Thursday, May 20, 2010

Joblessness Hits the Pulpit

More Churches Lay Off Clergy as Donations Drop; Few Get Severance Benefits

When Tim Ryan was called to an urgent meeting last year to discuss his duties as children's minister at West Shore Evangelical Free Church, he knew something was amiss.

"This is really hard. I don't know how I can do this," said executive pastor John Nesbitt, who helps lead the 2,500 attendee megachurch in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

The church, part of the Evangelical Free Church of America, had been growing rapidly but giving was down and well below projections as the recession weighed on members. So Mr. Ryan was losing his job, as was another pastor.

While the economy appears to be recovering from the worst downturn in generations, more clergy are facing unemployment as churches continue to struggle with drops in donations. In 2009, the government counted about 5,000 clergy looking for jobs, up from 3,000 in 2007 and 2,000 in 2005.

Church staff are feeling the pinch, too. In an October survey, about one in five members of the interdenominational 3,000-member National Association of Church Business Administration said they had laid off staff amid the recession.

The official unemployment rate among clergy sits at 1.2%, far below the national average jobless rate, but layoffs can be particularly painful for ministers. Churches aren't subject to unemployment taxes, so laid-off employees can't collect the benefits available to other workers.

West Shore kept Mr. Ryan, 42-years-old, and the other pastor on staff for five months while they looked for new jobs, but many churches don't offer severance benefits, experts say.

"Churches are so reluctant to let people go that by the time they get to the point where they have to, they don't have the resources for a big severance package," said Bob Clarke, who directs programs that assist ministers in need for the Presbyterian Church in America.

Two things have contributed to the layoffs: a long-term drop in attendance in many denominations and the short-term stresses of the recession.

Nearly 30% of church attendees said they had reduced their giving since November 2009, according to a survey of 1,008 adults conducted in late January and early February by the Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., firm that researches trends in faith and does consulting work for churches.

Nearly half of the 3,000 members of the National Association of Church Business Administration say they have reduced or frozen salaries and benefits.

That is a tough blow for many clergy, because salaries are low to begin with. For example, the average salary of a youth minister with a few years of experience is $32,000, according to, a website run by the National Association of Church Business Administration. An associate pastor with a decade of experience might earn around $64,000. On average, men with a bachelor's degree earn more than $77,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Some church leaders fear donations won't reach prerecession levels as long as unemployment stays elevated. Church surveys report that giving dropped off sharply beginning in November 2008, when the overall unemployment rate was at 6.7%. Since then, contributions have slipped in tandem with rising unemployment.

Some of the hardest hit by the recession have been megachurches, roughly defined as those with 2,000 or more attendees. Last year, the 6,000-member Granger Community Church in Indiana laid off eight employees and cut the hours of 15 other staff members.

A pastor's departure can have a particularly emotional impact on members of a congregation. When West Shore announced which ministers would lose their jobs at a congregation meeting, several members in the audience gasped.

"People knew we were behind on our giving, but I don't think people were comprehending that it would come to this," Mr. Ryan said.

In addition to Mr. Ryan, the church laid off the pastor who led its 60-member disabilities ministry, which caters to mentally challenged and disabled church members. The pastor, who now works in a group-home system in New York state, didn't respond to requests to be interviewed.

One 44-year-old mentally disabled busboy said several people in the class started to cry when the pastor announced he was leaving. "I had to walk out of the class to get some fresh air. It was hard for us," he said.

The extent to which ministers are susceptible to layoffs depends in part on which church or denomination they serve. Catholic and United Methodist bishops appoint clergy to their posts. So while a Catholic parish may have to eliminate a position, the bishop can relocate the priest to another church that can afford him.

Meanwhile, placement offices for Jewish rabbis say the average length of the job search for rabbis has increased, but that few temples and synagogues have resorted to layoffs.

But pastors in other Christian denominations are mostly on their own in managing unemployment and a job search. Right now, the Presbyterian Church in America, which includes about 1,700 churches, has about five pastors looking for work for each of its 54 job openings, about twice the level before the recession, said the group's business administrator, John Robertson.

Stiff competition isn't the only hurdle clergymen face. Each job comes with a laundry list of required qualifications that are sometimes more specific than is common in corporate hiring. Courts have consistently declined to interfere in the hiring of clergy members on First Amendment grounds, meaning the usual prohibitions on discrimination based on disabilities, age, sex, and gender generally don't apply said Dianna Johnston an attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

A job listing for a pastor opening in Florida on the Southern Baptist Convention website, for example, requires that applicants be married and between the ages of 30 and 49. Another ad for a part-time position in Kansas warns that the committee won't consider someone who has been divorced.

Mr. Ryan, who served at West Shore for a year and a half but was never ordained, decided against uprooting his wife and four children and took a lay job in home remodeling offered by a member of the congregation.

His new job? Carpentry—the biblical profession of Jesus and his father, Joseph.

"The irony is not lost on me," Mr. Ryan said.

Original Wall Street Journal Article

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