Clergy Compensation, Debt, and Poverty

By Rev. Mindi

There have been a number of articles about clergy compensation in the past few days. First, there was this article in the Atlantic on the Vanishing of the Middle Class Clergy, followed by a response in the Christian Century “Pastors in Poverty” from Carol Howard Merritt, then a number of responses on several blogs and on Facebook.

I have only served in Disciples and American Baptist congregations. The region that my first two churches were in published a minimum suggested salary for starting pastors. My salary never met the minimum requirement in either church, and the first church I served was a well-known and well-off suburb church. The housing allowance offered did not even cover a studio apartment. Not only did I have to have roommates, but now out of seminary my student loans from college were due, and once meeting my rent, my share of the utilities (this was just electricity and heat and phone—we did not have cable), my student loans, my car payment and insurance—I had $175 left. That was to pay my food, my gas, and any other expenses. Thank God I did not have a medical emergency. Unfortunately, my used car did have a few repairs that had to be made. So what did I do? I opened a credit card.

With only $175 a month to live on after bills, I only paid the minimum on the credit card, meaning my debt accumulated drastically. I began babysitting on my days off to earn extra money. But by the time I met my husband, I had almost $4000 worth of credit card debt.

I did not have loans from seminary—I was fortunate enough to not only have great financial aid from my seminary, but the wonderful financial aid officer at my seminary would put a little note in my box about every single scholarship or grant opportunity she came across, and I applied for them all. I also worked two part-time jobs (three the year I did Field Education, as I received a stipend for Field Ed). My student loans were not from seminary, but from college.

Contrary to popular belief and even the line on the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form), there was no great contribution from my parents—my dad paid my application deposit, my mom paid my books every year and my plane tickets home—and that is because my parents were not able to contribute more than that.  I had two scholarships and a grant and I still had to take out loans to go to college. Poor begets poor. There is no leg up or hand out simply because we receive financial aid.

My salary and compensation package from my first church did not cover my expenses. After I graduated and later married my husband, also a seminarian with a lot of student debt from seminary, we had difficulty keeping up. We had to borrow from another credit card in order to pay taxes and make our bills. The good news was that we had a lower interest rate and therefore were able to borrow to pay off the higher interest rate cards I had borrowed on.

It wasn’t until my second calling that I finally received a salary that we could live on. And by living I mean we met our bills every month and we started to pay down the credit card debt. We even opened a savings account. Still, we did not meet the minimum salary requirement of my region.

Both churches had the ability to meet the minimum salary requirements, but chose not to for one main reason: they were afraid of running out of money. Budgets were tight and they were afraid that paying me too much would stretch them too thin. Never mind that in both locations, I made less than others with a college degree in our neighborhood (and I had a Master of Divinity). But both congregations were not in a do-or-die mode. Both had endowments, both had savings, both were running a balanced budget. But fear of not having enough made them hold back on their resources, unwilling to meet even the minimum recommendations.

Now I am serving part-time in a small American Baptist congregation in a different region. What I have seen happen over the last ten years is a dramatic decrease in salary and benefits across the country. More churches are unable to meet a minimum requirement because they cannot. Their endowments and savings have dried up.  I am serving a church that has simply run out of money. Members are no longer able to tithe what they used to.  The church needs a full-time pastor but cannot afford one. Instead, I give about the same amount of time I would to a full-time position, but receive only half-time pay. I am grateful my husband receives a full-time package, but it is by serving two churches to create a full-time position. And we have a son with a disability. It seems that we may never get out of the cycle of debt.

The truth is it is not only the pastors who are becoming poorer but the middle class is disappearing all around us. My church cannot afford to pay me a full-time salary and is being stretched thin on a half-time salary because most of the church cannot afford it any longer. Credit card debt is rising. The number of people in the community I serve that live on food stamps and other government resources is rising. While pastors are becoming poorer, so are all of the people around me.

This is not just a pastor problem, this is not just a church problem; this is a problem for us collectively as followers of Jesus: the poor are getting poorer. We can call upon churches to pay more but in many cases that is not possible. We can call upon our people to give more but in many cases that is not possible.

The question we should be asking is much more difficult: how do we tackle poverty? How do we tackle the cycle of debt that many individuals and families in America face today? We are not college kids taking out credit cards to buy stuff we can’t afford, as the media might suggest: we are people who go into debt in order to survive. We are not addressing this question adequately at all.

We have not worked towards a solution to the growth in poverty and debt. The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer, which is the antithesis of Mary’s Magnificat: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).

We must work to alleviate poverty and debt, for all people. This must become a collective responsibility. Pastoral compensation must become a collective responsibility of the church, and poverty and debt must become a collective responsibility of us all. 

Yo pastor is so poor… reflections on Lent, poverty and justice

By Sandhya Jha

[Note: This article originally appeared on Sandhya's blog.  Sandhya has graciously allowed us to reprint it here.]

Lent is a season of sacrifice or spiritual renewal in the Christian tradition, 40 days (plus Sundays) leading up to Easter to deeply consider one’s life.

Or Lent is a way of providing a little dignity to really poor people.

That’s how it started out, according to my mother. And this brings me some solace as I find myself completely with an empty bank account, no credit and thousands of dollars of taxes due.

I think my mother told me this story as she explained Shrove Tuesday (better known to many of us as Mardi Gras or Carnival). Pancake suppers are really big at churches the day before Ash Wednesday, the kickoff to Lent, and it’s the last day to binge on whatever it is we’re giving up for the season. (I’ve given up chocolate, cheese, meat, sugar, caffeine and eating out alone on various years; one year I took up the practice of blogging twice a week instead.)

My mother explained that the reason people traditionally ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday was that all reserves were running low by this time of year for the vast majority of people (the serfs, the peasants, the tenant farmers, anyone who wasn’t part of the aristocracy). By creating a season of fasting for religious reasons, poor people struggling to put a substantive meal on the table didn’t feel shame about it. On Shrove Tuesday, you used up your butter or fat and milk and eggs. You had your last big hurrah. The church gave you a little bit of dignity for a season. And then came Easter and (hopefully) some of the early spring crops to incorporate back into your meal, and the hens would begin to lay again, and the fast would be over.

I’m taking cover behind that spiritual framework for Lent this year. Because I’m broke. I’m so broke I suspect Chris Rock could do a whole routine on how broke I am. And a chunk of it’s my fault. See, I followed a dream, but not a lucrative dream. And I didn’t stop living a middle class life when I stopped earning a middle class salary. You may have noticed over the past two years I’ve posted LESS about coffee shops and good restaurants, but I haven’t stopped completely. When I was working four jobs, I was making ends meet with enough left over to go out for meals. When I was working three, it was tighter, but I had credit. I’m down to two (plus consulting work), one of which does not pay. And the credit just ran out. And the car needed major repairs. I made my home payment this month but I bounced my church pension check. And my dog ran away and my wife left me. (Not really, but since I was already singing a country western song…)

I like to approach social media as a grand experiment in clergy transparency. Don’t bleed on folks, but don’t pretend your life is perfect when it’s not.

That’s been harder to do with my current financial mess. I’ve always known there’s a lot of shame wrapped up with poverty. I know there’s a lot of judgment wrapped up in it. (Don’t tell me there’s not—I’ve seen some of y’all judging.) But wow—it was really hard to practice that clergy transparency when it came to not being able to pay my own bills.

I work with a housing organization, and at my current salary, I qualify for heavily subsidized housing. I’m in between the “low” and “very low income” brackets. (There’s another level below mine: “Extremely low.”) I could qualify to buy a house in northeast Ohio, but here I’m teetering on poverty for now. In fact, it is so hard to survive around here if you earn under $50k a year that our local NPR station is doing a show focused specifically on how on earth do people actually survive on $33,000 or less in the Bay Area? No, really, write in and tell us! We can’t imagine it ourselves!

It’s why I’ve been advocating for a campaign to provide a 12.25/hr minimum wage in Oakland. (That still only comes out to about $25,000 a year. And that means people working full time with no sick days are supporting families on that. No, really. I’ve met them.)

So my political awareness is real and is a little sharper right now, that I chose a life that put me in this place, and it is terrifying, but I know so many people who had no choice in the matter and who work harder than me and care for more people than I do on less money than I do, and we have to do something about that, because if they could take care of their family well on their salary, imagine how liberated they would be to contribute even more to our community than they already do.


But this has also been about deep spiritual reflection for me. Like the serfs who precede me, I’m finding opportunities to reflect and meditate on how much unnecessary clutter my middle class life let in. I’m finding that I want to spend more time reflecting on the life of Jesus and maybe imitating it a bit better.

I’ve been reminded of how incredibly blessed I am by phenomenal friends of every culture and ideology and faith tradition who have stepped up. Just today, I have been given or offered: meals out, meals brought to my home, connections to community meals, cash for transportation, a deposit to my PayPal account, the offer of a loan to get me through this period, a fruit basket, the offer to bring me fresh produce, the offer to take me grocery shopping. And prayer and solidarity. I try to build the beloved community, but at moments like this I remember that the beloved community already exists all around me. It’s you.

I’ve been hanging out with some young Gen Y folks lately, activist types—cut from the same cloth, fantastic and kind and giving people. And a lot of them are really committed to working for justice. They are really clear on something, many of them: my twenty-something colleagues will not make the mistake of my generation and the generation above mine of selling themselves cheap. They want to be paid what they deserve. They want to be paid what is just. They will not be used by the nonprofit industrial complex any more than they will be used by the Man.

And I respect that immensely. I don’t usually value myself that much. (And I was shaped by cultures that discourage you from valuing yourself too highly.)

But I wouldn’t have launched the Oakland Peace Center, which does not yet pay me a salary, if I were committed to wage justice.

Last week the Oakland Peace Center had a mixer. About fifteen of our partners came, and they were greeted by 14 people from the youth group of First Christian Church of Albany, Oregon. I watched the OPC partners connect with each other about their work, and I watched them share eye-opening and inspiring stories about their work with the youth.

And I find myself aware that it’s my fault that I’m not just poor, but I’m broke. And I also recognize that to some extent it’s my choice to be earning so little. But I’m picturing an older peace activist explaining to those rapt youth why she’s dedicated to justice for Alan Blueford. I’m thinking about the fact that they would never have met each other if I hadn’t followed a real calling from God to connect peacemakers. And despite the challenges I face and the fear related to it, I am not sorry to have sold myself a little cheap. Moments like that are worth some sacrifice.

And that’s the difference that shows up in the bible over and over, which confuses so many people. Giving sacrificially, gladly, by choice, is something to celebrate and honor. Being forced by others to give sacrificially and to sacrifice the wellbeing of your family for no one’s glory except the wealthy—that is a sin, a sin that destroys community after community throughout the Bible. That’s why I think conversations about wage justice and self-sacrifice are not contradictory for people of faith.

So I am grateful for the dignity of poverty that the church provides still today in this season. And I am grateful to be part of the movement to create a world where all of us can rest assured of today’s daily bread and none of us is hoarding tomorrow’s while others go hungry today. (Although for the next couple of weeks, in my house it will be daily lentils and rice. It’s what’s still in the cupboard.)

The Holy Family Among Us

We celebrated the Feast of the Holy Family last Friday in the Christian context.  A very late feast attached to the Liturgical Calendar, it still has a lot of significance for me, because it celebrates the lives of a rather unconventional family.So lemme get this straight- God impregnates a teenage girl from the backcountry, and everyone's supposed to buy into this idea?  Oh hell no!  Mary knew people wouldn't, and so she did the smart thing- she took off, all the way across the country, to her cousin's house!  To wait it out, and return only when she was pregnant enough that no one would think of stoning her to death.

Very clever girl, but I would expect God to choose such a person.  Joseph was one, too.  He takes Mary in, and claims Jesus as his own, despite any shame and dishonor it might bring to his family.  I think his family was pretty disappointed in him, going through with marrying a girl that has obviously already betrayed him.  God's Visions and Dreams tend to have this effect.  They subvert the Normal and threaten the Established, over and over.

So here are God's heroes- a teenage harlot and her senseless husband.  Poor peasants, out into the world with a child who will change everything.  Homeless, travelling immigrants through hostile kingdoms, most likely crossing these borders illegally.  Powerless, penniless, preposterous.  This is God's foolish plan- bring about a transformation in the universe, through the last family on earth anyone would ever imagine Her doing this with.

This is the Holy Family, then, and now, because, as with everything biblical, the real meaning of each story isn't what happened in the time they took place.  No, the real meaning is the deeper meaning, what this story means in this time, the time that we're reading it, and hearing it, and telling it.  Because the Holy Family is still with us.  The families we see today in these same conditions are the faces of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph in our context.  We see them all the time:

  • They hold up cardboard signs at our highway off ramps, asking for meager pennies, and we call them lazy fools.
  • They show up at our hospitals needing medical care, and we call them worthless leeches and "anchor babies".
  • They ask for public assistance (though they're also working two and three jobs), and we call them "welfare queens", a serious drain on our tax dollars.

They serve our food, build our houses and highways.  They wash our dishes, and make our beds.  These Holy Families are among us all the time, and God is still transformng the universe with them.

(One place we won't ever really need to worry about them showing up is church, at least we have that going for us.  They don't have nice enough clothes for the occasion, and certainly no money to put in our collection plates.  They understand the unwritten rules we've created for what constititues "membership", no matter how much we say that "everyone's welcome" in our "family friendly" church.)

These are our Holy Families today.  And, exactly, who are we, in this midrashic scenario?  Well, I'm pretty sure this is why God gives us a week between the Feast of the Holy Family and Epiphany, so that we have time to think about this, and to choose:

  • Will we be like the Magi?  Astrologers, fortune tellers, from a completely different religion....what?  Isn't their faith different from God's clearly proscribed ways, based on demonic beliefs in Zodiac signs, constellations, movements of planets and stars?  Aren't they atheists, or polytheists, or something else unacceptable?  How could we ever consider being Magi, whose religious ways are condemned in our very scriptures?
  • OK, well, at least we can consider being like the shepherds, right?  Oh no, wait, no way!  They weren't good people, either!  Constantly low class, not religiously observant at all, let alone very cordial or civil.  You'd never see a shepherd in chuch today, can you imagine?  Always looked down on as the worst kind of people, never concerned about God's good ways, because their way of life doesn't fit into these good ways.

Yea, there are two of our choices, and then there's also a third one, that most of us will choose: to be like practically everyone else, who didn't really care to know about this Family's significance, or to pay much attention if they did.  The Holy Family transforms the universe.  How many of us have noticed this?  Aren't we too busy throwing out all the holiday trash, cleaning up after all the holiday indulgence, getting ready to go back to school and work?  Very few people really understand or pay attention to what's really happening with Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, in the initial story.  How many of us really understand, and pay attention, now?  I have a feeling it's very few, since Christmas services were well over a week ago.  Yea, nice stories to tell our kids, light a few candles and sing about.  Now where'd I put my cell phone?....

Yea, we have a choice here, but to choose walking into the true significance of this Family will put you in some strange and suspect company.  It will not lead you into acceptable and comfortable places, because that's not where Mary, Jesus, Joseph, the Magi and shepherds are. Get ready to find yourself in homeless shelters and hospitals, rather than quiet churches or heated houses.  Get ready to find yourself around some dangerous people, and in dangerous places, where Normal and Established people will call you dangerous things.  Get to be rejected by everyone you know, becuase the journey with the Holy Family will take you beyond all that is acceptable.  This is God's way, and as we see over and over in scripture, it's not an easy way.  This is God's way, and as we see over and over right in front of us today, every day, it will strip you or everything you take for granted, and leave you with nothing worth much of anything in most people's eyes (including your own).  Walking into the Holy Family's transformative significance might cost you in ways you thought unimaginable before.  Right now, on this journey to Epiphany, what will you choose?

What will you choose?....

Weapons-Grade False Moral Equivalence

As a child I remember hearing that God views all sins as equally bad. Let me be quick to say: I think that’s a load of crap.

If your understanding of God centers on a forensic view in which God acts as a judge capable only of binary judgment, then maybe that works. However, this notion requires that one understand God as lacking something crucial to good moral judgment–wisdom. Seeing human action as either ones or zeroes doesn’t require God, but a punch card reader.

The argument about God viewing all sins as equally bad depends for its intelligibility on a particular view of the atonement popularized by St. Anselm in his 11th century treatise, Cur Deus Homo, [1] which introduced the Satisfaction Theory of atonement. In brief, the Satisfaction Theory of atonement asserts that God’s honor is of such importance that even the most minor slight against that honor (i.e., sin) must be satisfied, which is to say, put right, so that honor may be restored.

Why, one might be tempted to ask, is God’s honor the overriding concern? This issue of God’s honor made perfect sense in the eleventh century when European feudalism was the dominant model of socio-economic organization. Feudalism, a system that offered land for military service, relied on a very tightly controlled series of relationships in which every person owed loyalty and honor to the person just above in the social ladder–from the lowest vassals all the way up to the lord. Infractions against loyalty and honor, even minor occurrences by “minor” personages, threaten the whole system. Therefore, honor had to be guarded vigilantly against any affront.

The Satisfaction Theory presupposes that the relationship of God to humanity approximates the feudal relationship between lord (God, in this case) and vassals (humans). On this reading, any sin, no matter its severity, calls into question the integrity of God’s role as lord, and must, therefore, be put right, so as to preserve the lord’s honor. Jesus’ work on the cross, according to Anselm, was that which put right all affronts to God’s honor.

Setting aside whether Anselm’s description of the saving work of Jesus in the Satisfaction Theory of atonement works as a metaphor (I think it doesn’t), it explains how it is that many Christians have come to view all sins as equal before God. As I’ve said, though, I don’ think it paints a particularly flattering view of God, who, in this view, is so worried about being affronted that genocide and going 56 mph in 55 mph zone are equally damning trespasses. One slight, no matter how minor …

Why the lesson in the history of theology?

False moral equivalence.

I wrote an article recently, based on the story of the Widow’s Mite. In the article I suggested that in Luke’s hands, the story of the Widow’s Mite is a way of challenging a system that pressures a poor widow (arguably the most vulnerable class of people in the ancient Near East) to forfeit her last two bits so that she too can have some “skin in the game.” What Jesus was getting at, I argued, was that his followers have no stake in propping up a system that valorizes the wealthy and the power it takes to keep them so, while creating an atmosphere that leaves the poor feeling that they need to do more in order to have some “skin in the game.”

My interpretation of the Widow’s Mite raised at least one objection for some readers. The objection, genuinely expressed, is an example of false moral equivalence. In short, the objection can be stated this way:

“Ok. So, the rich (represented politically and religiously by right-wing conservative fundamentalists) can be greedy. But, what about the poor (represented by left-wing liberal mainliners) who are envious, and seek to shame the rich? Aren’t they equally culpable? Clearly, there is sin on both sides of the spectrum that balances out in the end.”

I want to suggest that to believe that the sins of the rich and the poor named here carry the same moral weight, one has to be convinced that all sins are equally grievous to God–which belief many of us were taught from early on. As I’ve said, though, I think that’s a load of crap.

First, and most obviously, a metaphor predicated on feudalism starts with a host of problems, not least of which is a picture of God in which God is, at least in part, defined by a relationship to those whom God rules. That is to say, on this view, God, as lord of the manor, needs vassals in order to be lord. God gives in order to gain protection. Doesn’t work.

Second, equating all sins, contending that they have the same moral weight, does not match anyone’s experience of life. Human jurisprudence, in every situation I’m aware of, meticulously measures the moral differences between acts.[2] Shoplifting and armed robbery are both instances of stealing, but nobody outside a freshman philosophy class would argue that they’re the same thing; it’s certainly not a strong argument to carry into a courtroom.

Third, it is impossible to read scripture (Hebrew or Christian) and come away blithely saying that God treats the sins of the rich the same as God treats the sins of the poor. A cursory examination of scripture shows that God is often put out with people because of iniquity, that Jesus is regularly vexed by people’s sin. But, it’s probably important if we’re going to speak about moral equivalence to note who and for what sins people come under the withering glare of celestial judgment.

The people who most often find themselves on the sharp end of the divine stick tend to be those who have power and wealth. But it’s not just power and wealth as such that cause so much trouble; it’s the use of that power and wealth in ways that reify structures meant to keep the powerless and the poor … powerless and poor.

A few examples.

From Isaiah:

“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away?” (10:1–3a).

From Amos:

“Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals–they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6–7a).

From Luke:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (6:24–26).

I know. I know. I can hear the stunned gasps: “You’re proof-texting, cherry picking the scriptures that make your point.”

Fair enough. But first let me ask, “What’s my point?”

Equating the greed and power-grabbing of the rich and the well-situated with the “envy” of the poor is a theological red herring.

So, here’s my question:

What are the proof texts that condemn with the same vigor the “envy” of the poor?

Where, for instance, is the prophetic counterpart of Isaiah and Amos who condemns nations because the poor want more than their poverty? Where is the alternate passage that corresponds with Luke’s sermon on the plain, asserting that it is the rich, the sated, and the happy who will be blessed–and woe to the poor, the hungry, and the mourning?

Permit me a few additional points:

  1. I don’t want to be misunderstood to be saying that the poor don’t suffer from envy. They do. They’re not perfect. I’m not arguing that the poor are sinless. However, I fear that what gets categorized as the “envy” of the poor, is often no more than an acute desire not to be poor anymore. If you happen to be on fire in the midst of a bunch of people who swimming leisurely in a swimming pool, wanting to be like those around you who are not engulfed in flames, wanting not to be on fire, in other words, isn’t envy; it’s a normal human response to living in hell.
  2. Neither am I saying that rich people are evil because they’re rich. By most standards used by the rest of the world, I’m among the rich myself. What I am saying is that if the preponderance of scripture is to be believed, the burden of proof falls on the rich to show why they are a part of the solution and not part of the problem.
  3. Am I constructing a straw man? I don’t think so. I believe that there are a number of Christians who spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to square their participation in a system in which the deck is so clearly stacked in favor of the wealthy and the powerful with their participation as disciples following a man whose ministry had, as one of its organizing concerns, challenging that same kind of oppressive system–and who, when it all came down to it, died poor and powerless. And the only way I can see to do it is through a series of contortions of the conscience that winds up sounding something like, “Ok. So the fact of being rich carries with it real challenges to Christian faithfulness (prosperity gospelers to the contrary notwithstanding), but the fact of being poor is just as risky to faithfulness.” That bit of rationalization is a straw man of a whole different magnitude.

In this case, the false moral equivalence between the rich and the poor can be construed as avoidance therapy for people with a vested interest in keeping everything the way it is–a peculiar stance, I would think, for people committed to the disruption of the reign of God.

I know. I’ve used it myself.

In the hands of those at the top of the food chain, false moral equivalence is a weapon.

  1. Lit. “Why God Man?” Perhaps more clearly, “Why did God have to become a human being?”  ↩
  2. The undergraduate argument that “you can’t legislate morality” is another load of crap. Legislation is, for good or ill, the codification of moral convictions about what it is right and wrong to do. That the act may be right or wrong as a matter of political or economic convenience doesn’t make its embodiment in law any less a pursuit of some moral vision of the world. You may not be able to legislate all morality, but the legislation you have is at least informed by some moral conviction about how the world ought to be.  ↩