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Survey: Overworked and underpaid

Most of the pressure to perform comes from ministers themselves

By Patricia Clarke

Rev. Jane Capstick preaches twice on Sunday to her small two-point charge in North Bay and Callander, Ont., co-ordinates one Sunday school, chairs North Bay Presbytery and a key Manitou Conference committee, looks after about 100 families, and tries to save Mondays for her three-year-old son, Teddy.

“I’m juggling many different balls,” she says, and sometimes something drops, as in the week last spring when there were three deaths on her Monday off. She’s not complaining. Her hours are flexible, her parishioners warmly supportive. “It’s a great job.” 

That was the sense that came through the survey responses from ministers. They work longer hours than lay people realize, are paid less than they think is fair, but still expect to hold your hand in the hospital on their day off. “You can’t tell people, ‘Please be ill only on my working days,’” says Catherine O’Brien, national co-ordinator for ministry personnel leadership.

A 40-hour workweek is what both ministers and laity surveyed said they expect. But most ministers said their actual workweek ranged from 41 to 69 hours. And 81 percent said they would show up for a family crisis on their day off, although only 65 percent of lay people would expect them to.  “Even if you work every day, you can’t keep up,” Capstick says. “There’s the visit that doesn’t happen, someone in hospital who doesn’t get seen. The guilt about that is harsh.”

Do we pay a fair salary for ministers’ work? Lay people said yes; ministers said no. Minimum salaries set by General Council range from $32,164 for the first two years to $39,401 after 14 years of ministry. In addition, congregations must provide a manse or a tax-free housing allowance. Preliminary research for the Ministry Compensation Task Group, based on a sample of 380 full-time ministry personnel with 20 years of service or more, came up with an average salary of $44,000.

Asked what would be a fair salary, wages only, most chose $50,000, but some went up to $90,000. “At least comparable to high school department heads,” wrote an Ontario minister. “A firefighter with Grade 12 earns twice as much as a full-time university-trained minister,” commented another from Ontario. “You need a second salary to survive,” wrote one from Saskatchewan. 

Not surprisingly, ministers claimed preaching was the most important thing they do. Perhaps also not surprisingly, a good majority rated their last four sermons as “excellent.” And what makes a good sermon? Ministers say it’s well rehearsed, biblical, prophetic, grace-filled, relevant and not too long.

Lay people, on the other hand, especially those who are older and live in small towns, think pastoral care is most important. So do Maritimers, more than any other region. Although the Atlantic provinces are known for great preaching, Rev. Kendall Harrison, Conference personnel minister, isn’t surprised by the response. “Nothing is more important here than community,” he says.

Pastoral care comes first for Jane Capstick, who can spare only two to three hours to write her sermon, “and that’s Saturday night,” she says. “You don’t have to be great every Sunday, as long as you show up when you’re needed.”

For years, the church has required newly ordained or commissioned ministers to serve where the church sends them, except in unusual circumstances. That may change next year if Presbyteries approve a remit from the last General Council. Survey respondents are divided equally on whether settlement is a good thing. Ministers are more in favour; lay people on the Prairies and in small towns — the ones most likely to receive settled ministers — are the most opposed.

“It’s sympathy for people who find themselves far from home and where they really don’t want to be,” explains Rev. Pamela Thomas, ministry personnel secretary for Saskatchewan Conference. “We tend to forget how much culture shock there can be. When I was settled, I could have been on another planet.” On the other hand, she knows small congregations worry about whether they could fill their pulpits without settlement.

Long hours, low pay, far from home. About a third of clergy said they know a minister who has suffered from burnout. But many ministers claimed they were striving to keep their lives in balance. “I work 50 hours a week and take time off when I can,” commented one minister from Alberta and Northwest Conference, adding, “I love my job.”

Rev. Brian Hannon serves a four-point charge in Hant’s Harbour, Nfld. He’s also on Conference and District committees. “I’ve got it pretty good,” he says, “because I’ve learned to say no. I’m not trying to be Superman.”

Capstick has also learned she can’t always juggle all those balls. “I’m someone who does keep a balance,” she says. “The only one who is going to make sure I don’t overwork is me.”

Patricia Clarke is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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