Laughing, Weeping, Living

Life happens. You laugh about it or cry about it, sometimes both.

My Advice On Working for a Church

on April 18, 2013

I have been thinking about writing on church employment for some time. As some of you may know, I was a church employee for several years before and for a short time after my son Stephen was born. Jeremy has also been a church employee for much of that same period of time, continuing up until very recently. We have had what I would consider to be a fairly typical experience of being employed by a Catholic church, but we also recognize that our experience is by no means universal. Based on our experiences, both of us individually and as a family, I would like to offer some insights and advice to anyone who is currently or who may be soon employed by a church.

First, Jeremy and I realized quite soon after Stephen was born that my strongest desire is to be home with my babies. At the time of Stephen’s birth, I was still employed full time as a parish music director and Jeremy was working almost full time as a parish director of religious education. We were lucky that our jobs were flexible about what times of day and days of the week we needed to be in the office. My boss was very accommodating and even allowed me to bring Stephen to the office with me during the week and work from home. It was our family’s strong desire to never place our child in daycare as a way of life to accomodate two careers. I am not putting down families who do place their children in daycare, but it was not what my family wanted to do. Even though our jobs were flexible, there is only so much the employer can do to accommodate family time. As a musician, I had to be on the job for every mass. That means Jeremy was stuck watching a baby by himself during mass, and we never got to attend mass as a family. Jeremy had a few masses where he was “on the job” as director of the RCIA program. He couldn’t watch Stephen when there were Rites to facilitate. We had to hire a babysitter for the Easter Vigil. At Jeremy’s most recent job, he had to work at least three nights a week and sometimes during the day on Sunday, overseeing the education programs and teaching classes. The work schedule of a parish employee is very irregular, which makes it difficult to plan family activities. Some weeks, there is enough work to fulfill 60 hours on the clock, some weeks there is only enough for 35. And Jeremy’s most recent job considered 40 hours or less to be unsatisfactory performance, which really doesn’t leave time for family. There were some days Jeremy saw Stephen in the morning for a couple hours, then didn’t see him again until the next morning.

First advice: if you plan to work for a church, you have to be okay with working a lot of hours, possibly never attending mass as a family, and having irregular time slots available for family activities.

Second, when Stephen was born, I decided that it is most important to me to take time off my career to be home with my young children. That meant Jeremy had to bring in all the income our family needed. I did work limited part time in such a way that allowed me to be home almost all the time, but since moving to Rio Rancho, I have not worked at all outside of the home. Jeremy has been responsible for bringing home all the bacon. It has been our experience that a church cannot pay a salary that will support a family living on a single income. Churches are basically charity organizations; they can only pay out in proportion to the generosity of donations and tithes that come in. A church may have every intention of paying a living wage; churches are not in the business of purposely denying their employees fair compensation. In fact, when Jeremy negotiated his salary for his most recent position, they were very generous and sincerely attempted to meet his requirements. However, after we had lived here for several months we realized the cost of living is more than we estimated and his salary wasn’t quite cutting it. We were able to live on church employment in Billings because I was doing just that little bit of part time work, but as a strictly single-income family, a church just can’t support us.

In a similar vein, a diocese is also a charity organization, just like a parish church, but on a much larger scale. All the programs and funding coming out of the diocese depends on the generosity of donations. These programs include the health insurance and other benefits offered to employees of parishes and Catholic schools in the diocese. The diocese may not be able to afford a very good health plan for their employees, which was the case both in Billings and here in Rio Rancho. As parish employees, we were offered a choice of limited coverage with steep monthly premiums. If Jeremy had been a single man of good health, that would have been fine. But the plan made it prohibitively expensive to add me and Stephen, which left us up a creek. I know there are dioceses that offer better coverage and lower premiums to their employees, but it has not been our experience. I know a diocese will offer the best benefits it can afford.

Second advice: if you want to work for a church and you have a family, you will most likely need at least a part time income to supplement your church job income. You must also be prepared to pay back a large part of your income for health insurance premiums, especially if you add your family to your employee plan.

That’s all I will write about tonight, but I do have some more thoughts to share. Please do not read this as a criticism of any church or diocese. I am just sharing my own family’s personal experiences of being employees of Catholic parishes.

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