Lay Employees: What Would We Be Willing To Do?

Good discussion on the Bishop Martino thread. Join in if you wish.

Regarding Catholic school teachers, let me relate an incident passed on by a friend in Catholic education many years ago. The pastor was assembling a list of big parish donors: print it up in the bulletin, honor them by name and numbers, and encourage new donors. My friend, when he heard about the amounts of money donated, asked out loud why his name and the names of his teaching colleagues weren’t on the list. What do you mean, the priest asked. He figured the parish school’s teachers were working for wages about 30-35% below what their public school counterparts were earning. My friend thought it was perfectly reasonable to list the people who were “tithing” thirty percent next to the wealthy upper crust who weren’t matching percentage of earnings, let alone dollar amounts in some cases. The pastor was horrified at the thought.

I don’t recall if I was told the list went forward with traditional donors only. Maybe prospective givers were emboldened. I tend to doubt that Catholic educators were encouraged.

I have served three parishes with Catholics schools. My colleagues in catechesis and education have been singularly generous, dedicated, and fine examples of the Christian faith to children and adults. Pastors, for the most part, are appreciative of teachers. They may also feel a bit of shame that they can’t pay a market wage. But for career educators to persist in serving the Church and our children for decades is a testament to their commitment, a commitment that transcends drawing a paycheck or working under particular shepherds.

If only bishops like Joseph Martino could match this fervor.

Frequent commenter John “knows” I don’t like Bishop Martino. I’m sure he’s a fine guy and a decent priest. But no, I tend to dislike bullies–and that’s how he bears himself in the public eye.

It may be that Catholic pragmatism has buried parish schools. Catholic education may be a value if it costs $100 per year, with $10 per extra child as it was in my home parish back in 1969. (As non-Catholics, my parents paid double: $240 for the three of us.) But as the price goes up, more takers have stepped out of the picture. I don’t have any easy answers for parish-based schools. If the government were willing to subsidize them as they do in Europe, I suppose the landscape would be totally different. Conservatives would demur, I suppose.

As to my suggestion that lay people share in the benefits accorded priests, John wrote:

I don’t think the comparison with clergy makes any sense, Todd. First of all, clergy compensation is rather modest, although it does include room and board. But priests promise at ordination to obey the Bishop and his successors, and at least theoretically to go where they’re sent and to do the job they’re told to do. They commit their lives. Would lay teachers be willing to make a similar commitment?

Clergy get a bit more than room and board. They get cars, sometimes cooks and housekeepers, often education, and the like. I lived for two years in a parish house (rectory) and worked for a lower salary in return for certain benefits. I had few objections to an arrangement like that. The average priest compensation in parishes I’ve served is about $45,000 to $50,000. Below Protestants, but still above most teachers.

John’s last question is a good one:

Would lay teachers be willing to make a similar commitment?

It’s a good question. I know many teachers who have made this commitment. I know a few others who might. Most are the secondary wage-earners in their family, so when the husband (usually) gets transferred, the teacher moves on.

Personally speaking, I’ve never been asked to make this kind of commitment. The only people I’ve known who suggested I might have a vocation to the priesthood were lay women. I worked as a single man in the Church for seven years under three pastors. None of them suggested I make a commitment.

But as I’ve entered by sixth decade of life, there’s a certain attraction to the stability of working under a bishop in a particular diocese. Too bad the Church doesn’t recognize that kind of vocation, outside of the diaconate, perhaps.

I probably dislike Bishop Martino less than I find him frustrating. Bishops like him lack the vision to open up to God’s desires and the possibilities of ministry and commitment. They have no frame of reference for the deeply committed lay people who serve with them to spread the Gospel. They see lay people and sometimes their own clergy as commodities–much like the corporate masters of the secular world. They hire multiple business managers for their dioceses and parishes, but vanishingly few spiritual directors. They seem more interested in saving a buck or two than investing in their most valuable resource: personnel. They alienate their lay partners in ministry, and do so with a callousness that betrays a lack of intellect, much less any sort of spiritual sensibility.

Naturally a lot of single lay people come to work for the Church. Often they come young. You’d think these folks would be prime candidates for orders and religious life, yet vocation directors and bishops still troll the high schools looking for the immature, untested, and … sure, some really good young guys.

If someone were to ask me what I’d be willing to do, I suspect the answer would be quite a lot. I’d have lots of company. Sad thing is that most Roman Catholic bishops don’t even think about asking the question. They’re not even in the same ballpark. It’s hard to maintain anger in a situation like that. I feel pity for them.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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14 Responses to Lay Employees: What Would We Be Willing To Do?

  1. John Heavrin says:

    “I know many teachers who have made this commitment.”

    I mean literally make the commitment of obedience to the bishop. Without the competing commitment to a family, which might cause you to have to “move on” to another town. Etc, etc. Lay persons don’t make this kind of commitment; consecrated Religious and ordained clergy do. They’re in it for the supernatural benefits, Todd, and live lives of formal, committed self-denial and sacrifice. The kind of lives that are just not compatible with “demanding” fairness and justice (and their names in the bulletin as a major donor, something that I would hope any donor would resist) and having and using the leverage and muscle to get it, which is what unionization is all about. Parishes can’t afford union employees. Like any employer who relies on charity for revenue, they can barely afford non-union employees.

    Come on, Todd, admit it: you just have a problem with Martino because he’s a straight talker and last fall he dared to state the obvious truth: that in fact the USCCB doesn’t speak for him, and that in fact he is the sole teaching authority in his diocese.

  2. Todd says:

    No, I think you’re pretty much wrong on all fronts on this one, John.

    I’ve known teachers who have served the same school for forty to fifty years–what you’re speaking of here is a life of stability without the vow to reinforce the lived reality. I don’t have a doubt they receive supernatural grace for their sacrifices and commitment to serve which is no less profound than the commitment of a religious or priest. The problem is that the Church doesn’t seek out these people and offer them any sort of formal commitment. What they do instead is shore up their failings with women religious: authorize an annual collection every December for the people they’ve underpaid for the past several decades.

    When you and others say the Church can’t afford employees, others say you pay slave wages. Given the treatment of the retirement costs of clergy and religious, it’s a weak sister version of a fraudulent scheme: keep the warm bodies in place and hope there’s enough to care for the elderly.

    Your approach to unions seems akin to those who say you can never trust authority. In a twisted way, your stance shows you are a child of the sixties, in the worst caricature of the sense. I doubt that neither you nor Bishop Martino can articulate what the teachers are actually asking for. You and he seem to assume it’s all about money. My take on Bishop Martino is that his stance reveals his own laziness: it’s easier to be a bully than a true bishop.

    Personally, I love straight-talkers. Problem is, Martino doesn’t seem to be one.

  3. Jim McK says:

    Bishop Martino came into a situation where he had to deal with some problems in the school very quickly, and he did much of it badly imo. (He worked on the cause of St Katharine Drexel, an important American educator, so he may have had some supernatural assistance that we do not recognize for his actions. At least, I hope so, because from a human perspective, they are a mess.)

    He has also been faced with a huge number of parishes that needed to be restructured. He asked every parish to develop a mission statement, and then in light of that to offer suggestions on how to handle the situation. Many parishes figured everything was already decided and there was little point to going through a prayerful public reflection, but at least Martino requested it. He is not the unspiritual thug that he sounds like in the media.

  4. John Heavrin says:

    “I’ve known teachers who have served the same school for forty to fifty years…”

    So have I. Do you know any lay teachers who’d be willing to teach at twenty different schools over those forty years? Moving not when they wanted to or had their own reasons for it, but when they were told to? Maybe for good reasons, maybe for bad. But in obedience. “stability” is a monastic vow, Todd. In the old days the sisters took, and lived, vows of obedience. Lay people want flexibility. To stay in one place for forty years…or not. To be able to move to another state when the spouse gets transferred. Etc.

    Bingo my ass, Liam. Todd equates “straight talk” with “talk that agrees with my point of view.” You’re not that clumsy, I would have thought.

  5. Liam says:


    You seem more intolerant of disagreement than Todd. Forgive my clumsiness.

  6. Todd says:

    John, thanks for responding, but again, you’re wrong on a number of points.

    First, the musical chairs of appointing bishops and pastors is not traditional. It points to the modernism of the Roman approach for dioceses, though I concede moving pastors has benefit for most concerned, given that bishops are willing to discern careful exceptions.

    The notion that a bishop would move teachers from school to school is totally foreign to the topic. It would also be unbelievably time-consuming and pointless. Schools of all sorts are strengthened by the longevity and stability by a faculty. I might conceive of a gifted teacher being asked to move to a needy school. But that would ideally be the discernment of adults: a teacher willing to explore new gifts for leadership, principals, pastors and bishops willing to acknowledge weaknesses they can’t fix on their own. “Move because I say so,” would be foolish to the extreme.

    Like anybody, a lay teacher or lay ecclesial minister wants meaning. If you offered a young adult with a freshly minted Master’s degree forty to fifty years of unvarnished joy, adventure, and excitement in service of God and the Church, it wouldn’t matter if they were teaching in a dungeon.

    The hierarchy doesn’t believe in the Gospel strongly enough to sell it to anybody who doesn’t want to join a clerical club. It’s often in spite of the clergy that the Church has as many lay people as it does to further the ministry of the Gospel.

    Your final point about ideological congruence just shows you don’t pay attention on my blog. I’ve rescinded or changed positions at the sound advice of Liam and others for years.

    Here’s my version of straight talk: Bishop Martino is an unimaginative bully. People cheer him because his methodology is familiar like Rush Limbaugh or Jerry Springer.

  7. John Heavrin says:

    Maybe you’re right, Liam, but it’s a hell of a high bar.

    Perhaps a union would be workable, but I don’t see how, not as I understand the purpose of a union, which is to exercise power vis a vis the management. Inevitably expensive demands would be made and a diocese can’t afford that, Martino or no Martino.

    By the way, Todd, I’m not “cheering” Martino, just agreeing with him on what he said last fall, and, again, making the point that a union mentality is an adversarial mentality and by my poor lights seems incompatible with the service and self-sacrificial mentality required of an employee of the Catholic Church.

  8. John Heavrin says:

    “I’ve rescinded or changed positions at the sound advice of Liam and others for years.”

    Could you name a couple?

  9. Michael says:

    The reality of the situation is, if the Church lived up to what it teaches about fair compensation and economic justice, no one would see the need to talk about unions.

    I know of no lay employee of the church, whether they be teachers or professional parish workers such as DRE’s,Pastoral Associates or Business Managers who are in it for the money. We do receive numerous “supernatural” benefits and most lay employees, whether they be Lay Ecclesial Ministers or otherwise are very committed to the church and give up numerous evenings and weekends with their families in service to the church they love.

    The problem is not that we don’t see our jobs as that of service and sacrifice. The problem is that when it comes time to negotiate salary, we find that the starting point for negotiation is not qualifications, not education or job responsibilities, not even what the Catholic Church teaches about just compensation. The mostly unspoken starting point is usually that “you work for the church and so you shouldn’t expect to be paid more”. It is a starting point that guarantees lay Church employees wages that a) don’t measure up to church teaching and b) are below what the market elsewhere would bear. Especially in today’s economy, there is only so much committed self-denial and sacrifice that people can withstand before they are forced by circumstances to leave lay Ecclesial ministry for other areas.

    The simple fact is that the church is going to be needing qualified and committed Lay people more than ever in the years to come and it cannot afford to let them go for any reason. In our Archdiocese, one needs only to take a cursory look at the Archdiocesan directory’s list of active priests and look at their age to see how badly the church will be needing lay leadership in the near future. Within 5-10 years, a majority of the priests will be of retirement age or older. They are only ordaining 1 or 2 a year. In order to be able to effectively minister to Catholics in the area, we will need many qualified Lay Ecclesial ministers and we will need to pay them a just wage.

    To be sure, the responsibility for paying these people a just wage falls on all of us, not just the bishop or the pastor. We all know that Catholics are not the best at giving money to the collection plate. If we are going to have qualified people to minister with us in the church, then we need to be less miserly in our giving to our parishes.

    To answer the question that is the topic of the post- I believe most Lay employees of the Church are willing to sacrifice much for the Church we love. However, those who do are due more than just our thanks and a nod to their sacrifice. They are due a fair and just wage, which is what the church says all people are due.

  10. Todd says:

    Withdrawing an image of a gibbet, limiting my comments to one per thread on other blogs (not 100% successful, I’ll concede), taking a closer look at the given antiphons for Entrance and Communion in planning music, revising my initial optimism about the papacy of Benedict, especially on ecumenical matters. A few people have remonstrated with me personally to be calmer and more peaceable–I’d say I’m far less aggressive than I used to be ten years ago. I would hope so.

    In parish ministry, I’ve gone from being a serious doubter of LifeTeen to willing to give it a try. I’m now convinced that the combined rite of initiation at the Easter Vigil is an inferior idea to the initiation of the elect alone. I used to think acroymns like RCIA were a problem–not any more. I’ve become a convert to the Rite of Eucharistic Exposition and Benediction. I now like the song “I Am The Bread of Life.”

  11. John Heavrin says:

    Fair enough, Todd.

    I’ve made myself obnoxious on this subject, and others as well, no doubt. A common failing of mine.

    Liam’s right…I tend to childishly insist on my own view.

    I apologize for all this and will try to have a lighter touch in the future.

  12. Todd says:

    No problem by me, John. You are welcome here anytime.

    I do agree there are potential problems with greedy people within unions, and there’s no guarantee of a pollyanna ending to headstrong adults butting heads.

    The flip side — the good side, I hope — is that we never have to doubt your passion. To me, losing passion would be like an amputation.

  13. Liam says:


    You are not alone. I, too, no less than many.

    But Todd will tell you I made my bones on the Catholic Internet back in the days of the Usenet and old-fashioned discussion boards as a heat-seeking missile for (1) shibboleths and related thinking, and (2) rhetorical and argumentative excesses that are self-subverting. Catholics do a lot of these, and the Internet exacerbates it. We can have a wonderful discussion of why that may be so, at another time and place.

    Among many other things, my impression (which I have shared here before, so it’s no shock to Todd) is that Todd likes to mirror the provocativeness of them he is critiquing. It’s part of his Internet persona. So, when you see him being flip, glib or excessive, a good place to start is to wonder if he’s mirroring what can be seen in the objects of his critique.

    And we should always remember that our Internet personas are not necessarily indicative of our personas in person. That might be a lack of integrity – or merely reflect the difference in medium.

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