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Worthy of the hire: why a union for faith workers makes sense

Tuesday, 29 June 2021  | Brendan Byrne

The answer to the question ‘Why would a faith worker join a union?’ is the same answer to the question ‘Why would any worker join a union?’

A faith worker is anyone, lay or ordained, whose work is primarily concerned with the liturgical, pastoral or theological life and expression of a faith community or faith-based organisation, or who exercises such a role within a secular organisation. Faith workers include priests, imams and rabbis; lay pastoral workers and children’s’ ministry co-ordinators; home missionaries and biblical scholars. It also includes persons who are retired from these vocations, or who are students candidating for or studying toward entering these vocations.

The boundaries between faith workers and other workers can sometimes be fuzzy, and examination of an individual’s circumstances might first be necessary to make a determination about their status. For example, a religious chaplain working in a school is, at one level, clearly a faith worker; however, they might also have teaching responsibilities as part of their ‘job description’, just as some teachers (e.g., year level co-ordinators) might also have an element of pastoral care responsibility in addition to their teaching loads. In such a situation, an individual might be eligible to be, and more appropriately a member of, a union covering the education sector. Likewise, a person working within a faith-based organisation whose primary role is administrative or clerical would be more appropriately a member of a union covering administrative and clerical workers.

Whatever other identity a faith worker might hold – be it as a spiritual servant or a lay or ordained person – every faith worker also holds the identity of worker. And we should understand that word – worker – in its commonly understood sense. Being a worker means that faith workers exist within a constructed relationship, just like any other worker. Whether with a faith community, a faith-based organisation or even within a secular organisation, the fact is that faith workers’ lives are governed by the terms and conditions that frame the relationship. And those terms and conditions can make the difference between a faith worker being nurtured and appreciated or exploited and taken for granted.

Faith workers are all too often encouraged not to think of themselves as workers, usually on the basis that their relationship with the entity within whom, or for whom, they work is ‘not like’ that of other workers. And while it is true that faith workers undertake their work in ways that, for example, an accountant or a train driver might not, nonetheless, this is still the work of the faith community or organisation for whom the faith worker works. In other words, they still undertake labours – however described – in order to enable an entity or community to do its work, to carry out its purpose for being.

That, by any definition, is work – and makes the faith worker a worker in every sense of the word.

Nor does the fact that some faith workers receive a stipend change any of this. While a ‘theology of stipend’ might argue that a stipend allows the faith worker to be liberated from concerns about supporting their physical existence in order to devote themselves to their work – which, arguably, is precisely what a ‘living wage’ should do – this does not mean that an exchange of cash (or non-cash benefits) for labour has not occurred. Faith communities and organisations might argue that a ‘stipend’ is not the same as a ‘contract’, but the reality is that a ‘stipend’ comes with the same set of expectations as a ‘contract’: in return for the ‘stipend’, the faith worker will undertake certain required ‘duties’ and ‘tasks’.

Moreover, the idea that a ‘stipend’ enables a faith worker to ‘devote’ themselves to their work carries with it the same sinister connotations that mark the ever-increasing co-option of human life by the world of waged labour. The pressure to work additional hours, not to take time off, to take work home or to be available at ‘all hours’ is precisely the same pressure that is implicit in the idea of ‘devotion’ and ‘servanthood’, in the way that these things are frequently misunderstood and misapplied within faith communities and organisations. But faith workers are entitled to a private life, to a home/family life, to pursue recreation and personal projects – just like other workers.

But even those faith workers who do not receive a stipend can face similar issues. The terms and conditions of their relationship with a faith community or organisation are often crafted by well-meaning people who have no administrative or personnel experience, or who take the view that ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’ is an acceptable basis upon which to frame the relationship with the faith worker. Moreover, just like their stipended colleagues, non-stipended faith workers can be subject to the power plays and micro-management of ‘gatekeepers’, often without the assistance of an appropriate support network or one that is staffed by suitably qualified people.

In other words, faith workers can be subject to abuse, exploitation, inappropriate control and demeaning workplace conditions – just like any other worker. And just like any other worker, they can discover that the ‘in house’ processes in place to deal with such situations are either functionally non-existent, don’t operate the way they should or are geared to ‘resolving’ the issue as quickly as possible without dealing with the substantive issues. In these circumstances, faith workers are often left exposed and isolated, without support or resources.

Another issue is information. How many ordained Christian faith workers are aware, for example, that the position of Christian churches and church organisations in Australia is that ordained faith workers are not employees in the normal sense of the term, and that the protections and provisions of industrial legislation do not apply to them? How many lay faith workers understand what the mandated national minimum wage is, or what the relevant OHS legislation pertaining to their work/workplace might be?

Despite the fact that faith workers, both lay and ordained, receive (or should be receiving) annual leave, sick leave, long service leave and superannuation, and despite the fact that they pay tax like any other worker does, they are often in the dark when it comes to critical information that could affect their working lives for better or for worse. While many faith communities and organisations have comprehensive HR departments in place for their non-faith-worker employees, such systems are often wholly absent for faith workers themselves. This means that faith workers can often be left out of the loop or receive their information second or third hand. As faith communities and organisations become increasingly subject to government regulation and societal scrutiny, the need for faith workers to have access to reliable information is increasingly critical.

Another critical concern for faith workers is solidarity. Whether they work in a congregational setting, for a faith-based organisation or for a secular entity, the reality confronting faith workers is that the nature of their work often leaves them isolated and without peer support. The very privilege that gives faith workers access to the most extraordinary and intimate moments of other people’s lives are also the conditions that ensure their isolation from others. In part, this is a function of the need to preserve confidentiality. But it is also a function of the nature of faith work. Being a faith worker is a little bit like being a trauma ward nurse or a police officer – only other trauma ward nurses and police officers understand the unique characteristics of those vocations. And so it is for faith workers: only other faith workers really understand the privilege, the pressures and the isolation that accompanies faith work.

Solidarity, then, is of vital importance for faith workers. And this solidarity is more than just the ‘peer groups’ or ‘learning groups’ that faith communities and organisations often encourage faith workers to participate in. Valuable as these might be in their own way, they are not the same as membership of a representative organisation that consists of people who understand what it means to be a faith worker and who are concerned with supporting, encouraging and informing faith workers. Solidarity is both the fact and the knowledge that there is someone on your side, someone who has your back; not in any my-side-right-or-wrong sense, but in the sense of taking seriously what it means to be, and what implications arise from being, a faith worker.

The Faith Workers Alliance was founded in Australia in March 2021 to represent and empower faith workers. It joins unions like Unite in the UK and Unifaith in Canada who represent faith workers in those countries. The FWA hopes that eventually it will grow into a genuinely interfaith organisation representing faith workers across the spectrum of Australia’s religious communities and organisations. The FWA also hopes to contribute to the empowering of Indigenous Australians through its representation of Indigenous faith workers.

Advocacy. Information. Solidarity. The Faith Workers Alliance exists to provide all three to faith workers in Australian faith communities and organisations. It is inspired by the example of workers the world over who have formed unions to ensure safe and healthy working conditions, as well as promote justice and human dignity in work. It is also in keeping with the legacy of many religious traditions who have likewise advocated for workers’ right to collectively organise and access fair and equitable working conditions.

Christ taught that the labourer was worthy of the hire; and, in the parable of the vineyard owner and the labourers, that the generosity of God transcends the prescriptions of economic orthodoxy. The FWA aims to ensure that these teachings are applied to faith workers as well.


Brendan Byrne is is an ordained Uniting Church minister, a member of the FWA Committee of Management, and creator and host of the podcast Ergasia: A Podcast about Work, Faith, Economics and Theology.

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