By Patrick Scriven | Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries
“The Department of Labor (DOL) announced its changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) “white collar” overtime exemption rules. The final rule strengthens protection for workers by increasing the standard salary level for qualification for overtime exemption from $455 per week ($23,660 per year) to $913 per week ($47,476 per year).”
Over the years I’ve known a number of youth workers, church secretaries, children’s ministers, etc., who have been hired as ‘exempt’ employees. Most love what they do but more than a few have struggled to reconcile their pay with the expectations of them. I believe that we are called to do better as a church.
In most of the staffing situations I can remember, the intentions were rarely bad though the results sometimes were. Despite the fact that many of these positions never really qualified for the exempt status, certainly not on the merits of their pay, folks put in hours well beyond 40 hours a week. With “exempt” employees, churches never had to worry about paying overtime or adapt their budgeting to the seasonal fluctuations of church life and the demands they put upon their staff.
One can easily respond that no one is being forced to work for a church with unfair expectations. And certainly there are upsides (like flexibility) to working at many of these same churches. Each is correct to a point. But life is often more complicated than such responses assumes; is it really that easy to quit a job that you may have moved to take – without a safety net? To our fault, too often we operate as if churches care for their employees by default and that rules, designed to safeguard employees from abuse, are unnecessary and don’t apply to us. I think that the wisdom of this is questionable at best.
In simple terms, our churches have sometimes unfairly (albeit often unintentionally) taken advantage of their lay employees, not properly rightsizing our ministry goals to the financial realities of the church. Just as we have deferred maintenance on buildings, we have deferred tough decisions about the ministry we can afford to do on the backs of lay staff, asking them to work for little pay, and few benefits, with less volunteer support to boot.
I’m naming this concern because I’ve been on both sides of this equation. While I believe that I am treated fairly in my position today, this hasn’t always been the case (in other positions) and I know some who remain stuck and can’t freely speak. These faithful employees have been expected to work long hours for little pay, sometimes with pastors who made 2-3 times as much, at other times with pastors who were making just a shade more than they were. That many of our clergy also work under the burden of unrealistic expectations is not a point that I would argue against.
I’ve had to swallow hard listening to some leader’s lauding our justice witness for worker’s rights while they overlooked the sketchy workplace goings-on in the church under their care. I can think of times where lay employees have spoken up, and even a few occasions where their church’s have stepped up to try to bridge the gap. But at other points, the responses were less than gracious; in other work environments the reactions might even be considered hostile.
In addition to the normal challenges of naming workplace issues, many people also struggle with the faith element. For many of us, we are disciples as well as employees; this complicates our internal dialogue about appropriate boundaries and expectations. Of course, this is also true for exempt employees. As our minds churn on issues of workplace fairness, we serve alongside people who are volunteering their time quite generously. Some of those people appropriately mark the difference between a volunteer and an employee and have the ability to care for their employees. Others seem incapable of this important differentiation and complain about the lazy youth worker who won’t put that 51st (unpaid) hour in, or about the church secretary who is “lucky” to be paid to do church work. Somehow this latter group still qualifies for some Staff-Parish Relations Committees.
Now I get that employment in the church is a complicated thing and I’m no legal expert on all the possible nuances of labor law. I also recognize that employer intentions, and staff expectations, are all over the map. Still, I hope that this change to the FLSA is greeted by church leaders as an opportunity to do some clear thinking, to get right with the law and their employees. Such thinking may lead to some tough decisions about what we can really afford to do today as it relates to staffing. At the very least, I hope it opens the doors for some important, and long-overdue, conversations about what it means to be a church employee.