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2 Lies of Church Employment


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)

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25 Responses to 2 Lies of Church Employment

  1. Kara October 5, 2009 at 7:05 am #

    thank you so much for tackling the tough topics on your blog that no one ever wants to talk about. i appreciate it a lot, and i’m glad you posted this.

  2. Joel Diaz October 5, 2009 at 7:19 am #

    i have seen so many of these situations occur around me. i have seen friends marriages and families almost destroyed. all because they wanted to take a “different” direction after only 9 months of employment. the church forced them info signing a letter turning down any legal action for a severance package.

    i would be interested to learn what the law is concerning such letters.

  3. jess October 5, 2009 at 8:32 am #

    cant tell you how many times ive been looked over for a ministry position because i was female. i was even asked (in “nice” terms) to leave because the church wanted a male to fill the position i was in. awesome. thanks for posting this…

  4. adam mclane October 5, 2009 at 9:12 am #

    @jess- I’m sorry that the church discriminated against you based on your gender. This should change.

  5. christy October 5, 2009 at 9:12 am #

    Awesome article! I am a white woman married to a black man–2 stikes against me. I am currently the youth director in a small town. The chair of the SPRC told my husband that we couldn’t hold hands in church! I told my Senior Pastor that if we heard one more word of “advice” from that woman, or him, we would be seeking legal advise. In the meantime, we are looking to leave this place!

  6. Bradley Buhro October 5, 2009 at 10:41 am #

    I hope you know I appreciate you and the work you do encouraging ministers, especially youth workers. Thank you for all of it – your blog, your twitter feed, your work at YS. And I think the church needs to hear these things. Thanks for speaking to the church on these issues. And thanks for being there for your friends.
    Like yesterday though, I’m afraid that youth pastors and other staff members might need to hear something else. I’d challenge your assumption that Paul is only speaking about not taking fellow Christians to trial over “trivial issues.” Instead he’s challenging those who tend toward litigation that compared to the kingdom all such issues are trivial. And I realize I speak as one of the lucky ones who hasn’t been as deeply hurt as others by the church. However, the principle Paul is articulating here is that while you have every right to sue, Christianity is about laying down rights in order to become a servant to others. To cite another of Paul’s themes from 1 Corinthians, it might be permissible, but it may not be beneficial either to you or for the church. Setting aside the damage that can be done to the kingdom by litigation – because let’s be honest, the church has already done this damage by treating you unjustly – fighting back cheats you. Suffering innocently without seeking retribution is the one aspect of Christ’s life that we can share in. It is our one opportunity to be like Jesus. Isn’t it better not only for the kingdom, but also for you to be wronged? Doesn’t 1 Peter 2:20 say that the one thing commendable before God is to suffer for doing right?
    One should probably point out that Paul himself was not above appealing to the legal authorities to avoid mistreatment, however. Once again, I don’t think you are forbidden to resort to law. But it may not be in your best interest. Permissible yes. Beneficial, maybe not.
    Anyway, thanks again for speaking to the church on behalf of their staff. And thanks for letting me speak to fellow pastors. I think both of these messages need to be heard.

  7. adam mclane October 5, 2009 at 10:50 am #

    @bradley- I hear you. If it weren’t for the fact that there is systemic abuse of that principle than my second point wouldn’t be needed. Precisely because churches know they can appeal to the “let’s cover this up for the sake of the body of Christ” many lives of people giving their careers to church are being destroyed.

    I seem to remember Paul appealing to Rome. Is that not true?

  8. Bradley Buhro October 5, 2009 at 11:09 am #

    @adam That’s precisely what I had in mind when I said Paul was not above appealing to legal authorities. There were some differences though – most notably, the mistreatment he was appealing was suffered not at the hands of the church, but at the hands of the local authorities.

    So it seems like it’s not a hard and fast rule: “Never sue.” But it’s also not “You ought to sue.” It’s probably somewhere in a messy middle. Churches need to know they aren’t above the law. And ministers need to know they don’t have to stoop to resorting to the law.

    Thanks again!

  9. julie October 5, 2009 at 11:34 pm #

    well said, adam.

    @bradley, there should be no one more interested in justice than a church – including for their employees.

  10. Steve October 6, 2009 at 6:49 pm #

    I love the approach Andy Stanley describes. He wants the church to be the greatest job his staff people have ever had. Like Jesus (and Boaz in the OT), the church should seek to go beyond the requirements of the law and offer grace to it’s staff people. Besides, the church staff people I know aren’t in it for the $$, they give their lives to the work of Jesus in the church. The least the church could do is honor them in return.

  11. Jonas Knudsen October 7, 2009 at 8:44 am #

    @adam, Thank you and AMEN!

  12. Tiffany Nichols May 9, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    I have been the organist at my church for the past six years. I am single and now pregnant. I have been advised by some of the church officials to resign because of my “situation”. I feel that the church should be there for me when I am “down and out”. Our church is full of alcoholics, drug addicts, adulterers, etc. and I feel that they are not in the position to judge me. I am going to step down quietly but I will not be returning after my baby is born. These are my Christian brothers and sisters who say they love me in Christ. They are all hypocrites.

    • Slippy Richard March 30, 2013 at 6:04 am #

      Are they all hypocrites? Or just the 1 or 2 who approached you privately with their own concerns?

  13. Gman December 10, 2010 at 11:54 am #

    Just heard this week of 2 youthworkers with great youth ministry websites and free resources being let go from their churches …when will the mess end?

  14. College admissions January 23, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    Great article. I agree with everything you read here. I would like to congratulate the writer and encouraged him to continue writing such valuable

    materials. Good luck for the next.

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  15. Church Jobs February 8, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

    Great article. I agree with everything you read here. I would like to congratulate the writer and encouraged him to continue writing such valuable materials. Good luck for the next.

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  16. Joe June 25, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    a friend of mine she teaches at a church they are laying her off. and told her she is not be eligable for unemployment this true?

    • adam mclane June 28, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

      This might be true. It depends on the state and how they had her classified. Was she a regular employee?

  17. Rob Canavan August 11, 2014 at 6:07 pm #

    What about forcing the resignation of one pastor because He is engaged to a staff member that has resigned..just curious if that is considered improper firing.

    • Adam McLane August 11, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

      Was there a policy in place prior to this occurring? If not, sounds unethical to me. Worth noting that there’s a difference between unethical and illegal. Unfortunately, in the past couple of years the Supreme Court has deferred employment matters on any religious institution… and now “closely held” for-profit back to the leadership.

      So, working at a church has become, “Buyer Beware.”

      • Rob Canavan August 11, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

        No there was/ is no policy. He used the line that God told him my season was done as well as my fiancé. When in asked about severance he/they were offended..but reluctantly gave a small love offering on my last sunday. It amounted to 2 pay ckecks..great full for nothing..but felt unfairly fired and therfore unfairly compensated. Thanks for your quick reply! I appreciated your info.

        • Adam McLane August 11, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

          My advice is to get it all in writing. Ask for the notes from the meeting. If you feel you’ve been wrongfully terminated, make an appointment with an employment attorney to see if there’s anything that can be done. Every state is different and the legal climate is different everywhere.

          I used to think that being quiet and letting yourself get bought off was just part of the game in ministry. But that’s not what I think anymore. Transparency and accountability are what’s needed. The church should be the best place in town to work, above EOE regulations instead of hiding below them.

  18. Amanda November 2, 2015 at 6:30 am #

    Do you have advice on where our church can find information regarding how we should compensate our youth ministry coordinator (who is an hourly employee) when they travel with the students to overnight events such as church camp. (Sometimes the coordinator drives the students to events, sometimes they are a passenger in the church van while someone else drives. These events typically require that we send a certain number of adults to stay overnight with the students.)


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