The Church As Employer – A Reflection

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PRESCRIPT:  When I was a candidate to the ordained ministry of the Uniting Church, I was asked to address a group of staff employed at the Uniting Church’s Victoria/Tasmania Synod office on the subject of industrial issues as they relate to faith based workers.  This invitation was extended to me because it was known that, before my candidature, I had been involved in the Trade Union movement for many years.  As the starting point for my presentation, I drew on Matthew 20: 1-16 (the parable of the Vineyard owner and the labourers).  What follows is my reflection upon that passage.

When I first came to work in the trade union movement, one of the old hands (a “lapsed” Catholic) took me into his confidence and told me that, in his humble opinion, the two worst employers to work for were unions and churches.  Being full of ideological zeal, I initially dismissed this suggestion; but after a while, I began to see why it might have some truth to it.  As a union official, I worked enormous amounts of unpaid overtime, often making myself available to union members well before and well after normal business hours.  Moreover, I did so with a minimum of support, in a highly pressurised environment, in which I was acutely conscious of the fact that I was not only dealing with other peoples’ lives, but also the necessity of complying with a raft of legal obligations and restrictions, violation of which could have had catastrophic consequences for the union by whom I was employed.  And just to make things worse, I had to do this in the highly politicised environment of the union movement itself, in which elected officials’ tendency toward paranoia meant that you had to be very careful about what you said, when, and to whom you said it.   As a paid official, the worst thing I could do was make some elected official think I was after their job, or part of a rival faction that wanted them out of office.

The cynical might think that it’s little wonder that I regard my time in the union movement as a kind of apprenticeship for ordained ministry.  Because as we all know, many of the conditions which I’ve just described are also present within the Church; indeed, in his book Heretic, the Scottish minister Peter Cameron notes that, having at one time been a public prosecutor dealing with both the complexities and vanities of the legal profession, as well as the inflated egos of various kinds of criminal, it wasn’t until he became a minister and active in Church affairs that he discovered for the first time what nastiness, unpleasantness, and sheer vindictiveness truly were. 

And I have to say that, from my own experience, one of the worst employers I have ever dealt with was the insurance agency of a particular Christian denomination.  I won’t name either the agency or the denomination, suffice to say that the staff at this agency worked very long hours subject to intense micro-management and surveillance, in a workplace culture in which intimidation and bullying were rife.  Not only this, but the only employment arrangement in place within this organisation – aside from unilateral company policy – .was the minimum standards industry Award – which, once it had been “simplified” under the Howard Government’s industrial legislation, didn’t amount to much at all.

Which brings me back to the excerpt from Matthew’s Gospel with which I began this presentation.  Because read in a particular light, this passage could be viewed as a vindication of oppressive workplace practices.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? the landowner asks the disgruntled labourers.  In other words, you agreed to provide your labour in exchange for what I regard as a fair wage; but since the actual money remains mine until I give it to you, I’ll reserve for myself the right to distribute wages in whatever manner I choose.  Moreover, in hiring out your labour, you effectively become my property, free to do with as I choose.  You might be human beings – but you belong to me.

Viewed from the perspective of economic rationalism, which is the economic orthodoxy to which both sides of politics and, however unthinkingly, the bulk of modern society subscribes, this is perfectly reasonable.  Managers are the de facto owners of business acting on behalf of the de jure owners, the shareholders, and so possess the right to arrange working conditions in whatever manner maximises profit and increases efficiency.  Indeed, from the time of the Industrial Revolution, business has argued that it alone possess the right to determine the arrangements under which it will contract for labour, which right should not be curtailed either by the imposition of legislation or the interference of workers’ organisations.  Only through such unfettered right can society benefit, as business accumulates profits that “trickle down” to others through employment, economic growth and consumer choice.

But I would like to suggest that this excerpt from Matthew’s Gospel actually rejects such a self-serving reading, that it is, in fact, about a kind of abundance that has nothing to do with economic theory, the rights of business, or the distribution of wealth.  The abundance to which this reading refers is that fullness of life which Christ came to give all humanity, an abundance that declares the dignity of human existence in all its manifestations, whether domestic, political, economic, social, cultural, or religious.  And, in the context of employment, the dignity of the human being as employee, of the labourer being worthy of the hire, as Luke’s Gospel declares.

This is an abundance that declares the priority of human dignity over all other considerations, because the point of existence is to live as fully a human life as possible, and to become as fully human as possible.  And when any aspect of existence inhibits or destroys that dignity, then that aspect is acting contrary to what I believe is the point of this parable from Matthew’s Gospel. 

In other words, I believe that this passage is a prophetic statement about how the Church should organise its internal relationships; and, in the sphere of industrial relations, how the Church’s arrangements should be both a critique of and an exemplar for the industrial practices of wider society.  Not so the Church can grandstand and moralise, but so that it can exercise a prophetic ministry in a crucial area of its inner life: the manner in which the Church treats those who work for it.  For if the Church, through its own practices, is unable to affirm the dignity of the human person as employee, how can it hope to argue for that dignity in the case of other organisations’ employees; how can it hope to turn those outside the Church toward that abundance that is, afterall, the Kingdom of Heaven?

This has become increasingly relevant as the decoupling of Church from State has imposed upon the Church the burden of social expectation and legislative compliance.  As the fields of child care, social welfare, pastoral care, and health services (to name but a few) have become increasingly professionalised and subject to social scrutiny, so they have likewise become more rigidly governed by legislative frameworks.  This has made the delivery of these and other services by the Church at the congregational level increasingly problematic, often impossible; the result has been the rise of the Church agency, both as a concentration of the expertise needed to manage the various expectations of society and law, as well as the vehicle through which service delivery occurs. 

Likewise, through the 19th and 20th centuries, social justice and liberation movements have impacted on the manner in which Christians interpret the Gospel message, as well as where they place the focus of their activity and how they construct their participation in social debate.  This, too, has given rise to the Church agency, again as a concentration of expertise in (or, at the very least, of commitment to) specific social issues, as well as being the co-ordinating focus of its social justice and other ministerial activities.

In other words, just as the organisational Church was becoming increasingly irrelevant, indeed, repugnant, to much of society, so the Church-as-organisation has sprung fully into being.

What are the implications? For those spheres of Church activity which take place in the commercial domain – such as the insurance industry – the implication is clear-cut: they are now part of the secular industrial relations system, whether they like it or not.  And with that inclusion comes the requirement to adhere to certain minimum standards of conduct with respect to terms and conditions of employment.   In other words, the Church can’t treat employees in these sectors in whatsoever manner it chooses – although, as already noted, compliance with the bare minimum still leaves plenty of scope for exploitation.

But there are other areas in which employees of the Church are in a much more ambiguous situation.  For example, what of child care workers employed at the congregational level to manage before and after school play groups? As it happens, there is an Award to cover employees employed in the commercial and State-operated child-care sectors, but does this include the Church/not-for-profit/charity/social welfare sectors? My view is that it does, and that the Australian Industrial Relations Commission’s Common Rule decisions makes the case that where the Church fails to ensure that workers employed at the congregational level are employed according to the terms of the relevant Award, the Church is not merely breaking the law, it is failing to ensure that the dignity of its employees is upheld in a manner consistent with the Good News of Christ – that is, with the abundance proclaimed in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel that is the starting point of this presentation. 

But what of those employees employed by the Church in sectors where there is no industrial precedent arising from any historical overlap with governmental and commercial agencies? What of those employees employed in those activities “purely” relating to the expression of the Church’s faith and life, or its own internal administration? 

Here, the question is somewhat more vexed, since there exists across the various Synods by which the Uniting Church is composed a multiplicity of options ranging from common-law contracts through to full participation in the Federal industrial relations system (which itself covers a spectrum from individual contracts through to collective agreements).  But beyond this ambiguity, I believe, lies the opportunity for the Church to live out its prophetic ministry in such a way as critiques the industrial relations practices common in society, and which rejects the conflictual paradigm of economic rationalism in favour of the social paradigm of human dignity. 

Certainly, I believe the Church should adhere to the legislative requirements of society – and, in a Federated state such as Australia, should adopt whatever industrial regime best serves the cause of human dignity, whether Federal, State, or otherwise.  But what I am driving at goes beyond mere consideration of jurisdictional options or legislative compliance.  What I am saying is that, in terms of its industrial relations practices, the Church needs to ask itself the same question which it must ask in any other sphere of its activity: What does any of this have to do with the Kingdom of God?

Let me give you an example to illustrate my point. 

As a union official, it was my experience that the more oppressive organisations attempted, through their industrial arrangements, to exercise absolute control over key aspects of the employment relationship.  And the one that was forever falling into this category was the area of remuneration.  Time and again, the employers I dealt with attempted to put in place agreements – frequently for the duration of three years or more – in which employee remuneration was the subject of a secretive and mysterious “market comparison” model, in which so-called “experts” surveyed “comparable” industries thereby establishing both the pay scales into which employees fell, as well determining any movements in remuneration which would occur over the life of the proposed agreement.  Of course, the employees themselves – the people directly affected by these arrangements – were shut out of this process: they were unable to have access to the data because it was “commercial in confidence”; they were unable to scrutinise the data and the survey methodology and thereby determine whether or not the survey did in fact analyse “comparable” industries; the process was simply imposed upon them and happened to them without any participation or ownership.

The result, predictably, were agreements that ran for years without even providing for cost-of-living increases.  Little wonder then, that growth in executive remuneration – and it should be pointed out that executives frequently sit on their own remuneration committees – exceeds growth in average employee remuneration by as much as 40%!      

Remuneration, of course, is only the most obvious example – but it is by no means the only example.  But the question I want to ask is: how does shutting employees out of their own remuneration process enhance their dignity as human beings? And if the Church indulges in such processes, how does the affliction of this indignity square with both the dignity declared in this reading from Matthew’s Gospel and the call to prophetic ministry to which the Church is summoned through faith in the Crucified and Risen Christ?

My submission is that it doesn’t, and to the extent that the Church indulges in such practices, it is failing to take heed both of the Good News that is meant to be its sustaining life force, and the call of its own faith.  Where such circumstances prevail, there can be little wonder that large sections of society view the Church with revulsion, regarding both people of faith and the institution to which they belong as hypocrites and liars. 

But what has any of this to do with you, the employees of a faith-based institution? My answer is that it has everything to do with you, for if the Church is to maintain its prophetic ministry, then it must start with people such as yourselves; and a necessary starting point for you as employees must be the terms and conditions under which you are employed.  If industrial relations is to be a prophetic ministry in which the Church as an institution speaks the Gospel message of human abundance to wider society, then the Church as an institution must not only ensure employment conditions that sustain human dignity, it must allow the individuals and communities by which it is composed to speak prophetically to it.  And if one of those messages needs to be that the Church, in its employment relationships, is impeding or even destroying human dignity, then you as faith-based workers ought to speak that message loud and clear.  The Church, which is called to prophetic ministry, calls its members to speak prophetically.  We cannot do one without the other; we cannot speak to others without speaking first to ourselves.

And that gives you the basis upon which to proceed: the prophetic message of justice outlined in the Old Testament from Jeremiah to Habakkuk, from Amos and Micah to Isaiah; and in the Gospel proclamation of human abundance championed by Christ.  So however you choose to organise yourselves as employees, however you seek to engage with your employer (which is, ultimately, the Church), do so on the basis of a prophetic ministry that seeks to overthrow the prevailing social-industrial paradigm in which outcomes are based on power.  Instead, you must seek to bring the Church into line with the call of its own faith, the call to human richness and fulfilment founded squarely in the dignity that makes all humanity, however broken or limited, acceptable to God.  Only by doing so can the Church, with integrity, speak to and live out for others that Word of grace which Christ gifted to us all.

Let me close with a final anecdote.  The great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass was one of the people chiefly responsible for converting the American Civil War from a struggle for States rights into a struggle for human freedom.  Late in his life, he was approached by a young man, who asked him: “What should I do with my life?”

“Agitate” Douglass replied.  “Agitate, agitate, agitate.”  The prophets were agitators, and so was Christ; and so you also need to be.  If the Church by whom you are employed is to respond authentically to the call of its own faith, then faith-based workers must become “working prophets” – you must become prophets at work.

(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.