Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Pastoral "Vocations"

Lurking on a couple of listservs, I've learned a couple of things about pastors and pastors-to-be in the ELCA (my hometown denomination). It seems that of the youngish people going into parish ministry, only about 5% will retire from that vocation. It seems, too, that increasing numbers of seminarians are unwilling to be assigned to small-town and small-state parishes. They prefer to be assigned to the Coasts, where salaries and property values are higher. They, according to commentators, are looking forward to their retirement, which depends on the salaries and investments they are able to pull down during their years of ministry. In what I say that follows, I think that I have the facts straight, but I would welcome correction -- along with citations to where to confirm the facts.

None of this surprises me, understand, but it provokes me to anger and frustration. And there's one issue that, as a born-and-bred small-town North Dakotan, I take special interest in. That is the issue of retirement benefits paid to pastors after their terms of faithful service. (I'm going to leave for now the issue of housing benefits -- tax-free housing benefits, something no other profession or career can allow. That's a thorny one for me, too. So, too, is disparity in salaries paid to pastors: I don't know the range now, but I remember that about 20 years ago, the salary range for pastors ran from about $10,000 a year to $125,000 -- exclusive of benefits. I haven't dared look since then.)

Under the defined contribution plan that the ELCA in its corporation-model-mentality has seen fit to develop, what one earns at retirement from one's "pension plan" (I think that's a misnomer, but I'll use it anyway) depends on what one has contributed during his employment period. (It's somewhat akin to Social Security, but that's another issue, too.) Thus, if one is paid a relatively small salary during one's ministry, one's pension income is relatively small. If one was lucky to pull down $100,000+ a year at some point, retirement income will be better.

It is, I think, simply a fact that salaries and benefits paid to pastors in small one-, two-, and three-point rural parishes are substantially lower than the same paid to pastors of large (usually urban) congregations (which are usually single-point charges). Some of that reflects local economy (as a rule, all salaries and wages are higher in cities than in small towns); some of it reflects differences in memberships in the congregations (more members in a congregation can -- but needn't -- translate into more giving units and more income from which to pay salaries and benefits). But the bottom line for older pastors and their spouses is that their incomes in retirement will be smaller than their peers who served larger parishes.

This is a gross injustice. And it's one I can't fathom the Church can't fix. I do not think that faithful servants should be punished for their willingness to forgo fancier settings, staff relationships, easier healthcare availability, less traveling around, more life amenities (of certain kinds, anyway). And the difficulty is compounded if the pastors who serve in small town ministries live all or most of their careers in parsonages: They reach retirement with no real estate within which to live in their so-called golden years.

Certainly, the current arrangement cannot be justified by a line of argument that these small-town pastors work less hard than their urban and large-congregation brethren and sisters. (It is often the opposite: I know of urban parishes were staff pastors alternate "night duty" by carrying a pager; their residential telephone numbers are unlisted to preserve their privacy and time off. I do not know of any small town pastors in multi-point parishes who have that luxury; all calls come to the parsonage.) Neither can it be argued that their needs in retirement are less than their peers: Indeed, I rather expect that, for example, their healthcare needs could be greater than their peers, given the likelihood that their preventive care was not as good in the "netherlands." And since many of them did actually always live in parsonages, their requirements for housing will be greater.

My question is a simple one: Why cannot the ELCA dedicate itself to care for its pastors? Cannot the retirement pay scale be adjusted to compensate faithful workers for their less-than-adequately compensated work? And if, as I doubt is the case, a retirement plan can't be developed to address the inequities, then why cannot the ELCA supplement contributions to the retirement plans of the lower-compensated clergy to ensure that there is more equity in the situations of pastors who retire? (NOTE: I am concerned here only for pastors who serve parishes. All the non-pastor clergy who work at secular while maintaining some legal fiction of being pastors win no sympathy from me.)

We learn in the Book of Acts that the earliest Christians "held all things in common." I think the reference is to more than the "things of faith." They looked out for one another -- the way our Lord commanded and demonstrated. Aside from the socialist implications that will drive capitalists crazy on merely ideological grounds (but with which I think no Christian should have a problem), there is no valid reason for treating people who have served the Church in this way.

Such a reformation in the structure for supporting pastors won't solve the serious problems I identified at the beginning of this post. If money is the issue determining for pastors where they are willing to serve, then they simply ought not to be pastors. Ministry is service -- and assignment and openness to going where one is sent is part of the game; getting paid properly ought not to be a part of the calculation. (Still, those who submit to the needs and wishes of the Church ought not to be penalized for the submission we expect of them out of misuse or misinterpretation of my thesis. As it is, however, we reward the gluttons and take for granted the sacrifices of the genuine servants.) On the other hand, I doubt that compensation is the major reason that pastors leave pastoral ministry. (The stories I could tell.) I think very few of those who are ordained have a reasonable and confessionally supportable view of what the "role" of ministry is in the world; thus, leaving out of a sense of dissatisfaction or of being unappreciated is not surprising.

And finally, I don't know what to do about the fates of small congregations within the ELCA. I was baptized into a small, rural congregation of the Icelandic Lutheran Synod, in northeastern North Dakota. It was a part of a three-, and eventually five-, point parish. The congregation eventually voted to close and merge into another of the congregations -- facing reality that all the congregations couldn't continue to exist, and being flexible enough not to model the resistance to consolidation that other congregations in the charge displayed. But that area of North Dakota is losing population all the time. Farms are growing because people are aging out of farming and leaving the area. A few congregations are absorbing many of the retirees. But many stubborn congregations insist on remaining open: You've seen the films of congregations with 10 people showing up on Sunday. All of this calls for some sort of conversation about how to deal with church structure and a host of other issues. If nothing else, the ecumenical movement may help us face a dire sociological reality. (Unfortunately, the ELCA seems to be dealing with the sociology without a serious theology of ordained ministry, and that's not going to help with the problem.)

As long as their are congregations that are allowed to remain open and to call pastors, the ELCA has a responsibility to require that the pastors who serve those congregations be treated fairly. It is not doing so currently. How can this change?


-C said...

Well, Dwight, as we all know, if we just love Cheessus enough and have enough faith, the Lord will provide and our rewards will be great in heaven. :-)

Noticeably unincluded in this post are those unordained who have intentionally chosen to serve in Lutheran congregations (even those former AIMs who aren't even Lutheran anymore who continue to serve!)

Chris said...

Well, we could go one step further and provide more equitable pay for pastors across the spectrum, so that there is less financial incentive for pastors to ditch the rural or inner city parishes for the promised land of upper middle class suburbia.

(Or, we could go one step further and actually fund ministry in areas that are not financially self-sustaining!).

Whereas the above ideas of ministry funding are inspired by a drug-induced haze (or was it Scripture?), you are right that we could probably provide a substantive minimum pension for pastors, perhaps based upon per years of service. Those megabucks pastors at wealthy churches still might make out better, but at least those pastors who served smaller churches are not left regretting their call years into retirement . . .

Chip Frontz said...

The Catholics have had special collections and appeals for retired religious for years.

And e-mail me with where you get your info. That 5% number just seems awfully low.

Anonymous said...

Dwight, I'm surprised! You've completely missed the point. The issue is not a willingness or lack thereof in serving small urban, suburban, or rural parishes at all. The issues is lawyers and insurance underwriters. The ELCA will never agree to a centralized pay and benefits system because that would constitute employment. All of the pastors in the ELCA would suddenly become employees of the ELCA if they were so paid. That would mean that as an employer, the ELCA would incur substantial liability for the conduct of its employees...you see where this is going. The only benefits would be those which would acrue to the lawyers for their expertise in litigation concerning gross professional misconduct. As one who has feet in both the profession of clegy and law, I'm surprised you didn't catch this. As always, your friend. WAJ

Dwight P. said...

Thank you for the thoughts.

C, I don't really know anything about the AIM system, so I have deliberately kept the focus on pastors. But you are undeniably correct that the entire structure needs examination. With you, I believe that loving Cheesus is important and I'm all for faith -- but neither of those will cover medical expenses. So in contradiction to the models of corporations in USAmerica, which try to squeeze the "workers" as much as possible to get as much as possible, the Church should set an example.

And Wally, that wouldn't result in either a centralized pay system or in an increase in liability for misdeeds. With any misdeed (just look to the notable example of the new pastor in Texas who was know to be a miscreant when he was certified for ordination), all levels of the Church are held responsible. Employees, under Workers Comp, or not, the Church, individual synods, and congregations assume liability as soon as hands are laid on the person.

The Church has simply listened to lawyers who have been incompletely catechized and who cannot see that USAmerican capitalist practices are not part of the Ten Commandments and are unable to see beyond their secular visions.

I guess that I don't really object to some making out better in the end than others: It's lamentable, but it's also too big an issue for me to get my mind around. If people are fortunate enough to have extra to invest and happen to do well, so be it. (Although I have to wonder how they square that with the teachings of Jesus. As Hauerwas says, Jesus and wealth don't go together.) But parable of the day laborers ought to haunt our denominational administrators!

I honor those who labor for pittances; they must do so out of love of the Lord. But that doesn't excuse heartlessness on the part of the greater church (including many , but not all, congregations who want them to work for nothing).

Chip, I'm not attesting to the 5%, only reporting that I read as a way of indicating what prompted my musings. I'm not sure I could locate the figure again -- though it may have been a posting at ALPB. Consider how many ordained people retain the "Rev" and yet work in schools, administration of synods and "HQ," running publishing enterprises -- which, of course, deprives the confessional understanding of ordination of any substance (word and sacrament, indeed!) -- and you get a hefty percentage right there.

*Christopher said...


I know there are problems in the pension situation and most of what you lay out here is true, however, I think your analysis is overly simplistic, and a little to us/them in some regards.

A small one bedroom (what I would call a "grandma house") in San Francisco goes for about 650-850K in most parts of the city and that's before the bidding wars begin. The same house in many rural areas of the country would go for 50-125K. The likelihood of many pastors in the Bay Area of owning a home is fairly low, especially if they arrived after the 1980s. I think a number of factors have to be considered in your calculations, that an "across-the-board" understanding doesn't account for rather large differences in cost of living. I do think salaries need to be more evened out in terms of range as do pensions, but with some thought to cost-of-living, cost-of-retirement in different areas of the country. And pastors in urban areas too can deal with quite a lot of stress, especially when their parish is in or borders a tough neighborhood, etc. Finding drug needles and condoms on your doorstep, and dealing with meth addicts on a daily basis isn't without its own blood pressure inducing issues.

And for what it's worth we would love to serve in a small town in rural area if they would have us--mostly, however, won't. Which makes me sad, because I wish we didn't have to be stuck in the city.

My own priest and his partner and child live in an apartment--which goes for about 1.5K/month for a two bedroom. It's all they can afford, and our diocese requires 80K in overall benefits, etc. A lot of people in the Bay barely get by, including pastors.

Dwight P. said...

Of course, you're right, Christopher. I ought to know better, having moved here from Chicago (where housing was a lot more expensive than in Minnesota, but where most other staples of life, curiously, were pretty much on par - if not cheaper). I was speaking out of a sense of my own geography.

You highlight, however, an even bigger problem. Aside from the sociological and political problems of the enormous disparities between rich and poor, there is the theological/moral aspect. Lamentably, capitalism-gone-bad has become the unspoken presumption of USAmerican life. It is taken for granted, if not lauded, as God's preference for an economic system (despite what I see as overwhelming Biblical evidence to the contrary). And that is redolent of Constantinianism as much as the Church's inability to decry Mr. Bush's illicit and unjust war.

But it is no surprise that a concern for pensions for poorer pastors (to frame the issue generically) dovetails with issues of Constantinianism. The established Christian Church (regardless of "independent" it claims to be) is so comfortably in bed with the world's culture that -- to switch metaphors -- she is damnably off course. Of course, that is why most of the concern and news out of the national gathering of the ELCA focussed on who's in bed with the pastor and little, on the rapidly increasing concentration of the nation's wealth in the hands of a small minority of the rich.

Kyrie eleison.