Friday, February 13, 2009

Trend toward hiding church-staff, church-bureaucracy salaries needs to be reversed

Churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions would do well to take note of the rising anger in the public over those huge salaries and bonuses big-name bankers and Wall Street brokers are making and take appropriate transparent action quickly.

Simmering below the surface is a salary issue that's been lurking and building in the religious community for decades.

Once upon a time everyone in most Protestant congregations knew the salaries of the pastor, staff members, and even denominational leaders. Not any more. Following a four-decade trend, hiding these salaries from the view of even the most involved congregants has become commonplace.

The move toward secrecy parallels the dramatic rise in church-staff and church-bureaucracy salaries. Except in isolated (mostly rural) situations, church workers today are paid commensurate with—sometimes better than—secular employees elsewhere.

Pastors, church staff, and church-bureaucracy staff certainly deserve to be paid adequately for their work. Most of the time they serve diligently and faithfully. No one I know or have read on this issue argues against that. The concern is with the secrecy that has evolved in trying to pay these employees fairly. 

As a child growing up in a Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma City I was accustomed to the annual Wednesday Night Business Meeting discussion about how much the pastor should be paid. I just presumed that was how all churches behaved and would continue to act. Our pastor always made more than either of my parents or many other members of our church did. The discussions and tap-dancing that ensued were always fascinating to watch—probably a little uncomfortable for our well-educated, politically connected pastor but a good, clean, transparent airing of what otherwise would have been undercurrent gossip in the church.

My awakening that this wasn't the way all churches operated occurred in the early 1970s, after Kay and I moved to Houston and joined a large (now moderate) Southern Baptist church.  Noticeably absent in the church's annual report was a breakdown of staff salaries.  After the business session I politely approached the finance-committee chairperson and asked why that information was not in the printed budget I had received. His reply still rings in my ears: "If you want that information, you need to go ask the pastor for it. You'll have to present your reasons before he'll give it to you."  

My reply to that was, "So the fox is now guarding the hen-house door. How interesting!"

That episode alerted me to be on the look out for similar behaviors in other church setting. Sure enough the trend was emerging and building fast in many churches and denominations.

Southern Baptist Conservatives rode into power in the early 1990s proclaiming their concern about secret salaries and often said denominational bureaucracy salaries were too high.  Once in power, however, they quickly forgot that agenda. By 2005 the SBC Executive Committee, the power center of the denomination, was even fighting against some of its own trustees who claimed specific salary information was being withheld from them.

Camouflaging the issue is the fact that a few churches and denominational agencies continue to make salaries public. These handful are often cited by church officials as examples of openness in order to cover up the wider trend. 

Also confusing the issue is the fact that church "salaries" are often not the full picture of what a church employee is really paid. Few lay people today truly understand the parsonage-allowance concept and how it can protect as much as half a pastor's salary from taxes and public scrutiny. Just as with those highly paid Wall Street bankers and corporate executives, church and denominational salaries need to be understood in the context of the whole "salary package"—bonuses, housing allowance, tax subsidies, benefits, and so forth.

So, are some church officials' salaries in the league with those corporate executives whose salary packages are drawing fire today? No one can say for sure, since secrecy continues to rule the day in far too many congregations and denominational agencies.

Transparency, openness, and honesty are hallmarks of earlier church times that are just as needed today as they were then—maybe even more so given the current economic crisis and concern about "salaries" that have grown too large for the average person to comprehend.

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