Do I really think it’s okay to underpay people and undervalue them?

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Well, my article about pay and what we can afford got some kick back! So I thought it was worth just responding to a couple of charges against the article  and what some people took it to suggest (I hope they weren’t directed at me personally).

The first pushback was that I was doubling down on it being okay for churches to underpay people if that’s all they can afford.  I hope that given that I spent half the article talking about how church and employee should be looking carefully at what the worker actually needed to live on in their context (and not just the basic, bare minimum either) would help counter that assumption.

I think that what this boils down to is one of the major difficulties when it comes to talking about pay and money.  If I enter into a contract for goods or services, then there is a presumption that the amount I’m willing to pay you for those things tells you something about how much I value them.  The problem is that even with those things there is a level of subjectivity.  Why am I willing to pay more for a pair of trainers with a Nike label on them for example?  Why does my wife’s hairdresser charge five times what my barber does? 

Yet, even though those subjective challenges are problematic enough when working out what clothes, carrots and concert tickets are worth, we still bring the same thinking into the workplace.  My socialist friends will tell me that this is all because we think of it as a labour market, we are victims of capitalism. In fact, I think they might be on to something there.  We’ve learnt to associate wages with value and that plays its part in wage inequality.

Indeed, this came up in conversations when I was the lead pastor in a church and we were considering adding to the staff.  My view was that we should be as generous as possible and focus on the specific needs of any new employee but I remember people being uncomfortable with the possibility that we might end up paying other staff at the same rate or even more than the senior person. 

So just to emphasise this here, for churches, if you are saying that you can only afford to pay a worker at £x when you are choosing to pay another worker £x more, then it simply isn’t true!

We’ve learnt to associate money with reward and with value. That was the second push back against my first article.  That it undervalued people.  Before we return to the question of “under paying”, I think we need to address the value question.  The purpose of a wage should be to enable a person to live – in fact, that’s presumably why traditional denominations talk in terms of a stipend.  If we think of it as being about value and reward then we run into problems.  A few weeks back we were talking about doctor’s salaries and the question was asked “what value do you put on saving someone’s life?”  The honest answer has to be that we cannot really. And if that is true about physical health and life then isn’t even more so about spiritual life and health.

So, we have to find better ways of valuing people, especially in church.  I am now being paid £35k less than I was when I left secular employment and potentially £100k less than what I could have bene earning if I’d pursued that career path.  Do I feel less valued now?  Am I less valued? No, absolutely not.  There are ways in which the church that I give my time to show that we are loved and valued even though -and maybe especially because -they are not in a position to pay us.

This brings us back to the question of underpaying.  To make it explicitly clear., I’ve never suggested that a church, or anyone should be underpaying their employees. The challenge of course is to work out what we mean by underpaying.  It is possible to underpay someone, if you promise them £20k and only give them £15k then yes you’ve underpaid them.  By the way that’s not hypothetical. I know of people who have been promised a level of pay that hasn’t shown up in their pay packets.  If the employer imposes that, then they’ve broken the law and acted appallingly. However, I also know of pastors who have taken a step of faith with their churches and said “don’t worry if there isn’t enough in the collection each month to pay the agreed salary, pay me what you can.”  They were literally agreeing to be underpaid.  Beyond that, it isn’t so easy, different industries have attempted to benchmark pay but with limited success. As a Manufacturing Engineer for an aerospace company, I would often see that there were job adverts, with the same job title to mine offering much more but then I would check the detail and realise it wasn’t the same job.  It could work the other way too. 

And what do we benchmark a pastor’s role against for example? What would it be reasonable for a minister to ask for? When you consider someone who comes in from a graduate career in their early to mid-thirties, they will have had potentially 6-8 years of academic training and ten years of work experience developing transferable skill, add in responsibilities and anti-social hours and you are looking at comparable secular salaries in the £60k plus range.  The reality is that very few churches can come anywhere near to that ball-park.  Nor do I think that most pastors on £25-30k are talking about being underpaid.

So because of that, I don’t think that “underpaying” is a helpful concept and I note it is rare for people to talk about anyone being overpaid (apart from Premier League Footballers). 

So, to return to my point in my previous article.  My view remains that a church should care for the well-being of its workers. It should be well informed of their needs, and it should seek to be as generous as possible.  It should not be tight-fisted; it shouldn’t attempt to do things on the cheap and it shouldn’t think it is being spiritual by keeping its workers in poverty. However, those of us who believe God has called us, through a local church to serve the Gospel in a full time, church based capacity also have a responsibility to think about what that will mean for us.  That’s why I suggested before that we need to think of this as a faith journey together. 

In other words, things work best when we prefer each others needs and when both parties start with the desire to sacrificially love, bless and look after the other.

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