Labor Day & Clergy

Do we promise to pay our pastor fairly and provide for our pastor’s welfare as she/he works among us?*   

Come Labor OnOn this Labor Day Weekend, let’s talk about unions.  Actually, this post is specific to my denomination: the PCUSA.

[Note for non-Presbyterians: In my denomination, the regional body for church governance is The Presbytery. A Presbytery ordinarily encompasses all the churches in our denomination in a specific geographic region.]

It’s been said that The Presbytery is a pastor’s union in that The Presbytery (not to mention The Board of Pensions) has salary requirements, vacation requirements and study leave requirements that ensure fair pay and benefits for our clergy.  While labor unions came into being in the mid-19th century to protect workers, care for Presbyterian clergy via special funds and minimum salaries predates labor unions by over a century.

In a perfect world, employers would pay workers fairly, give them time off, and offer them health insurance and a pension.  But our world is not perfect.  Sadly, we’ve needed labor unions to ensure fair pay, time off and other benefits.

In a perfect Church, the congregation would pay church workers fairly, give church workers time off, and offer health insurance and a pension.  But – God knows – the Church is not perfect.  Sadly, we’ve needed the Presbytery to ensure fair pay, time off and other benefits.

Many of our congregations struggle to pay the clergy minimum because they simply do not have the capacity to do so.  I know that in 30 years of professional ministry, I have earned the Presbytery minimum in 25 of those years – and my salary took the largest percentage of the annual church budget.  But I’ve also noticed – both as a parish pastor and now as a Presbytery staffer – that some churches either:

  1. Do not understand the life of a pastor (and why – for example – a pastor needs a sabbatical every 5-7 years) and/or
  2. Hope to get church staffers for cheap.

This goes for church musicians, educators, administrators, and sextons as well as clergy.

  • We hire “directors” instead of pastors because we can avoid paying the Presbytery minimum salary and benefits.
  • We avoid paying secretaries and music staff full-time salaries to avoid paying the health care and pension benefits that are required for FT employees.
  • We seek the less expensive staffing.  I was asked during conversations with my first church why I needed $14,000/year (the minimum) when I had earned only $8000/year as a hospital chaplain because I “seemed to be doing just fine with $8000.”  We had to convince them to pay me the minimum, and to be fair, many of the parishioners received surplus cheese handouts from the US government.
  • Clergy women still earn less than clergy men on average.

The truth is that there is huge disparity in terms of clergy salaries.  Heads of Staff of large churches often earn twice or three times what the Associate Pastors earn.  There could be reasonable and not-so-reasonable factors involved.

Those who serve in rural or inner city congregations with a higher incidence of unemployed or underemployed parishioners earn less because their congregations simply cannot possibly pay more than the minimum salary, and often cannot pay that minimum at all.

And finally – something on my mind as I can see retirement in the not-so-distant future – there are huge financial incentives for staying in active ministry after age 65 which can destroy a church that needs fresh leadership.  If a pastor needs to go at the age of 60 or 62, but plans to stay on through 70, the congregation may never recover from those years of stagnation.

I have no brilliant answers to remedy these concerns, but they are real.  And my hope is that someone smarter than I might address them on a national level.

In the meantime, I ask you in the parish to appreciate your church workers – from the person who vacuums the sanctuary to the person who preaches the sermon.  If we can’t pay them what they are worth, at least we can thank them for making it possible for us to gather as a community and grow in faith together.

*This question is asked of a congregation when installing a new pastor in the PCUSA.

Image shows the lyrics of the great hymn Come, Labor On by Jane Laurie Borthwick. (1859)

In-Demand Pastors

clergy in Rio de JaneiroMany of my colleagues and hundreds of recent seminary graduates are seeking calls in church settings right now.  Those of us in Christian traditions without bishops interview for clergy positions much like other vocations interview for secular positions.

Why is it that some professional ministers have many opportunities and others do not?  Why are some pastors more “desirable” than others?

Here’s a very non-scientific list of characteristics that make for great (and in-demand) 21st Century Pastors:

  1. Teachability.  They read, attend lectures, seek mentors, and maintain curiosity even (and especially) decades after ordination.
  2. Community Organizing Chops.  They not only have a concern for neighborhood issues, but they know how to organize ministry to address those issues.
  3. A Missional Perspective.  They know how to connect with neighbors who are not part of the church.
  4. Skills in Church Transformation.  They know at least a little about shifting a 1950s church into a 21st Century congregation.
  5. Bravery.  They have the courage to try and fail, to challenge the status quo, and to stand up to bullies.
  6. Collegiality.  They partner with clergy colleagues, community leaders, and politicians for the sake of enhancing their congregation’s impact.
  7. Willingness to relinquish control.   They equip leaders and then let them lead.  They don’t have to be the king/queen of all things.
  8. Visionary.  They see what could be.

What would you add?

Image Source here.


Difficult Conversations

Yellow Islands 1952 by Jackson Pollock 1912-1956
When David Letterman had a daytime talk show long ago, he did a bit involving Difficult Conversations.  He would ask if anybody in the audience was dreading a personal conversation,  and then he would make a phone call on their behalf.  He called unsuspecting boyfriends and broke up with them at studio guests’ requests.  He called parents and told them that their kids had wrecked the family car.  You get the idea.

Very few of us enjoy having difficult conversations, most especially within a spiritual community.  

What conversations have you initiated and/or endured that are forever memorable because of the sheer suckiness of the situation?  Here are my top three in no particular order:

  • The conversation in which I had to fire a church member from a church staff position.
  • The conversation in which I broke up with a really nice guy.
  • The conversation in which I had to tell a young mother with two children that her husband had been killed in a car accident.  (The sheriff wouldn’t do it.)

Of course the sheriff didn’t want to do it.  None of us want to participate in these conversations.  We don’t want to hurt people.  We don’t want people to dislike us.  We don’t want to stir the pot.

But, my friends, the pot longs to be stirred.

After hearing Joseph Grenny speak on Crucial Conversations at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit a couple weeks ago, I’m convinced that families and communities that can “talk about anything” are healthy families and communities.  His book is popular with leaders in many fields.

After years of making myself have difficult conversations with parishioners, family members, friends, and colleagues, I’ve found that – done in love – I really appreciate these conversations.  They clear the air, clarify realities, and serve to improve processes and procedures.

We in the church are generally terrible with this kind of thing.  Most of us would rather poke our eyes with a pencil rather than initiate difficult conversations with parishioners who are causing mayhem, leaders who have broken confidentiality, church ladies who gossip, and staff members who need to be fired.  We endure ineffective leadership, toxic relationships and confusion rather than grapple together in healthy dialogue.

Pastors go for years without an annual performance review because personnel leaders have no idea how to tell their pastor that ____ needs to improve or maybe it’s time to retire.  Inept staffers keep their jobs solely because nobody has the guts (or the compassion) to discuss the need for a change.

But if we respect people, if we take community seriously, if we see to reflect God’s reign on earth (as it is in heaven) we will learn how to address difficult situations.  Honestly, it’s not so hard once we learn how to do it.

Image is Yellow Islands by Pollock (1952) with a slight edit.

Who Are We Working Around?

One of my favorite non-profit leaders recently shared with me that there is Picasso_WomanWithChignon1901someone in every institution that people “work around.”  And that person makes accomplishing the mission difficult, if not impossible.  Examples:

  • The volunteer who will not let go of a position that he/she has had for several years even though it’s more about control at this point than service.
  • The person around whom people walk gingerly because you never know when she/he will be explosive or testy.  Often this same person can be lovely, but you just never know.
  • The person who challenges every new idea because “somebody’s got to be the devil’s advocate.
  • The person who is “too valuable” to criticize because he/she threatens to leave if challenged.

So who did you picture in your mind as I described the people above?

These folks might genuinely love the institutions they serve in their own confused way.  Maybe they don’t mean to be saboteurs or destroyers or toxic players, but that’s exactly what’s happening.

It takes utter bravery to help them shift away from their current leadership.  And they might indeed leave.  And they will take their money with them – which terrifies financially struggling institutions.  And maybe they will trash talk the institution every chance they get, once they’re gone.

But the organization will be healthier in the long run.  Or the organization will indeed collapse, but that just confirms that the difficult people were allowed to perpetuate their mayhem to the point of no return.  This doesn’t have to happen.

Relationships matter and we can create healthier organizations.

  • Establish job descriptions for volunteers with term limits.
  • Review volunteers regularly by talking honestly with them about what’s going well and what needs to be changed.
  • Don’t be afraid.  Especially in spiritual communities, doesn’t God deserve our best work and our best workers?

In fact, be confident and clear that our service is not about us.  Whether we preach sermons or clean out closets, whether we sing in the choir or teach in the nursery school, our service is about the mission of the organization.

A former friend once told me – after she was asked to relinquish her position in our church – that she would spend the rest of her life ruining my reputation.  Actually it turned out to be the best thing for both of us in the long run.  Totally scary to shift her away from leadership, but worth it for everybody’s sake.

Image is Woman with Chignon by Picasso (1901)

We Can Tell When You’re Desperate

McDonalds is desperateThe McDonald’s Corporation is not exactly in trouble, but it’s not like it used to be.  Their flagship restaurant closed in Russia last week and profits are down in general.   One of the local McDonald’s near my house now offers Live Music & Karaoke on Friday nights.

This feels sad.

I interpret this new programming as an act of desperation.  Yes, it could be that a creative McDonald’s staffer recently noticed that there was no place for the kids to hang out on Friday nights and suggested something cheesy/fun to give them a Third Place.  Karaoke and Live Music on Fridays!  Who would not want to hang out here on a Friday night?  At McDonald’s.  In the suburbs.

What does this remind you of, Church Friends?

When I hear church elders say, “Let’s ask our pastor to lead a Bible study in a local coffee shop or bar!” (as if that’s not a 10 year old idea) or “If only we got screens for the sanctuary . . . ”  (as if that’s going to make everything alright) or “Let’s chuck our traditional worship service and get a praise band!” (from the people who think “contemporary music” will save us.) – I feel a mixture of sadness and frustration.

Often, it sounds desperate, as if you will “do anything” to get “the young people” to come back.

But, if we are honest, you don’t really want to make changes that will shift your basic culture – which is what’s truly needed.  Simple but desperate measures do not result in a culture shift.  Such measures are taken for the sake of survival.

With all due respect, the shift we need is to move from Institutional Perpetuation to Making Disciples of All Nations and Loving Our Neighbors.

This is what desperation looks like:

  • Our reason for existing is unclear and so –  like a hamburger chain that offers karaoke on Friday nights – we offer activities that have nothing to do with our basic purpose and mission.
  • Our desire to offer what the community really needs is overshadowed by our desire to take the easiest possible steps that appear to offer something for outsiders.  (And then we blame the pastor and other leaders when the results are lackluster.)
  • Our love for each other and hospitality for newcomers – about which we occasionally congratulate ourselves – has not been honestly evaluated lately.  We simply continue to say, “This is a loving church” and “This is a friendly church” as if saying it makes it real for everybody.
  • We stubbornly cling to the very leaders and buildings and programs that are killing us.  We can’t possibly tell Elder X that her attitude repels people.  (What if she leaves?!)  We can’t possibly do something dramatic with our building.  (It will cost too much.)  We can’t possibly stop doing our traditional [fill in the blank: Vacation Bible School?  Organ Festival? Fall Fair?]  

So, here’s the thing about Friday Night Karaoke and Live Music at McDonald’s: while it could be an act of desperation, it’s possible that it’s an attempt to change the culture to make McDonald’s into the kind of place people would hang out on a Friday night.  It could actually be a move to reach into the neighborhood in the hope of connecting with the real needs of the people.

This article speaks of the authentic actions McDonald’s has taken to reach out to people in France, where the customers are notoriously suspicious of Americans. Imagine if we in the Church reached out in authentic ways to those in our neighborhoods who are long suspicious of us.  It takes more than a “free chili dinner” to reach out;  it takes genuine concern for our neighbors as human beings rather than numbers or targets.

Image of a McDonald’s in the South Suburbs of Chicago.

Why So Angry?

Lauryn HillJesus was killed for making people uncomfortable.
People are tired of the angry, difficult, heart-wrenching news on Facebook.  I am as well.

In fact, I’ve made a renewed commitment to try to be positive in my social media offerings, but it feels unfaithful not to speak up about injustice as a person who believes that Jesus was killed for making powerful people angry and uncomfortable.

So here is the Good News:

We live in a country where I can post this freely and ask questions – like we did at a church conversation last weekend.

What Are the Root Causes of Violence and Racism? 

Lauryn Hill explains it here although it’s hard to hear. (And, beloved friends and family: the more we hear the words and think “It’s not really this bad” the more we are probably too privileged to have experienced life this way.)

Please forgive me for sounding so dramatic/liberal/angry. I’m actually feeling very grateful for all that is good.  Again – there is Good News.

Black Rage by Lauryn Hill (h/t to Rodgers & Hammerstein)

Black rage is founded on two thirds a person.
Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens.
Black human packages tied up in strings.
Black rage can come from all these kinds of things.
Black rage is founded on blatant denial.
Squeezed economics. Subsistance survival.
Deafening silence and social control.
Black rage is founded on wounds in the soul.

When the dog bites, when the beatings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember all these kinds of things
And then I don’t fear so bad…

Black rage is founded who fed us self hatred
Lies and abuse while we waited and waited
Spiritual treason
This grid and it’s cages
Black rage was founded on these kinds of things

Black rage is founded on dreaming and draining
Threatening your freedom
To stop your complaining
Poisoning your water
While they say it’s raining
Then call you mad
For complaining, complaining
Old time bureaucracy
Drugging the youth
Black rage is founded on blocking the truth
Murder and crime
Compromise and distortion
Sacrifice, sacrifice
Who makes this fortune?
Greed, falsely called progress
Such human contortion
Black rage is founded on these kinds of things

So when the dog bites
When the beatings
And I’m feeling sad
I simply remember all these kinds of things
And then I don’t fear so bad

Free enterprise
Is it myth or illusion
Forcing you back into purposed confusion
Black human trafficking
Or blood transfusion
Black rage is founded on these kinds of things
Victims of violence
Both psyche and body
Life out of context IS living ungodly
Politics, politics
Greed falsely called wealth
Black rage is founded on denying of self
Black human packages
Tied and subsistence
Having to justify your very existence
Try if you must
But you can’t have my soul
Black rage is founded on ungodly control
So when the dog bites
And the beatings
And I’m feeling so sad
I simply remember all these kinds of things
And then I don’t feel so bad.

Image source.

The Sleep Patterns of Pastors

I write this after sleeping for twelve hours straight - because I needed it.

Maybe I’m coming down with something, or maybe my mind and body have sleeping popebeen overwhelmed with the post-vacation pile on, or maybe the crises I’ve returned to help relieve are too heavy to handle. Or maybe it’s because I slept only 3-4 hours on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

Does your pastor sleep well?

[Note:  I'm not talking about "sleeping with the pastor."  Unless you are the spouse of the pastor, please do not do this.]

I’m talking about essential REM sleep, about healing dreams and waves of peace.  I’m talking about the kind of sleep that started with your head on a rock and transitioned into a ladder to heaven.

Everyone’s different, but how are you sleeping, Pastor Friends?

  • Do you discipline yourself to wake up early for Quiet Time at 5 am?
  • Do you stay up long after midnight to process meetings?
  • Do you involuntarily toss and turn most nights, worrying about congregational bullies or parishioners with tumors?
  • Do you require 7-8 hours a night and take it?

A beloved parishioner once shared with me that – as she aged – she found it hard to sleep through the night, but she would stay in bed in the wee hours and pray for whomever popped into her mind.  I’ve done this and it’s interesting as I’ve prayed for former church members, cousins I haven’t seen in a while, the random cashier I met last week.

I’ve also read that if we can’t sleep, we should get out of bed and do something productive which – in common wisdom – will make us bleary-eyed so that we will eventually get some shut-eye.  Does this really work?

Sleep is a glorious gift and necessity.  How are you sleeping? And why/how?

Image is Pope Benedict XVI who needed his sleep as much as anyone.

Do You Trust Me?

Trance to Venial SinI’m a suspicious character in Church World even before I utter a single word because I serve on a Presbytery (i.e. Middle Judicatory Church) Staff.  Not that I’m oozing with power or anything, but I can make people’s lives easier or more difficult based on what I say in an ordinary reference check or personnel meeting or phone call from a Big Deal Church Nominating Committee.  Also, I grew up in the PCUSA in North Carolina (read: Montreat) and I have a big Presbyterian family and I am blessed with lots of churchy friends and so I Know Things.  

Some of the things I know break my heart.

Anybody familiar with Church World knows that rumors abound, cattiness is rampant, and all of us are prone to wander (and not just from Jesus.)  We are pretty good at sharing kudos, but we are not so good about holding each other accountable.  Often this is true because we simply don’t trust each other.

For example:  if you observe me eating donuts every day for dinner or if I am drinking too much or I am flirting with someone who is not my HH or I am kicking the dog – and I trust you – please know that you have my permission to – and that I have a serious expectation that you will  – Say Something To Me About It for the good of my own body and soul and the well-being of the community.  Hold me accountable.  Pull me aside in love and tell me you are concerned.  Remind me who I am and to whom I belong.  For the love of the God, say something.

So here’s my quandary as a generally distrusted Institutional Church Suit:  How do I hold my friends and colleagues accountable?  Options:

  • Over coffee, I tell you that “everyone knows” that you are being unfaithful to your spouse.
  • In a private corner after worship, I let you know that I saw you staggering out of a bar last night.
  • I talk about you behind your back.  (Note:  I hate this option and will not do it, unless I am so angry that I can’t stand it anymore.)
  • Keep the rumors/possible truths to myself.

If you trust me and I trust you, we can talk as a sister or brother in Christ and we will understand that we are not trying to shame each other or ruin each other’s lives.  But trust is a rare commodity in many of our churches.  Parishioners do not trust their pastors.  Pastors to not trust their parishioners.  Colleagues do not trust each other.

How can we build trust in our communities of faith?  We start by being trustworthy ourselves.


Image of Volume 27 of Encyclopedia Americana.  Because sometimes we are merely dazed and other times we are engaged in random sinfulness.


spacecraft-re-entry-4Many of us are fortunate to be returning from vacations and study leaves and sabbaticals today.  HH and I – after taking two whole weeks in a row off in 2013 – decided that we like that.  A lot.

And so we are returning back today after two weeks of vacation – cut short just a bit with the adoption of a lab mix who needed to be home recovering from a life on the road – literally.

So, here’s my question, brilliant readers:

How do you return well?  Assuming your voice mails and emails have piled up, what are your tips for weeding through it all?  It’s a real question.  Thanks.

Connected Crosses

BBT once told the story of observing a neighboring farmer as he erected one of those three-crosses installations on a rural
Social Justic Quilthillside in Georgia.  Each day as she drove to work, she saw that he was working very hard to install each of the three enormous poles, and she wondered why he didn’t stop at one.  Yes, the Biblical story mentions three crosses, but wouldn’t we get the message if just one cross was erected on the hillside?  Maybe not.

It occurred to her that “One cross = a crucifixion.  Three crosses = a church.”

Tomorrow morning, thousands of preachers will offer sermons and liturgy that have the power to heal, inspire, convict, and uplift hundreds of thousands of hearers. Please, God, let those preachers speak to the horrors of this past week.  

  • It was a week when people in Gaza shared tips on tear gas avoidance with people in Ferguson, MO on Twitter after the shooting death of an unarmed teenager.
  • It was a week when a beloved actor and comedian took his own life and the national conversation about mental illness reminded us that many of us are still ignorant about depression.
  • It was a week when Iraqi minorities were starved by their own neighbors and threatened with death if they don’t convert.
  • Two UN Peacekeepers were killed by a suicide bomber in Mali.
  • Ebola is killing our brothers and sisters in Liberia.
  • Boko Haram is still kidnapping children in Nigeria.
  • And in my own part of the world, a 16 year old girl was shot and killed today within blocks one of our Presbyterian churches.  I could go on and on and on . . .

We are a community with countless crosses to bear.  But we are a church when our crosses connect with each other. We become stronger when we fight injustice together, when we have relationships with people who – like us – carry heavy burdens.

Let’s be honest in worship this weekend:  One cross is a crucifixion.  When more than one cross connects together, we are The Church.  And The Church’s job is to point to resurrection even after cruel death.  We have a precious opportunity this week to – by God’s grace –  transform people.


Image is a photo from the Presbytery of Chicago‘s Social Justice Networking Event held this morning.  Our prayers were written on linoleum tiles and connected together. (Thank you AW.)