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.