"Together in God's Service"
By Claudia McDonnell
NEW YORK, NY -- The Church today relies more than ever on lay men and women to run its institutions and carry out its apostolate. Yet it usually offers lower wages and benefits than secular employers, and has not always had structures in place for handling problems.
How do lay employees fare in compensation, workplace environment and employment practices? Better than before, although changes still need to be made, say diocesan officials and others.
First, can the church pay a living wage?
"It can and in many cases it does," said Deacon Randy Velez, director of human resources for the Archdiocese of New York. He noted two economic difficulties the church faces. First, with fewer priests and religious who received only a modest stipend, the church now has to pay salaries high enough to attract and keep good workers. Second, its revenues come mainly from donations, which don't necessarily keep pace with the booming economy.
Carol Fowler, director of personnel services for the Archdiocese of Chicago, noted that the "technical definition" of a living wage varies. Most church workers earn a living wage, she said, but she pointed out that some, such as part-time school cafeteria workers or teenage rectory receptionists, seek only supplemental income. She acknow-ledged that many people want to make Church work their career and will sacrifice to do it, but still have to meet their obligations. "They don't expect to make the same salaries they would in the corporate world, but they expect to put their kids through college," she said. She added that the church "desperately" needs to improve teachers' salaries.
Sheila Kelly, executive director of human resources for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, noted that dioceses have to pay competitive salaries in areas such as technology and accounting.
"We're in the same labor market that the for-profit businesses are, so it's very competitive and very challenging for us," she said. She said that managers face a challenge from Generation Xers who want a "work-life balance" that leaves more time for parenting and other commitments -- unlike workers of a previous generation.
"The standard is set by priests and religious who in some cases lived 'above the store,' and they're there 24/7," but young lay workers "bring a different set of values," she said.
Ms. Fowler said that Chicago's benefits package is good, but its pension plan needs improvement. Previously, many lay employees were second-income married women who didn't depend on a church pension to survive after retirement, but that's not so today, she noted.
She is president-elect of the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators (NACPA) in Cincinnati, Ohio, an independent organization that advocates for workplace justice. Ursuline Sister Ellen Doyle is the executive director. Both say that the Church is strongly committed to fair employment practices and is working hard to improve.
"We're vigilant about monitoring where we are on it," Sister Ellen said. NACPA recently published an article, "Workplace Justice: Guidance for Church Leaders." It examines 13 areas where leaders "can apply Church teaching and sound management principles," including salary, benefits, health and safety, associations and unions, diversity and affirmative action, and workplace fairness.
The article quotes from "Justice in the World," the document of the 1971 World Synod of Bishops: "While the church is bound to give witness to justice, she recognizes that anyone who ventures to speak to the people about justice must first be just in their eyes."
Deacon Velez said the senior church managers he works with are genuinely concerned about each employee, and he warned against "a tendency to extrapolate a pattern" of injustice from isolated incidents.
"We shouldn't be looking at the instance where someone was mistreated and saying, 'You see that? That's the way the church is,' because it is not," he said.
What draws people to church work?
"They look to participate in the mission of the church, and to find a sense of community in the workplace that might not be present in the corporate world," Sister Ellen said.
Fowler noted that many people of faith find deep satisfaction in using their skills to serve the church.
"It's probably a lot more fun to say, 'I'm going to market Catholic schools' than 'I'm going to market peanut butter,' " she said.
Deacon Velez spent more than 30 years with Fortune 500 companies before coming to work for the church three years ago. He said there are many talented professionals in secular jobs who "feel a void in their lives."
"Given the right opportunities, they'd come to work here in a heartbeat," he said. "I have a great deal of confidence that we have the resources available, and if we develop them well and put everything in place, the Church can in fact be completely successful in this matter."
Claudia McDonnell writes for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York.