March 2018
Church Finances for Uncertain Times

Maine Puts its Money Where its Mouth Is

Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

In October 2016, when Diocese of Maine convention delegates and clergy unanimously approved a resolution to raise the 2017 minimum hourly rate for lay employees to $12.00 an hour from $9.68, it didn’t strike anyone as a bolt from the blue. Rather, it felt like a convergence of circumstances that created the opportunity for Mainer Episcopalians to take the lead in seeking economic justice for lay employees.

State and diocese meet on the road to economic justice

With a low bar for statewide ballot questions, Maine often settles its compelling issues by referenda when it appears that normal legislative processes will prove unsuccessful. Marriage equality, bear baiting, casino gambling, rank-choice voting, recreational marijuana use — you name it and the Maine people have voted on it.

In 2016, a coalition of organizations gained sufficient signatures to place a minimum wage question on the November ballot. The referendum would require the statewide hourly wage to increase from $7.50 to $9.00 in 2017 and to increase a dollar a year to reach $12.00 in 2020. (Other provisions were included for tipped workers.) Thereafter, wages would rise based on the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) established by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Early on in the state campaign, known as Question 4: Mainers for Fair Wages, the Maine Episcopal Network for Justice (MENJ) enthusiastically signed on. MENJ was formed in late 2015 as a statewide public policy network focused on teaching people of faith to exercise their voices in the public sphere as well as providing direct advocacy at the Maine Legislature. Just as MENJ was beginning to strategize with faith and community partners on Mainers for Fair Wages, the diocesan Compensation Committee was scheduled to meet to set the Canonically-required minimum clerical and lay compensation rates for 2017 to go before October’s Diocesan Convention. Requiring parishes to meet minimum clerical compensation rates has a history in the Diocese of Maine going back more than 50 years. Setting a minimum hourly wage for lay employees — including all but very occasional workers — dates to 2010 when the Compensation Committee proposed a number of resolutions overhauling long-held policies about part-time work, vacation, benefits and other issues affecting clergy.

The annual tradition of establishing minimum compensation for diocesan employees converged with the MENJ’s support of the state-wide referendum and one other event — the passage in June 2016 of an Executive Council resolution calling Episcopal dioceses and churches to establish or work toward a “Living Wage” of $15.00 an hour for all workers including church employees.

By mid-summer in 2016, members of MENJ and the Compensation Committee had met with Bishop Stephen T. Lane to talk about how to move forward in living into Executive Council’s call to a “Living Wage.” Peter Bickford, the Chair of the Compensation Committee, recalled, “When we met with Bishop Lane, we were all in agreement that, if we were going to support the statewide referendum, we needed to put our money where our mouth was with regard to lay employees across the Diocese.” He added, “Everything dovetailed when we decided to put an incremental plan in place to raise the minimum by one dollar each year until it hit $15.00 in 2020. Setting it at $15.00 an hour in 2017 would have been too big a jump for our churches.” As they had in done with the series of resolutions in 2010, the Compensation Committee and MENJ put out the draft resolution to the members of the Diocese for comment over the summer.

After the lay compensation resolution passed at Diocesan Convention in October, Bishop Lane — both in a press conference and in an op-ed in the Portland Press Herald — shared his support for the diocesan measure and the statewide referendum. “We took our quest for economic justice to the pews and are proud to support a minimum wage for church workers that exceeds the proposed increase in Question 4. Everywhere and every time the minimum wage has been raised, workers have had more money in their pockets and local businesses do better. This is a matter of justice and hope,” said Bishop Lane. In November, Question 4 passed with 55.5% of the vote.

Still work to do

Beginning in 2017 the wages of affected diocesan workers were adjusted and very little was heard from any corner of the Diocese until the diocesan convention, where a resolution to raise lay employee compensation another dollar an hour, in keeping with the 2016 resolution, was challenged from the floor. The discussion that followed did not result in an amendment, and the resolution to set lay employee compensation at $13.00 an hour for 2018 passed 175 to 66.

The Compensation Committee now knows they have work to do on the resolution they take to Convention in October 2018 if they are to continue the path approved by convention delegates and clergy in 2016. Bickford is calling on congregations to tell them how the annual increase is affecting them. “We are open to discussions on how to move forward toward a Living Wage and the issues raised at Convention last year,” he said recently. “However, we have a plan and have established a path toward justice for our lay employees. We will stay on it until the people of the Diocese of Maine decide to change it.”

Heidi Shott is Canon for Communication and Advocacy in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.


This article is part of the March 2018 Vestry Papers issue on Church Finances for Uncertain Times