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Wednesday, August 18, 2004


Written after reading one too many hostile comments on the dKos site:


Every once in a while, I read a comment around here that implies (or just comes right out and states) that most Christian ministers are essentially hoodwinking their congregations in order to swindle them out of their money.


This is a mistake.


In 2002, the average Protestant minister was paid $40,007 a year, though those numbers are a bit skewed. Mainline denominations pay better than independent churches, bigger pay better than small, and urban churches better than rural ones. The average compensation for a pastor in a church with less than 100 members in worship on a Sunday was paid about $31,000. Those churches make up about 75% of all Protestant congregations. The average Protestant pastor works about 55 hours a week. The median pay for Catholic priests ranges from $20-27,00 a year, depending on the size of their congregation. And if you've spent much time in a congregation, you'll know how unruly they can be.


I'm not getting after anyone in particular, especially because I've seen this line of thinking coming from many different sources.


So, I'll make an invitation. If anyone would like to take my place and see how much swindling or hoodwinking they can get away with, they're welcome to try. They can expect the following as part of their job:

  • Each week, write and give a speech on the core tenets of your beliefs. Said speech must be fresh, insightful, relevant, intelligent, thought-provoking, uplifting, inspire the audience to further action, and based on primary texts. It must do all of these while satisfying well-educated listeners and being comprehensible to those with a high school or lesser education. In many cases, it must also accomplish all these tasks within twenty minutes. Prepare the program for the weekly meeting, selecting appropriate readings and music. Lead intelligent studies of the primary texts of your belief system. Be equally effective in these classes with children and adults.

  • As often as necessary, go to visit people who are suffering from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, joint replacements, back problems, pneumonia, or age-related health problems. Often, you will be called upon to visit people with AIDS, Alzheimer's Disease and/or mental illnesses. Provide comfort and support to these people, and to their family members and friends. Help them to make major decisions regarding medical care and help them to interpret the meaning of their suffering. Also, counsel couples preparing for marriage, couples who are experiencing difficulties in their marriage, people with financial difficulties, people who are in prison or who have a relative in prison, people who are in the military or have a relative in the military, people who are dying or have relative who is dying or has died. When someone does die, lead a respectful and comforting service of remembrance for someone you may have never met. Also, lead weddings or commitment ceremonies for people you may not know or even like. Don't do anything illegal, or tick off the bride's mother! Above all, be careful not to impose your beliefs on any of these people, but enable them to come to their own decisions and insights.

  • Supervise at least the secretary, the janitor and the group musician. Deal with performance issues, job descriptions, and compensation. Do this in a caring and compassionate manner. Meet with the Board of Directors and any committees. Develop knowledge of education, counseling, charity work, advertising, building construction and maintenance, history, philosophy, organizational psychology and development, care-giving, legal issues, change management, sound financial practices, recruitment, and leadership development. All this work must be done within the history and ethics of your belief system, while developing your members' participation and understanding of that system.

  • Become the mascot and cheerleader for your group. Whenever there is an event, no matter how minor, you will be expected to participate. Get up at 4:00 in the morning to help out at the breakfast fundraiser. Set up tables and chairs. Wash dishes. Stay behind to sweep the floor. Serve at the soup kitchen. Help repair the building nights and weekends. Shovel snow so that weekly meeting can take place. Help weed the flowerbeds around the building, and plant perennials with crabby and perfectionist members of your group. Mop the leaky basement floor of said building. Represent your group at civic functions, 100th birthday celebrations, anniversary parties, and community events. Serve on the board of non-profit organizations as needed. If you march in any protests or demonstrations, you're liable to be criticized once you return to your group by someone who doesn't agree with your politics.

  • Keep up with colleagues, serving on professional boards or committees as needed. Stay familiar with the literature in your field(s), and leave time for professional development. At some point, you may want to return to school for another Master's degree, or even a Doctorate.

  • If you have any time left, attend to your family. Apologize profusely for the amount of time you've spent away from home, your unfinished chores at home, and the fact that your organization has ruined another Saturday for your family. Remember, if the pressures of life get to you and you feel a need to end your relationship, you may be criticized, or even asked to leave your position. If you have any time left after that, try to do something that satisfies and relaxes yourself.

  • Do all of these things for $31-45,000 a year. Do them without smoking, drinking or cursing. Do them while having your character, integrity, ability, commitment and compassion called into question, often by people who are projecting their own problems onto you. Try not to think about how much easier and better-compensated your job could have been if you'd gone to law school instead. Don't forget the people who will call your beliefs stupid, and imply that you're only in it for the money. Respond to both groups of people politely and sympathetically.


Any takers?


Look, not all ministers have to do all these things. (And I'm certainly not complaining about my lot in life. I do okay.) It is true that there are people like Jim and Tammy Faye out there; there are even a few of us who are not televangelists, but who make a pretty darn good living nonetheless.


But here's the point: most ministers are in situations more like what I've described than not. We work hard, and we don't get paid a lot of money for doing it. But we do it anyway, because we believe we're doing the right thing, and we believe in and love the people we work with. We do not have the time or the energy to run around oppressing people, trying to forcibly convert them, defrauding them, or otherwise plotting evil.


To say that we do is an insult to the majority of pastors. Let me explain it like this: as long as there have been cops, there have been crooked cops. Yet who here would seriously entertain the notion that because there have been some bad cops, all of them are necessarily crooked?


To say that ministers are all charlatans is also an insult to the people we serve. In fact, it's an insult to the people who level such charges, by implying that they are powerless to protect themselves against religious mind control and malevolence. I'm honestly very sorry if you or someone you know has had a lousy experience with organized religion; I've heard some stories around here that make my hair stand on end. All I can say is, my experience is that most folks in the church/synagogue/temple are basically decent--if imperfect--people, just like anyone else. They deserve to be treated with respect and tolerance, just like anyone else.


Shorter pastor: I don't force my faith on you, don't call me (or most of the people like me) idiots, thieves and fascists.


Deal?


[Update]: A reader shared a few things I forgot in the original post:


  • conflict-management and factionalism. Church member A isn't happy with church member B because member A leads youth group a certain way, and church member B doesn't like it. Or Clique #1 (consisting of the modern worship style people, often white-collar professionals) get into clashes with Clique #2 (consisting of older members or blue-collar ones who are anti-keyboard, anti-guitar, and viciously anti-drums) over the format of the worship service. They trade accusations over elitism and a refusal to change. If you don't handle it well, you get lots of people leaving or even a split.


  • micromanagement. There's only one person willing to volunteer for a particular duty, but they keep messing it up, and you have to help them or even replace them, without hurting their feelings.


  • people who hate you for no reason and/or want a different pastor. In my father's first week at a church, a group of little old ladies came to his office and told him they'd run him off within a few months, because they wanted the elders to hire someone else. They succeeded in giving the previous pastor's wife a nervous breakdown, so they weren't playing around.


  • hypocritical criticism. People who say they want the church to do something, and then don't support it, themselves. They get mad at the pastor or pastor's kids for not supporting a particular activity, while they or their children didn't bother showing up.
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