourish Christ's people from the riches of his grace, and to strengthen them to glorify God in this life and the life to come." (BCP 531)

How does one "compensate" that?

We all want someone - a God re-presentative - to be there when the diagnosis of cancer comes, or to sit with our grandson in a jail cell at 3 AM because he has been picked up for distributing drugs, or to be the first person we see when our eyes open after open-heart surgery, or in family court when there's a messy divorce with child custody, or in the maternity ward celebrating after the birth of a much longed-for child, or to write the important reference for a much longed-for adopted child from another country, or to answer a difficult question from a six year old when his 40 something father dies in a car accident, or to do a graveside service for the family matriarch, or say some "meaningful words" in a country club setting of a Memorial Service or Wedding, or to testify in a public hearing about an issue of justice - pick one, any one, from marriage equality to a zoning issue or a labor union organization to whether or not a Walmart or Starbucks or Soup Kitchen or low income housing should come to your neighborhood - to be reassured that God is there, with us in the joy and pain and struggle of life.

To be a poet - an artist - making the connection between a spider's web and the fragile but incredible strength of the interconnected web of the human community across lines of ethnicity and race, gender and sexual orientation, age and physical ability.

But, we don't want to think about actually paying for that service because, well, it's vulgar and it spoils the romance of the moment.

We're the church, for Christ's sake! Aren't we even a little different from public schools or local service organizations or even the Red Cross - good as they may be?

Neither Nowen nor Snow or even Underhill promote the sacrificial life of priesthood as something one ought to give oneself to until the very marrow of their bones had been sucked dry. Indeed, if that happens, something else is going on and it's terribly wrong.

I fear that the whole "sacrificial priesthood" has been so misunderstood and abused as to find itself on the other end of the extreme in some discussions about "Clergy Wellness" and "units" and "Professionalism" and "Career Paths for Priests".

It's an understandable defense mechanism against the abuses of the sacrificial nature of the priesthood - both imposed and self-imposed - but it is based on a more secular, pragmatic, "professional" understanding of the role and function of the priest and not on the theology of what "the priesthood" is - and who "the priest" is - in the church, which, as St. Paul tells us, is the Body of Christ.

Which brings me to my point: I think this whole conversation is really just a symptom - like a cough is not a diagnosis but a symptom - of a larger issue about the current state and the ever-rapidly-approaching future of the church.

The easy, pragmatic path is to compare the church with any other not-for-profit organization and talk about how the church ought to "model compensation" in terms of "parity".

It's easy. It's pragmatic. And, it's wrong. Dangerously wrong. It's much more complicated than that.

Parity, I should note, is not a biblical - much less theological - term. Justice, on the other hand, is. Justice, however, does not mean sacrificing anyone for the sake of the institution. 

If anything, the institutional church - The Body of Christ - ought to sacrifice for the sake of its members. You know. The way Jesus did. Alas, it rarely does.  Unfortunately, the institutional church is all about self-preservation, which is why She is so often beset by mediocrity and injustice.

If there is any "modeling of compensation" to be done, why not look at how priests are compensated from church to church and diocese to diocese?

And then, let's look at how deans and bishops are "modeling compensation" for the rest of the church. I'm thinking we'll find such wide variables to make our heads spin, our stomachs ache and our hearts weep.

We are not just another "charitable organization" that does "good works". We do that, of course, but not so that we can "feel good about ourselves" in "giving back to others" and "making a difference". That happens as a byproduct of a life of faith lived in community, but it is not the raison d'etre for the church.

Which leads to the questions that, I think, are central to this discussion about "clergy compensation": "What IS the reason for the existence of the church? Today? In this day? In these times? Right here. Right now. And, for future generations of Christians?"

Talk to me - please - about what it means for YOU. Where you are. In your life. And then, let's talk about that in ever-widening circles of community.

And then, let's talk "church as institution" and about power and authority.

And then, let's talk about how we describe the church in that amazing prayer we all say at the Great Vigil of Easter (BCP 291): ".....Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery...." and what that really means for us.

How do we "compensate" a mystery if we can not even acknowledge it except in a prayer said once a year in a service that too many are "too busy" to attend because it's "such a long service" and never held an a time that is "convenient"?

Perhaps we will discover that mysteries don't look like hierarchies. They are more circular and amorphous in structure - if they have any structure at all.

However will we deal with THAT?

I've gone on too long - much longer than I intended - and I apologize for that, but I'm not taking back a single word. Nope, not one. Indeed, I have more to say but I'll leave it at that.

I hope this post provides the stimulus for conversations in ever-widening circles about the great mystery of the church and how it is the vehicle for "the effectual workings of (God's) providence" - BEFORE we get into discussions about compensation for clergy.

Oh, and here's a book for today's generation of clergy and laity which I think ought to be required reading before any discussion about the "business" of the church: "This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers" by Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver.

The fat has hit the fire which has been smoldering for a long time, temporarily waylaid by our heated discussions about human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular.

I hope we can build on what we've learned in these years of discussion about sexuality and begin to talk about intimacy and power and authority.

There's a reason that religious communities take vows of "chastity, poverty and obedience".

Sex. Money. And, power.

These three issues will always be central to any discussion about what it means to be "church" - the Body of Christ.

Let the discussion begin.

I hope it will set our hearts on fire with a passion for the gospel.


Bruce Robison said...

Dear Elizabeth,

As you know, you and I in another forum often disagree. But I think you are pointed toward the target with this, and I thank you for the very thoughtful beginning of this exploration.

The "professionalization" of clergy has been a long process over the last few generations, and probably since the second war. There are obviously multiple layers of issues. If we believe that clergy may marry, we need to assume that they will have spouses and, in many cases, children. Who will need to be clothed, fed, educated, etc. But the coherent core of priestly and pastoral identity and service began to fray in the 60's and 70's, and clergy more and more began to think of themselves not as pastors and priests, spiritual leaders, but as "helping professionals," counselors, managers of programs and institutions. The "impossible vocation" more and more a very possible "career" indeed.

This is, anyway, a conversation that will need to be conducted with great seriousness in the years ahead. I hope you saw Tony Clavier's two most recent pieces on his blog, which approach the question from a different angle.

Blessings, and, again, thank you--

Bruce Robison

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bruce, I'm delighted that we agree on this issue. I suspect we are not that far apart on many issues in the church. We just articulate them differently.

I agree that clergy have been their own worst enemies in the "professionalization of the priesthood". It makes me shake my head. I think it's an over-reaction to the "sins of the fathers". We can correct that, but we've got to get our theology of the priesthood - indeed, of the church - in order.

I will have to get myself over to Tony Clavier's blog. He always enriches my thinking about the church and priesthood.

Thanks, Bruce.

Caminante said...

I have come to realise that I understand priesthood as being not doing. I still love Archbishop Michael Ramsey's descriptions of a priest: a person of prayer, reconciliation, preaching and the Eucharist. And priesthood is profoundly relational. I am unemployed because the powers that be where I served understood their priest to be a leader who would, in the words of one person, 'drag the congregation kicking and screaming' forward in a new vision. Sigh.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Caminante - Oh, honey, I have been where you are. Had one former Sr. Warden tell me - from his heart - "Elizabeth, mission is a luxury."

Hand to Jesus.

And, to ask the difficult if not impossible question: Where was your bishop in all this?

Right. Without a vision and support "from the top", no church - I repeat, No. Church. - will feel motivated to move into the future.

I'm so sorry. Priests are not about 'status quo' because we're all about the gospel.

I grow convinced that the institutional church is all about maintaining itself - and the status quo.

walter said...

True intimacy, 4, is beyond and before any institutional power and authority. I am convinced of this now more than ever. In the name of One God.

Walter Vitale

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Amen, Walter.

Elaine C. said...

Diocese of Southern Ohio is in the midst of implementing this -- our diocesan discussion included whether or not establishing a minimum meant that would be all that would be provided. But the Bishop and staff and a few of the larger churches will be the guinea pigs -- testing the new plan. I asked if my less than minimum hours administrative staff person could be in the insurance pool -- if she paid for her premium (instead of stuck with individual insurance which she can't afford). The answer was no. She won't have insurance much longer

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Elaine C- I don't think that's the intent of A177. Indeed, I know it wasn't. I would push that point further. Write to CPG yourself.

Honest to Pete! Talk about "best intentions" being the pavement on the road to hell.

Matthew said...

I know you don't like comparisons to the corporate world or other non-profits, BUT one of the stats I keep hearing from the OWS crowd is that in the 1950's corporate CEO's often earned no more than 7, 8 or 9 times the lowest paid worker. You know like, 7 dollars an hour versus 700,000 per year. And today that disparity has shot up so that now many CEO's make several hundred times the lowest paid worker -- 7 dollars an hour versus 700 million a year. So my idea is that Bishops can only make a certain percentage more (a tiny percentage, maybe 25%) more than the lowest paid full time rector or priest in charge. Or no more than 10% more than the highest paid full time rector in the diocese. And, that whatever health insurance the bishop gets, every parish or diocese has to provide that health insurance plan to all full and part time, lay and ordained, staff. I mean, if money or lack of it is the problem, it seems the purple shirt crowd ought to be the first to take big haircuts and have benefits and salaries cut to match their low paid staff or at least low paid clergy colleagues.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Matthew! You pinko-commie-socialist-radical you! What are you trying to do, destroy democracy? Ruin the church?

What would Jesus say?

I'm thinking he wouldn't say much - just stand up and applaud like crazy!

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

Elizabeth: I migrated over here from being a lurker on the HoBD list. The challenge of essentially "paing for a mystery" is a difficult one, made more so by the assumption that even if the monastic vow of chastity is out for married clergy, the vows of poverty and obedience are still there! The difficulty is that if priesthood is priceless, the how does one agree on fair compensation that doesn't ask the priest and family to go without so that the bulk of the congregation, some with six figure incomes, can comfortably maintain their 2% giving rate? To say nothing of the requirement that all priests have master's degrees!

As full-time clergy positions become more and more rare, the notion of a 24/7/365 priest may have to undergo some modification.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Tom - I think the conversation begun by A177 is already changing the way we think of church and her ministers - lay and ordained.

Not "slight modifications" - total transformation is in order.

Elaine C. said...

Thanks for the suggestion -- I checked with CPG and asked my bishop -- and they emphatically say "NO BENEFITS, unless the person works over 20 hours a week" even if they are willing to pay for these themselves. What annoys me further, is that an elderly retired lawyer and retired deacon in the parish pays for his health insurance through the parish -- and he's never been a paid employee. Guess he is grandfathered in on some old policy ... but I can't convince anyone that fairness would say that if he gets insurance he pays for -- the part-time secretary should too ... yep, life and the church aren't fair ;-)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, see how these Christians love one another. I'm so sorry, Elaine.

Anonymous said...

40+% of people in this country do not have employer supplied health insurance. They are also asked to pledge and support the parish.

The average employee cost sharing percentage is now running in the area of 25% of policy costs. Again these people are asked to pledge and support the parish.

Cadillac health care policies are nice but are 30 years out of phase with Americas present reality

Anonymous said...

Just south of 50% of people do NOT have employer provided health care insurance.

The average cost sharing formula for those that have employer provided health care insurance is now 25% employee and 75% employer.

Health care liability is increasing at the rate of 130% plus over a decade. While inflation is the same 10 year time frame is in the area of 28%.

I think this whole conversation is 30 years out of date. Parish cost control REQUIRES cost sharing for survival. It will eventually require shifting from insuring families to insuring the individual employee (Diocese of Central Florida direction).

The only real fix is getting all people (CONGRESS specifically and Bishops and clergy) into the program and have real cost control.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Dear "Unknown" - Yes, you are right: the problem is systemic and so must the "final" solution be - HOWEVER - I don't (and many clergy do not have) "Cadillac" health insurance policies.

I find that signing yourself as "Unknown" vs. "Anonymous" and making this kind of swipe highly suspect.

Therefore, if you want future opinions posted on this blog, please have the courtesy of identifying yourself. Thank you.

BTW, I think it's not "Health Care" that needs to be fixed as much as it is the ENTIRE Insurance industry.

Anonymous said...

I see my profile did not have my name listed. Does this help??

I find that signing yourself as "Unknown" vs. "Anonymous" and making this kind of swipe highly suspect.

If my profile update does not work my name is Leonard S.

"Therefore, if you want future opinions posted on this blog, please have the courtesy of identifying
yourself. Thank you."

"Cadillac" came from the a Episcopal Church Medical Trust article. They were discussing possible impacts on health care that might be come into play with some 2018 law changes.

I think that in the back of their mind is that for 2012 the national average family level health plan is in the area of $16,000 while the Episcopal Church Medical Trust plans are in the area of $21,000 to $22,000.

As far as what clergy has what I really have no idea. But I do see that 87 out the the 101 U.S. diocese participate in the Medical Trust and that they indicate that by 2011 (now) that number might be 94 out of 101. For what ever that means.

Indeed if you feel your medical coverage is not up to "standard" you should review that with your vestry.

Thank You

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Leonard S - for leaving your name and identifying the source of that term. I'm sure that there are those clergy who are horribly underpaid and feel "justified" by getting the best insurance coverage as a way to feel better compensated. I'm also sure there are clergy who don't give a tinker's damn about the cost and get what they want.

I think there are probably more clergy like me who actually read what is being offered and try to get the best plan for the best price.

Even so, I must say that it does gall me when Vestries allocate dollars for *the best* of everything else in the church - from new hot water boilers to replacement flooring for the narthex - and, themselves, have "Cadillac" insurance policies, but expect "the help" to be compensated at or just above diocesan minimum standard, tithe (10%) of said salary to the church (while none of them do) live in rectories that hover around minimum standard housing and pay for all the entertainment at the rectory.

That above paragraph describes more the norm than you may imagine.