Does It Pay to Work for the Church? Laypeople Who Make a Living the Church Love What They Do-But Don't Always Love the Pay

By McClory, Robert J. | U.S. Catholic, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Does It Pay to Work for the Church? Laypeople Who Make a Living the Church Love What They Do-But Don't Always Love the Pay


McClory, Robert J., U.S. Catholic


Since the beginning Christian leaders have taken these words of Jesus quite literally: "Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven" (Matt. 5:12). If you worked for the church, you were expected to defray the greater part of your earnings indefinitely, cashing in, so to speak, only after crossing through the pearly gates, q-hat worked relatively well for many years, thanks to the abundant supply of sisters, priests, and brothers who chose lives of poverty while tilling the fields of the Lord. But with the ever-diminishing supply of such laborers during the past 35 years, we have moved into the age of the laity--a fascinating, hitherto unexplored era for Catholicism.

One indicator of change is that since 1997 there are more paid, professional lay ministers than priests working in U.S. parishes, and the gap continues to grow. Another is that in 1990, 41 percent of parish ministers were women religious; today they comprise 17 percent, and that percentage also continues to decline. Bishops and other church leaders realize the trend is not going to reverse itself; some 18,000 Catholics currently are training for lay ministry in the U.S., almost six times the number of seminarians.

In Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, the U.S. Catholic bishops said last November, "Lay ecclesial ministry has emerged and taken shape in our country through the working of the Holy Spirit. Sharing in the function of Christ, priest, prophet, and king, the laity have an active part of their own in the life and activity of the church." Obviously the laity have advanced beyond their old "pray, pay, and obey" status, and the lay ministry field has become powerfully attractive to many Catholics.

Less is more

Joan Kelly, for example, took a 60 percent pay cut when she quit her job as vice president at a major Chicago bank two years ago. She exchanged her 20-year corporate lifestyle, a hefty salary, and many perks for a position as secretary and office manager for a 1,500-family suburban parish. "Partly I was burnt out," she says, "and I saw this as something different, maybe where I'd get some I'd get some sense of social reward.

"Now I'm at the bottom," laughs Kelly, a cheerful, energetic 46-year-old workhorse in the rectory. "I'm sealing envelopes, entering contributions in the books, upgrading the phone and computer system. I still can't believe I have to order supplies. I used to leave a note on somebody's desk at the bank and they'd just take care of it."

She lists some other changes: no cleaning lady; a very different and limited clothing budget; a major cutback on restaurant dinners and entertainment; heavy reliance on the salary of her husband, a painter; and having to say no more often to her three teenage daughters. And the advantages?

"There are spiritual rewards when you don't measure all your decisions in dollars," she says. "There are a lot of sacred moments here," when strangers come to the door needing help, when parishioners drop in to discuss important things. "I see now how incredibly privileged we are," Kelly explains. "I didn't get it before."

Her daughters, who at first objected to the budget limitations, are starting to get it, too. "One said to me just lately, 'Mom, I can see why you left the bank.'" It's little things like this that make her think the pay cut was worthwhile.

But the Kelly family's willingness to take a large cut in income makes them a bit unusual among lay church workers today. A major issue for the 21st-century church is compensation for these coworkers in the vineyard. Most laypersons don't have the luxury of defraying earnings to the next life. Single or married, they require and deserve salary and benefits equal to that earned by their peers in other professions.

When looking at the state of compensation today for laypeople working in parishes, most of the available information is on "lay ministers," those trained in church-related specialties like theology or liturgy and employed on parish pastoral staffs. …

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