Is a living wage too much to ask the Catholic Church?

Women keep the Catholic Church going. That is my thesis. Visit any parish on any day, and you will mostly find women performing the daily work that must be done between Sundays. Women run the parish offices and religious education programs and other necessary ministries. They sit on the parish council and balance the books. Women often clean the pews and the restrooms and the rectories. Women are cantors and lectors and Eucharistic ministers. The priests and deacons on the altar and in charge of sacraments are male, in the Catholic tradition, of course, but there are parishes administered by female lay pastoral associates. At street level, women are the hands and feet of Jesus.

Women historically have taught in the Catholic schools and cared for those in Catholic hospitals, but they were women religious, sisters who belonged to an order. They lived in community, and their material needs were few. But today there are fewer nuns and more laywomen who are employed by the church. While the church relies on volunteers in many instances, certain jobs require steady commitment and extensive training, which must be compensated. It is a matter of economic justice.

My examples are anecdotal rather than statistical, but as a laywoman who once worked for the church, I can attest that the problem of earning a living wage while doing God’s work is real.

While the church relies on volunteers in many instances, certain jobs require extensive training, which must be compensated.

I worked part-time as a director of religious education for a medium-sized parish, which I was able to do because my husband’s health insurance covered our whole family, a circumstance that the church too often counts on. If I had been single, I would not have taken that job. I could not have afforded it. My church job, which the pastor offered me after I had volunteered many hours for many years, provided a second income for our family.

What if I had been a single woman or a single mother? For that perspective I have turned to other women who have worked or are still working for the church. The wages they earn, especially in urban areas, barely cover their living expenses. A friend who works full-time for the church reports that after she pays rent and buys groceries and fills up the car with gas, nothing is left. Another woman moonlights at an all-night convenience store to make ends meet: this after a long day of ministry. A woman who is a youth minister cannot even get a second job because her work schedule is so variable. She is responsible for retreats and field trips and sacramental prep along with the many extra hours she devotes to her beloved teens. She loves her work, but she is tired of having to move every time her rent is raised. Her budget is that tight.

Perhaps in response to the issue of full-time workers who cannot get by, some parishes are now splitting the duties of paid positions, such as music ministry or religious education, between two part-time employees, thus sidestepping the obligation to provide their workers with benefits like health care and retirement. Not that these benefits, even when they are provided, are expansive. A friend who taught in a Catholic school for 10 years reports that her retirement income from that job amounts to $232 a month. Is it any wonder she joined the secular workforce?

We can work for love, but we can’t eat it, whether we are young or old.

As I talked with people about this fraught topic, I realized that my thesis was sexist. This dilemma is not the exclusive province of women. I know a wonderful man who had to leave a job he loved as a chaplain in detention ministry because he could not support his growing family on what he earned. Here is someone who passionately believes in restorative justice and wants to work with a population that many would shun, and he can’t. He had to find more lucrative work. He still volunteers in the jails when he can carve some time out of his job duties and his family time, but he is another example of the church losing quality vocations because it fails to account for the practicalities of life.

Working for the church is joyful and fulfilling and infuriating and really hard. It is also a calling. No one I know goes into church work for the money, but that does not absolve the institutional church of the responsibility to pay its lay workers a just wage. If the parish budget reflects its mission statement, the line items should reflect a commitment to paying its employees fairly, to compensating them in a way that frees them to commit to their heart’s work while still being able to honor their financial obligations.

If the church wants its people to heed God’s call, the church would do well to give its workers enough for their daily bread.

Beth Cioffoletti
2 weeks 2 days ago

An important work in my life - working with prisoners and their families to abolish the Felony Murder Rule - has been all volunteer. We meet with congressional representatives, prepare our talks, make multiple copies to pass around, all on our own dime.

It often occurs to me that the government employees that we meet with are all paid well, from the secretaries to the high powered lawyers and prosecutors. They have great health and other benefits. They carry an air of importance about them. They make their copies for free, have government paid websites, etc. And they do, indeed, prevail against us time after time. It is a David & Goliath story. I wonder if we stand a chance.

And yes, we are mostly women and mothers.

Henry George
2 weeks 2 days ago

The Hypocrisy of the Church, Jesuit Institutions included, is remarkable.
Preaching that living wages should be paid, insurance provided, but limiting it to the one employer, if at all, but never the family, is beyond shameful.

A friend of mine who works in a Catholic School, of some means, reports that every May the Budget is presented in a Pie Chart.

The largest slices go to new and improved Athletic facilities, or
upgrades in the grounds. The last and smallest slice of the pie goes
to the teachers - they got a 45 cent raise/per hour last May. Meanwhile
their insurance costs went up $ 175 a month...

Gloria Huezo
2 weeks 2 days ago

I was shocked to find out my teaching salary was the same as an undocumented migrant worker! I do have good insurance but due to my husband's income, my student loan payments are more than half my take home pay. My teaching is a sacrifice for my family.

Robert Killoren
2 weeks 1 day ago

All across the board the Catholic Church treats her employees like they should be contributing their time and effort as support for the Church. I remember back in the early 70's when the Archdiocese of St. Louis was experiencing money problems they laid off all the women who were at the top of their pay scale (still pitifully low in comparison to other employers) especially if they were just about to qualify for a pension. My wife was a Catholic school teacher. She made half what teachers in the public schools made. Nowadays deacons in the Church provide much of the administrative and pastoral care of a parish. Nearly all deacons receive no pay at all no matter what services they are providing unless they have an official title like pastoral assistant. It's deemed their vocation is to work for nothing no matter their financial status. In fact most dioceses make working for free a condition of entry into the formation program. And priests? They make so little money most don't have to pay local taxes and fall within the poverty level. Part of the reason is that Catholics don't feel that supporting the Church is important or they are protesting the closing and combining of parishes or the epidemic of sexual abuse of children which resulted in very expensive settlements dioceses needed to pay out to victims. And because the Church offers so little to millennials they don't even bother coming to Church I just feel that Pope Francis is the only leader who cares. Bishops I've known are completely out of touch. Cardinals... they are too busy being princes. There are probably exceptions. Sorry. I guess I'm just excessively depressed today.

Kristeen Bruun
2 weeks 1 day ago

I spent 30-some years working as a parish DRE in a variety of settings. Not one parish was committed to a living wage. I used to subscribe to an interdenominational magazine that conducted an annual salary survey. My salary never made it onto the charts - it was too low. One time, back in the days of paper checks, my pastor accidentally dropped his paycheck on the floor and I happened to pick it up. His and mine were about equal. Except that his came to him AFTER he had been provided with housing, food, a housekeeper, a car allowance. Mine was what I received in order to go out into the commercial world and pay for all of those things for myself and my son (not the housekeeper, of course). Most of my colleagues were second income earners and their families considered their low incomes to be part of their tithes to the church. I left parish employment just about the time that the "turn them all into part-timers" movement began. When I expressed my shock that a parish (Jesuit, by the way) well-known in the community for their commitment to social justice would take such a step, the response was, "We call this good stewardship - making our resources go as far as possible."

The shocking thing about Valerie Schultz's article is not the content. I've been reading similar articles for 40 years. It's that no one was listening then and no one is listening now.

Mary Putman
2 weeks 1 day ago

Thanks for this perspective.

Chad Paul
1 week 6 days ago

Thank you for your thoughtful article, Valerie. You ask if it is too much to expect Catholic parishes to pay a living wage, and the blunt answer is yes. Yes, because as long as parishes, priests, dioceses and bishops can pay less they will. Change will only come when they can no longer manipulate people by implying their employment is partly time and effort donated to the church, which is The Guilt Approach. The church has historically devalued lay ministries, and while it is better now, it has not improved to the point that the church must pay or go without. In my own field of music I see this all the time where an elderly nun plays the organ badly for fifty years, and the church encounters sticker shock when she dies and they must consider hiring someone for music ministry. The idea that a trained, experienced, competent musician would expect a decent salary is foreign to them. I would like to think that the church practices upon it own employees the social justice it preaches elsewhere, but the sad truth is it doesn't and it won't until forced to change.

Eva Lyons
1 week 6 days ago

Amen! I am also a (now part time) DRE. The year I completed the Masters degree required for this job, our diocese got rid of the suggested payscale for Directors of Religious Ed. I earn less, with a Masters in Religious Ed which I will still be paying for after I retire, than a friend with a sixth grade education who is a cleaner at a nearby school. Yes I do this out of love, but the bank will not accept love as repayment for my student loan. My whole family sacrifices so I can do this job. A final comment - the religious sisters may have had little in the way of living expenses in the old days, but our failure to provide them with retirement benefits has created a financial nightmare for many orders.

Joseph J Dunn
1 week 6 days ago

The article does raise an oft-asked question, and the frustration in the comments is palpable. I have no universal solution to the problem. But there may be a way to alleviate some of the frustration.

Why not sit with the pastor or (perhaps better) the parish finance committee? Review the parish annual financial report, which lays out all the revenue (including special collections, endowment if there is one, etc.) and all the expenses. In each of the most recent years, has there been a surplus (more revenue than expenses) or a deficit? The report will also show the ‘net worth’ of the parish—total assets minus total liabilities such as mortgages.

How much additional money (revenue) would be needed to make the desired salary and benefit increases? Is there any way to inspire the parishioners to increase their contributions by the percentage needed to fund these increases? Any other remedies that the finance committee can suggest?

“The church” derives essentially all of its money (revenue) from the parish collections, the rare bequest from a parishioner who remembers the parish in his will, or the even more rare parish endowment fund (perhaps a bequest from a former parishioner) that produces investment income for the parish. A look at the parish finances is a useful starting point in establishing possibilities.

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