October 28, 2011

CUSTODIAN OF SOULS: Without meaning to make any specific claims about the law of the “ministerial exception” to certain employment-discrimination statutes, I did want to note something which has struck me. Stanley Fish (via dotCommonweal) puts it in his parenthetical:

If the ministerial exemption is to have any bite, there must be a way of distinguishing employees central to a religious association’s core activities from employees who play only a supporting role (the example always given is janitors).


Why would we assume that the janitor could not hold a ministerial position? It seems to me that there are some class assumptions here–or at least assumptions which separate manual labor from religious life, with the latter conceived as a completely intellectual, disincarnate affair. Ministering is about talking, not about mopping. Why?

A church, or parachurch institution, might decide that it wants to ensure that all its employees are Christian (or adhere to some standard of behavior which might put the institution crosswise to antidiscrimination laws) because it wants to ensure that its space is safe, welcoming, and dedicated to service in Christ. “Everyone you encounter here is part of our mission,” they might say. “Everyone here is ready to listen, to talk, and to be with you, and if you don’t feel comfortable bringing your questions or thoughts or needs to some div-school ministerial type, just talk to whomever you find.”

They might also specifically notice that janitors come into contact with desperate people and humiliated people–the pregnant girl crying in the stall, the homeless man trying to wash his clothes in the sink, the addict passed out or vomiting, the soccer mom who was having an awful day before she menstruated through her skirt. Maybe they would be especially concerned about the spiritual formation of janitors, who can choose whether to respond to these situations with tact, comfort, succor, or “not my job, pal” indifference–or worse.

(They might also want to recruit janitors from low-income people who have gone through some of their programs, but that is kind of a side note I think.)

Again, I’m not particularly interested in how this basically spiritual perspective-shift would or should affect the interpretation of the law. And I think many, maybe most, Christian organizations are well-served by having positions which are open to those who don’t already share their beliefs. But I do think the “(LOL but obviously not the janitors)” approach hides some assumptions which should be challenged.

Halloween is also the feast day of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, a 16th-century hall porter in the Jesuit monastery on Majorca. My saint-a-day book says, “He was an invaluable spiritual adviser to many of the faithful.” He’s the patron of porters. There are no small parts, as the man said.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!