Contemplating a church-based living wage campaign

Contemplating a church-based living wage campaign June 26, 2013

There were three resolutions for the Virginia annual conference of the United Methodist Church this year. One was never discussed or considered: a proposal for a church-wide living wage campaign. Our youth Bible study took a look at this resolution a couple of weeks ago. Our main critique of it was that it seemed to focus almost exclusively on a legislative approach to the issue, while we felt that a more viable option would be to start with the church and the small businesses of church members as a voluntary witness of economic justice.

For those who are unfamiliar, a living wage is the hourly wage that a single bread-winner with a four-person household would need in order to pay the bare minimum of expenses (rent, food, insurance, etc). It obviously varies according to the cost of living in a given area, but the average living wage for the US is $13.10, which is way higher than our minimum wage of $7.25.

Whenever living wage ordinances are proposed at the legislative level, the typical response from businesses is that it will put people out of work and businesses will relocate to a sweatshop magnet like Texas or another state in the Deep South. But what if the church decided that we will pay our people what they need to earn in order to survive and that we will challenge our members to enact economic justice in their businesses in a way that will be publicly recognized in the church community? I would expand this question beyond the wage-scale itself to include the question of benefits, especially health insurance.

Currently the United Methodist Church essentially has a two-caste aristocracy as an employer: clergy and laity. Clergy have minimum salary standards and benefits like healthcare and pensions that are managed at the statewide annual conference level. Laity on the other hand are often hired in local congregations to work a purportedly twenty hour a week job with no benefits in which the actual weekly expectations exceed full-time work. Many congregations that used to have multiple clergy positions are cutting their clergy positions and replacing them with lay part-time workers to save money.

The reason this arrangement hasn’t been more scandalous than it has is because most of the laity who work in the church have spouses in established careers with good salaries and benefits. But it doesn’t always work that way. When the layperson working for the church doesn’t have a high-earning spouse with benefits, the result can be a crushing economic burden, like having to pay out of pocket $1000 a month for health insurance.

It’s reprehensible that lay church employees who work full-time (whether or not their job description officially labels their work full-time) would not receive a living wage and full health benefits for their families. It means that people who are gifted and called by God to do the work but aren’t married to a doctor, lawyer, military officer, or the equivalent will not be able to accept the job or live in unjust poverty if they do take it. We need to pay all of our hourly and salary employees a living wage, and we need to create a means by which laity can participate in a statewide pool for their health coverage, whether it’s the same pool as clergy or a parallel entity.

Not only should we establish a living wage for church employees, but church members who are employers should have the opportunity to declare that they will treat their employees with economic justice and be publicly honored for this decision. Churches throughout our country have held congregation-wide campaigns to get debt-free using Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. Why shouldn’t we have congregation-wide campaigns for economic justice in our community as an integral component of our stewardship? If getting debt-free is really about godly stewardship and not just self-interest (a-hem!), then economic justice should go hand in hand with it. Of course, none of this will work unless we address the issue of tithing. When the average giving rate is 1-2% instead of 10%, it creates the economic pressure that pushes churches into behaving like sweatshops.

I wouldn’t be fired up about this if our annual conference hadn’t swept the living wage proposal under the rug (due to the live-streaming of our closing worship, we had a very limited fixed time for dealing with all of our resolutions). We could have simply raised our hands recommending that the bishop send a letter to the Virginia governor which he would immediately file in the “to be ignored” pile. I would have probably rolled my eyes and moved on.

But why not change the paradigm entirely? Do economic justice as an act of witness starting from the grassroots level of the local congregation. Isn’t that precisely the way that the church is supposed to be interfacing with society: as witnesses? This approach would call the bluff of anyone who complains about legislatively mandated economic justice as being “big government tyranny.” Why not Biblically mandated economic justice as a means of living out your discipleship? I’m not going to list all the supporting proof-texts, though there are many.

I’d be very interested in knowing what experiences other folks have had with this sort of thing. Surely there are churches out there that have done this. And I’m woefully ignorant of the intricacies within the United Methodist system that would need to be tweaked to ensure that lay church workers receive the same kind of economic security that clergy now enjoy.

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