Connecting the Dots.... [Tom Schade]

Unitarian Universalists are concerned about the poor career prospects of the ministers. The ministerial formation process costs way too much. Congregations have less money to support ministers. The new minister begins with a crushing debt. The chances of paying off the debt and then saving enough for retirement are very small. It looks like the fulltime ministerial life is only for the independently wealthy or well-partnered. Bi-vocational, low paid ministry appears to be the future. And it's a comedown from the idealized picture of the professional minister who lived the lifestyle of tenured university professor.

The larger picture: the financial plight of the ministry is the plight of almost all working people in the United States. Almost all of the increased income and wealth produced over the last 40 years has gone to the very top of the income pyramid. Educational costs have skyrocketed, fueled in part by policies which allowed banks to make huge profits in student loans. It increasingly appears that most working people simply cannot save enough money for a decent retirement. The housing bubble drove up house prices; where did that money go? Interest payments to financial institutions. The result is that in many larger cities, the young minister, like the young nurse, like the young computer programmer, like the young product manager, like the young automative mechanic, like the young firefighter, like the young anybody cannot afford a home, and is sentenced to lifetime spent commuting to some far exurb.

The minister is like the members of the congregation who are like the majority of people in this country.

600K public sector jobs have been lost since 2008. Half of those are teachers. Our congregations are full of teachers. No wonder congregations have trouble meeting their budgets.

It's a class problem. The income and the wealth of this economy is going to the upper classes -- the 1% -- and all the rest of the population are stuck.

It's a political problem. The policies that accelerated economic inequality were government policies decided by people who faced elections. The wrong people won too often.

People look to ministers to be able to get the big picture. And to be able to connect the dots between our problems as individuals, and as institutions, and that big picture of the state of society and culture.

The big picture is that most of us need a broad social movement to redirect the wealth of this country downwards. That means raising the minimum wage, building up the infrastructure of the country, forgiving student debt, investing in education, increasing social security benefits, bailing out underwater homeowners, empowering old and new unions, returning the wealth stolen from African Americans. More people should have more money.

And in that context, UU ministers will probably have a better future than it now seems.


  1. Steve Cook10:28 AM

    Can't argue with that.

  2. Diane Miller1:32 PM

    Yes, the situation of ministry is particular, but not separate from other careers in these times. It is also the situation of the parishioners in our congregations, perhaps masked in some places by generous & affluent parishioners, and the generation that has had a comfortable middle class income and retirement.

  3. Anonymous1:34 PM

    Thomas Piketty's new book, "Capital in the 21st Century," bolsters and sheds further light on your points here.

  4. Yes, Diane.
    I think the problem is that because we have some remnants of old money, and some affluent people, in our congregations that we think that we can solve this problem among ourselves. And yes, we can move some of our money around to use it more productively, but that will only go so far. And yes, UU's need to move from cheap to generous and then onto sacrificial in our support, but that will also only go so far.

  5. And then there's ministers like me who don't get paid. Is there a trend of volunteer ministers? and I cough up to minister, like those bands I used to join who pay to play. UUMA may need to step up and act as a guild, if not yet. I'm new. What do I know.

  6. Word, Tom. You said it.

  7. Elisabeth Booth-Barton6:39 PM

    The New York Times suggests alternative training for lawyers, instead of law school. Could a similar model for ministers be considered? This surely would not solve a salary problem, but could reduce education loan debt.

  8. What an excellent big picture view of "The Decline and Fall of the American Democracy". Given the extent of the polarization of our country, I hear a new revolution in the embryonic stage, so I am grateful, and hopeful for our young, to see such voices of reason leading the way, providing these insights for people to become aware of what they need to vote for.


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