I am a commissioner to the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., this week. An item of business at the Assembly is called Neither Poverty Nor Riches: Compensation, Equity, and the Unity of the Church, (NPNR) (Item 10-10), from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP). It addresses employee compensation within the church. Over the past two years it has been my privilege to serve as vice-chair of the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) and as chair of the GAMC personnel committee. That gives me some insight into the subject. Furthermore, I’ve spent the better part of my adult exploring the intersection of business, economics, and theology. What follows is my reflection and response. It is my view and is not an official comment of the General Assembly Mission Council. I will declare from the start that I am opposed to this item.
The overture and the underlying study paper advocates equity in compensation for church employees, with equity defined as employees receiving similar compensation via ratios of highest-paid to lowest-paid employee. The idea of salary ratios was promoted In a policy paper called God’s Work in Our Hands, passed by the 207th General Assembly (1995). The narrative woven in NPNR is that church, and the General Assembly Mission Council in particular, has succumbed to “secular” business models of compensation and abandoned theological reflection in its hiring practices. NPNR seeks the imposition of a mandatory 5:1 compensation ratio from lowest-paid to highest-paid staff at the General Assembly Mission Council in order to achieve a biblical equality.
There are two puzzling aspects to NPNR:
- The imposed 5:1 ratio is directed only at the General Assembly Mission Council, despite that fact that other GA entities like the Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions have higher ratios than the GAMC. (A fact the study paper readily acknowledges.)
- NPNR makes no mention (except for a cursory mention at the end of Appendix in the study paper) of the extensive debate and policy development that occurred between 1999 and 2002 that resulted in our present compensation guidelines.
NPNR defines equity as similar compensation for all employees. But there are at least three ways to conceive of equity:
- Everyone is paid the same regardless of duties or experience.
- Everyone is paid equitably according to personal need.
- Everyone is paid equitably according to skills and experience they use in their employment.
Equity in any one of these three means greater inequality in the other two. While most of us share a concern about extravagant compensation for leaders, most of also believe different types and amounts of work justify different compensation.
Not all ministry contexts are identical within the church. The ministry of word and sacrament is a unique specialized call that embeds pastors in particular community contexts. Rather than producing a product or service for compensation, ministers of word and sacrament are paid the equivalent of a stipend to free them from economically productive labor and to focus on study, teaching, preaching, and shepherding. Mission co-workers, whose compensation model is lauded in NPNR, have similar circumstances. But not all are in agreement that this model is inviolate. The evolution of congregational ministry has led to pastors in some congregations taking on specialized management responsibilities that make the compensation question more complex. A growing number of pastors are exploring the tent-making model of ministry and some advocate that having pastors at work in the economy helps pastors better appreciate the daily lives of those they serve.
Not all who serve the church do so in the unique roles of minster of word and sacrament or mission co-worker. But are ALL employees of the church to be compensated as people in these roles are? The collective wisdom of the church has been that they are not. Many who serve the church do so through contractual agreements to be compensated for the performance of specified tasks that frequently require specialized training and experience. While it is understood that compensation for these services will not compare with compensation in the for-profit sector, there is still a sense that equity demands that employees be paid a wage comparable to what other similarly situated people in similar organizations receive. So how do we sort out the myriad of issues when it comes to compensating employees in our denomination?
This isn’t the first time this issue has arisen. The issue arose in the late 1990s. Task forces were formed and General Assembly’s from 1999 through 2002 gave extensive attention to compensation. The 2001 minutes lists guidelines based on fourteen principles of compensation, reiterating previous discernment (See Report from the General Assembly Advisory Committee on Churchwide Compensation (2001).) For example here are few excerpts:
The fulfillment of the church’s mission calls for effective, competent staff throughout the church and appropriate compensation to attract and retain them.
Factors to be considered when setting compensation should include the nature, purpose, scope, and responsibility of the position; the experience, knowledge, and skills required; the challenge of the work to be done and its impact on the effectiveness with which the church achieves its mission.
The system of compensation should ensure that all church employees are compensated according to the following criteria:
Principle Eleven—Salary Relationships/Stewardship
- Employees recruited locally should be paid within salary ranges related to the average salaries paid by employers in that location for comparable positions requiring similar skills and experience.
- Employees recruited regionally or nationally should be paid within salary ranges related to the average salaries regionally or nationally paid by employers for comparable positions in comparable organizations requiring similar skills and experience, modified to reflect the cost of living in the locale where the work is done.
The Church is one Body with varieties of gifts, and each person’s contribution to its mission is important. The church recognizes the value of all varieties of service and seeks to temper the values and rewards of the marketplace. A reasonable relationship between the highest and the lowest salaries paid to all church employees honors the principle of shared community and call.
In maintaining a relationship between the highest and lowest salaries, lower levels of compensation should be comparable to or better than the average salaries paid in the marketplace, but not so far above the average that good stewardship of the church’s funds is compromised. Salaries at the top levels should reflect a tempering of excessive compensation.
The GAMC provides a wide range of services requiring an array of specialties. There are office mangers, information specialists, attorneys, theologians, policy experts, and mail room workers, to name but a few. Some positions are rather standard across many other types of organizations while others require highly specific skill sets. That makes development of compensation packages challenging but the GAMC compensation is always guided by General Assembly’s guiding principles.
For example, in keeping with the second paragraph of principle number eleven above, when salary, wages, and benefits are combined for our lowest paying positions, the GAMC’s total compensation is above median compensation for similar religious and nonprofit organizations. The compensation for the highest paid employees is between the 25 and the 50th percentile for similar positions.
Particularly troubling for me is this sentence from the NPNR study guide:
The General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) functions through a human resources department, headed by a lay human resources professional, who is aware of functioning within a church, but is guided by secular professional standards and best practices, rather than by theological or biblical understanding. …
ACSWP and the authors of NPNR may not be content with how compensation policy is done at the GAMC. It is certainly within their scope to raise such questions. But I have been on the GAMC board for six years and chaired the personnel committee. We have had conversations with ACSWP about a variety of issues including extensive debate over the GAMC Employee Handbook and policies. Not until NPNR surfaced at this General Assembly have I heard one word about salary ratios.
I can tell you that the GAMC human resources director is indeed a professional. I can tell you she loves Jesus and has a heart for the mission of the church. I can also tell you she does not unilaterally create personnel policy. She significantly contributes to its formation within the context of those who labor at the GAMC and the elected members who provide oversight. And she, like the rest of us, has been guided by the policies of the General Assembly. It is one thing to disagree with the current state of affairs but quite another to impugn the service of the HR director because she is complying with the directives of the General Assembly.
There is clear tone of clericalism and condescension in the identification of “lay human resources professional,” as though a theological degree somehow makes one uniquely qualified to run a human resources department. I can tell you that I would prefer a lay surgeon, a lay police officer, and a lay building contractor in the execution of their work to someone who has a theology degree as their defining credential. So would I much prefer working with a “lay human resources professional” who loves Jesus, who has a sense of call, and works in community with others of the faith to do her work. That is precisely what we have. Singling out a staff person for insolent remarks in a denomination wide study paper is unjust.
Other aspects of the report concern me as well. Appendix A states:
It [the compensation ratio] is now a nine to one ratio in the General Assembly Mission Council, with wider ranges in the Board of Pensions (BOP) and Presbyterian Foundation (FDN) and the most compact range in the Office of the General Assembly (OGA).
This is erroneous. I don’t know the exact ratios at the other entities but it is not that high at the GAMC. NPNR simply asserts this ratio with no documentation. Neither is there any comparative data to show how the General Assembly entities compare to each other or to similar entities outside the denomination.
ACSWP is the General Assembly’s appointed guardian of social witness policy. Yet in this instance, they have reverted to pre-1999 policy statements to make a case for ratios while offering no interaction with policies that formed from 1999 to 2002 that explicitly rejected the use of ratios. Indeed, without careful observation one could not be blamed for getting the sense that the policies of pre-1999 are still in effect but unheeded. Furthermore, unsubstantiated claims are being made about compensation at the GAMC while lauding the performance of other entities with higher ratios.
The General Assembly Mission Council takes compensation issues very seriously. Compensation is set according to a variety of variables all within the theological context of Christian service. The current GA policies contain considerable wisdom and judicious balance between competing concerns. The GAMC has been served well by the GA’s guidance on compensation and for that reason I will oppose item 10-10 and I’m encouraging my fellow commissioners at this assembly to do likewise.