Each week I encounter a new story of a church worker that angers me. These are stories from youth workers who have been wronged by the people they trusted with their lives… their church employer. Churches who fire them because they didn’t reach the right kids. Churches who fire a staff member because their spouse got pregnant. Churches who fire because a senior leader wants to hire a younger youth worker.
If not for a deep love of God and His bride I don’t think these people could go on. Know right now that I have a deep love for the church. This is not an attack. This post acknowledges that there are churches who are good employers and bad employers. (There’s my first disclaimer)
It sickens me that things routinely happen in the church, a place that represents Christ the king of Justice, that would be illegal in a business. It sickens me that I routinely encounter people who are wronged, been discriminated against, treated unfairly, not paid according to their contracts… and all of these people have a deep love for the church that just takes it.
I want to share with you two lies of church employment. These are lies that are so commonly believe that it will shock you when I address them.
1. The church is exempt from all employment laws. I’ve heard this lie so many times that I was SHOCKED to discover it is not true. A church is an employer in the United States. All employment is governed by the Department of Labor. There are very few places where the church is allowed to be exempt, your church better talk to a lawyer. But, in total, the church is not exempt from the basic provisions the government outlines. The biggest violations I see over and over involve the minimum wage laws. Unless you are a “professional” (e.g. ordained and/or certified somehow as a professional by an organization) your work is covered by the minimum wage law. So a church cannot tell you, “we’ll pay you the first 30 hours per week, but you are required to work 10 more as ministry hours.” If it is required, and you are hourly, they must pay you for that work time as well as overtime. Nor can a church have unpaid interns. Churches do this so often that you think its OK, it’s not. You can have all the volunteers you want. But if you call someone an intern and they have set work hours, you have to pay them. (Cash payment can be offset by living expenses, but its taxable income too!) This stuff goes on and on. The church, outside of “professionals” is not exempt from discrimination laws. (Age, sex, religious background, ethnicity, you know the routine) Nor can a church make your spouse and/or childrens attendance required as a term of your employment. Nor can they fire you because you are too old. Nor can they pass you over because of your gender or ethnicity. In short, the church is not exempt from federal employment laws in all areas! There is an assumption that the church can do whatever they want… they can’t.
2. You can’t take legal action against a church when you are wronged. This is a cultural stigma, isn’t it? In the last 5 years I’ve repeatedly encouraged those wronged [I term this "left for dead"] to hire an attorney and pursue legal action. I don’t know of a single case where a person did that. Why? The stigma of suing a church is so strong. People always toss out a Bible verse and say, “it’s wrong to sue Christians.” I would agree with you if that’s what the Bible actually said! If you think its wrong to ever sue a church or an individual, please go read 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 right now. Paul is not saying you can’t ever sue. He’s saying people within the church shouldn’t sue one another over trivial things.
A family bankrupted and left for dead by their employer is hardly trivial! What about the pastor fired because the board wants someone younger? Not trivial. What about the salaried staff member who has wages garnished because he left 30 minutes early on a Sunday after putting in 60+ hours the rest of the week? Not trivial. What about the church worker who has a church completely violate his privacy and discloses medical information to the congregation? Not trivial! What about the church worker who has his contract changed whimsically by the board… he’s the youth pastor one day, the childrens pastor the next, and maybe not employed the third day. Trivial? These things are happening RIGHT NOW, like this week. Shouldn’t those people do something about it?
Simply by working at a church these people have not given up their rights to be treated fairly. Our legal system provides avenues of correction for both employee and employer. We all know 99% of these cases would never make it to a trial, but church workers need to feel the freedom to protect themselves. And churches need to know that they can’t mistreat workers.
When I hear these stories I know that most churches do what they do to their staff because they feel like they are exempt from employment laws and that no one will ever sue them. The sad reality is that nothing will change until we educate ourselves about our rights and make it known that church staff will take legal action against villanous churches who wrong workers.
I smell a guest post from an employment lawyer coming. If you want exact information about a situation, please consult an attorney. Just so everyone realizes this… I’m not giving legal advice! (There’s my second disclaimer)