It wasn’t a surprise. In fact, it was as predictable as watching a line of dominos fall in succession: the recent research findings from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding women’s compensation, particularly clergy women. First, the statistics were released, telling the world what many of us already knew: women still make a fraction of what men make in the same occupations and the discrepancy for clergywomen was among the highest. Then the anecdotal evidence began pouring in. Large numbers of female clergy began telling their stories of being compensated at levels well below their male predecessors in a particular church, being appointed to churches already scheduled to close, or being denied other benefits identified in the Book of Discipline. Each story became as foreseeable as the one before it, only the names and places changed. A long line of anecdotal dominos falling in rapid succession.
We all have stories to tell: our own stories or the stories of our friends. Sad tales of long meetings with Staff Parish Relations Committees, Finance Committees and Administrative Boards. Nasty comments and letters exchanged by people who haven’t read our United Methodist Discipline, or maybe even the Bible. The stories are common, predictable and painful. Dominos in the form of hurt feelings and painful experiences lying everywhere.
The problem with dominos is that someone has to pick them up. After watching them rush through a rapid tumbling succession, someone has to clean up the mess. Many would like to see our bishops, with the help of their Cabinets, do this work. In all fairness, the responsibility for appointments lies squarely at the feet of our bishops. So yes, in the end, bishops bear much of the obligation and the hope of resolving this problem. So we count on them to help pick up this particular mess of fallen dominos. Appointments are a key function of the episcopal office.
There are others who have said that this is an issue of competence and effectiveness. Of course the implication is clear. Let me just say it: Women receive lower compensation because they lack competence and effectiveness. What makes a clergyperson effective? Getting more people in the pews on Sunday morning? Reaching out in mission and evangelism to the community and the world? Paying mission shares? Building a strong Sunday school? Motivating a dying church to end its death spiral and either close or renew itself? I see women clergy doing all of these things in the local church, yet there is still a large disparity in the compensation that women clergy receive compared to men.
While appointments are the responsibility of the bishops, compensation is the obligation of the local church. Should it surprise us that the same biases about women’s compensation that plague society in general are also found in our parishes? No, it should not. However, a clergy woman who earns 76 cents for every dollar a man earns, a gap of 24 cents, experiences a much broader pay disparity than the typical U.S. woman who earns 83 cents for every dollar a man earns, or a gap of 17 cents. Add to this a long term ripple effect that influences women’s pensions as well.
While the situation may be obvious and the responsibility for its resolution clear, it may be necessary to make our bishops and local churches aware of the severity of the problem and hold them accountable. Annual Conferences, particularly our Annual Conference COSROWs and Boards of Church and Society, can take clear measures to ask our bishops, district superintendents and local churches to attend to this problem and move it to the top of their priority list. Resolutions presented at our Annual Conference sessions can raise awareness for the need for equity, describe the current situation in an Annual Conference, and present clear and attainable objectives for correcting the situation. Anyone can bring a piece of legislation forward. The GCSRW website contains a sample piece of legislation for you to use as a guideline.
We cannot ignore the problem unfair compensation in our denomination. It sits at our feet like a set of fallen dominos. Playing the blame game only allows the problem to persist. Instead all of us need to work together to honestly confront societal biases about women and move toward a fair method of compensation for all employees in The United Methodist Church. We need to work together to pick up these fallen dominos and move toward a more just Church and world.
Leigh Goodrich was the former Sr. Dir. Of Leadership and Education at GCSRW.