Canada's Overtaxed Clergy Look for the Union Label ; Citing Tough Working Conditions, Some United Church Ministers Are Joining with the Canadian Auto Workers

Article excerpt

When the phone rang near midnight, Jim Evans shuddered at the thought of the whispered taunts that would come from the other end of the line. The Rev. Mr. Evans, minister for the United Church of Canada, was being stalked by a woman from his own congregation. Ever since he'd rebuffed her sexual advances, the late-night telephone calls had become a daily ritual. For nearly five years he asked church elders to intervene, but they refused.

"Those were the darkest hours," he recalls, having only recently fled his small-town ministry in southern Ontario at the urging of the police, who said his life could be in danger. "There were so many times when I thought about just walking away from it all. But I love the church, and I felt that somehow I had to find a way to honor my call to the ministry."

Promoting godliness in a secular age is no longer the only challenge for some of Canada's clergy. Between low pay and stressful working conditions, more ministers say they are feeling overtaxed - and not finding relief within traditional church channels. So instead of turning to the Bible for guidance, they are seeking salvation in a place once reserved for coal miners and dockworkers: the union.

In addition to what they say are "sweatshop wages," these ministers say they face both psychological and physical abuse by their own parishioners. According to United Church figures, 60 percent of its ministers experience conflict with their congregations, and 80 percent say they have no peer support.

"Quite simply, it's now crisis proportions," says Evans, who now practices in the small town of Ingersoll, Ontario. He says the church's outdated hierarchical structure is both unwilling and incapable of responding to such problems.

Historical ties to CAW

Working alongside some 30 pastors across the country, Evans has enlisted the Canadian Auto Workers Union to help them organize 4,000 pastors in Canada's largest Protestant denomination.

"I think that after you get over the shock that you're talking about ministers and you get down to brass tacks, it's an employee- employer relationship that can only be strengthened by a union," adds the Rev. David Galston at Eternal Spring United Church in Hamilton, Ontario.

Mr. Galston says that members of his group believe a union will help them negotiate better wages - up from a minimum salary of C$37,000 (US$31,000). A union would also help them implement a structure in which they wouldn't be forced to negotiate their salary with leaders of their own congregation - a practice which often creates its own divisiveness.

More important, union proponents say, is that the union could help clarify which part of the church is responsible for overseeing problems when they do arise, such as Evans's concern about his stalker. Too often a problem is passed off from one part of the church to another without ever reaching resolution, Galston says.

He sees the union move as an extension of the historical roots of a denomination that has long been at the forefront of social and economic issues - often in alliance with the CAW.

CAW organizer Mike Shields admits that the union was stunned when it was first approached by a handful of clergy with a request for representation. "But when we began to understand what was happening, we felt that we could help them," Mr. Shields says. According to the disgruntled ministers, 18 percent of active clergy are out on stress leave at any one time, Shields says. "If that happened in your workplace or mine, there would have to be a major investigation. …