Contemplating a church-based living wage campaign

There were three resolutions for the Virginia annual conference of the United Methodist Church this year. One was never discussed or considered: a proposal for a church-wide living wage campaign. Our youth Bible study took a look at this resolution a couple of weeks ago. Our main critique of it was that it seemed to focus almost exclusively on a legislative approach to the issue, while we felt that a more viable option would be to start with the church and the small businesses of church members as a voluntary witness of economic justice.

For those who are unfamiliar, a living wage is the hourly wage that a single bread-winner with a four-person household would need in order to pay the bare minimum of expenses (rent, food, insurance, etc). It obviously varies according to the cost of living in a given area, but the average living wage for the US is $13.10, which is way higher than our minimum wage of $7.25.

Whenever living wage ordinances are proposed at the legislative level, the typical response from businesses is that it will put people out of work and businesses will relocate to a sweatshop magnet like Texas or another state in the Deep South. But what if the church decided that we will pay our people what they need to earn in order to survive and that we will challenge our members to enact economic justice in their businesses in a way that will be publicly recognized in the church community? I would expand this question beyond the wage-scale itself to include the question of benefits, especially health insurance.

Currently the United Methodist Church essentially has a two-caste aristocracy as an employer: clergy and laity. Clergy have minimum salary standards and benefits like healthcare and pensions that are managed at the statewide annual conference level. Laity on the other hand are often hired in local congregations to work a purportedly twenty hour a week job with no benefits in which the actual weekly expectations exceed full-time work. Many congregations that used to have multiple clergy positions are cutting their clergy positions and replacing them with lay part-time workers to save money.

The reason this arrangement hasn’t been more scandalous than it has is because most of the laity who work in the church have spouses in established careers with good salaries and benefits. But it doesn’t always work that way. When the layperson working for the church doesn’t have a high-earning spouse with benefits, the result can be a crushing economic burden, like having to pay out of pocket $1000 a month for health insurance.

It’s reprehensible that lay church employees who work full-time (whether or not their job description officially labels their work full-time) would not receive a living wage and full health benefits for their families. It means that people who are gifted and called by God to do the work but aren’t married to a doctor, lawyer, military officer, or the equivalent will not be able to accept the job or live in unjust poverty if they do take it. We need to pay all of our hourly and salary employees a living wage, and we need to create a means by which laity can participate in a statewide pool for their health coverage, whether it’s the same pool as clergy or a parallel entity.

Not only should we establish a living wage for church employees, but church members who are employers should have the opportunity to declare that they will treat their employees with economic justice and be publicly honored for this decision. Churches throughout our country have held congregation-wide campaigns to get debt-free using Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. Why shouldn’t we have congregation-wide campaigns for economic justice in our community as an integral component of our stewardship? If getting debt-free is really about godly stewardship and not just self-interest (a-hem!), then economic justice should go hand in hand with it. Of course, none of this will work unless we address the issue of tithing. When the average giving rate is 1-2% instead of 10%, it creates the economic pressure that pushes churches into behaving like sweatshops.

I wouldn’t be fired up about this if our annual conference hadn’t swept the living wage proposal under the rug (due to the live-streaming of our closing worship, we had a very limited fixed time for dealing with all of our resolutions). We could have simply raised our hands recommending that the bishop send a letter to the Virginia governor which he would immediately file in the “to be ignored” pile. I would have probably rolled my eyes and moved on.

But why not change the paradigm entirely? Do economic justice as an act of witness starting from the grassroots level of the local congregation. Isn’t that precisely the way that the church is supposed to be interfacing with society: as witnesses? This approach would call the bluff of anyone who complains about legislatively mandated economic justice as being “big government tyranny.” Why not Biblically mandated economic justice as a means of living out your discipleship? I’m not going to list all the supporting proof-texts, though there are many.

I’d be very interested in knowing what experiences other folks have had with this sort of thing. Surely there are churches out there that have done this. And I’m woefully ignorant of the intricacies within the United Methodist system that would need to be tweaked to ensure that lay church workers receive the same kind of economic security that clergy now enjoy.

16 thoughts on “Contemplating a church-based living wage campaign

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Link List | Thinking Out Loud

  2. The Apostle Paul has the best example hear. Everyone refuses their rights to be paid. 1 Cor. 9 (whole chapter), 2 Thes. 3; Acts 20 (last section). The institutionalized form of church has thrown Paul’s teaching in the garbage because of men’s traditions, power for hired elite (clergy), passivity for the laity, and convenient faith. American believers consume 75 – 86% of their giving to buy hire clergy and build facilities so you can gather enough people in one room to hire one. Everything God asked for can be done by people who work for a living in a simple networking-mutually-participating dynamic. Hiring experts to work “full time” in spiritual things does some good but brings in perpetual dependency, laziness, arrogance, politics, self-centeredness, and many other sins.

    • American believers also give on average 1-2% instead of the Biblical tithe. Spiritual leadership is not as easy as it might seem. I may end up going back to teaching high school and making my career bivocational because I want to serve people who can’t pay a pastor. But pastors who have contempt for theological education and don’t have any interest in learning the original languages of the Bible or studying the historical interpretations of the church end up teaching all kinds of ghastly heresies, which are actually rather common today in supposedly “conservative” evangelical churches.

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  4. I had a similar reaction to a different resolution a my annual conference. It feels icky to just sit in an auditorium and vote to suggest that someone else (the legislature) do something about something. If we are living, breathing, kingdom declaring disciples of Jesus, gathered as his Body for the good of all creation, then we can live the good news in our own settings. Other action may grow from that, but we need to live it first.

  5. Morgan,

    I love this post, everything about it. The disturbing thing is that was the part at the beginning. It was a resolution but no one brought it up or talked about it. This is an example of how in love churches are with the free market. No church or denomination is exempt.

    Currently, I am on hiatus from any formal social activism, but when I was in grad school was fairly active in the local campus’ living wage campaign. It was something I believed in, and I even wrote a brief theology of sorts of a living wage. Yesterday, would be 6 years exactly that I wrote it:

    The campaign was successful, working with the TCU workers and a local church and various academic departments, the administration started implementing a living wage.

    • Yeah I was pretty scandalized that they quietly tabled the resolution. We didn’t budget enough time for our resolutions and so when we ran out of time, it was the one piece of unfinished business that got dropped. Thanks for sharing your link. I’m definitely interested in a theology of living wage.

  6. There are always going to be people that don’t make enough. If there is someone who is devoting most of their time to the church and living in poverty than I think it is the duty of that specific church to take care of them. Not some legislative body far away who doesn’t know a thing about them.

    Whether selfish or righteous motives the zero-debt plan for personal finances is the way to go. No debt equals lots of opportunity to give like none other. That includes churches. We build huge buildings with debt and then fail to take care of the needs to the community around us.

    • I’m assuming that you recognize that what I’m proposing is a different approach than a legislative one. And I think that personal finance teaching should be coupled with economic justice teaching. They should both be addressed at the same time so it’s not “Ooh… Now I don’t have any debt so I can buy another waterski boat” but “Wow, there is so much I thought I needed that I didn’t so now I can support my community.”

      • It is taught like that. Dave clearly says you “live like no one else now so you can give like no one else later.” But we are selfish sinners and that new boat starts calling our name when the savings start piling up. So yes, many people are doing it for selfish reasons. I hope I follow through and don’t do it for that reason.

        The bottom line is I need to be a better giver. I’ve always struggled with being a good giver because frankly I’ve often been stupid with my finances. The money just isn’t there. Hopefully Dave’s plan will change that and hopefully I won’t be selfish and keep it all for myself.

  7. I love everything about this! Now you’re really talking about something that has the potential to make a real difference – not only in the US, but probably in churches and faith communities all over the world that take their example from the North American Church. I’ll be sharing this and recommending it across all my networks.

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