Canada's overtaxed clergy look for the union label
Citing tough working conditions, some United Church ministers are joining with the Canadian Auto Workers.
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Canada is not the first country to have clergy unionize. Some 1,500 Anglican priests and a few rabbis in England have joined forces with the Manufacturing, Science, and Finance Union in the past decade. They, too, cited physical abuse as one reason for wanting union protection. The MSFU responded by offering up defense courses in tae kwon do.Skip to next paragraph
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Issues regarding abuse of the clergy were thrust to the fore with the publication of "Clergy Killers" by US Presbyterian minister G. Lloyd Rediger in 1997. In his book, Mr. Rediger details a litany of congregational abuses including stalking, death threats, and smear campaigns.
Many religious leaders across all denominations find themselves in more difficult times these days, according to Phyllis Airhart, associate professor in the history of Christianity at the University of Toronto. She says confrontations between church members and clergy are a consequence of living in a more stressful period and in a culture that commonly questions its authority figures.
"There's never enough time to meet all of the spiritual needs of a particular congregation," she explains. "Sometimes professional help is needed for some kinds of counseling beyond what the minister is able to offer."
The move to unionize isn't sitting well with the leaders at the United Church of Canada.
"To superimpose an industrial model, carrying with it the adversarial paradigm, oversimplifies the relationship between the clergy and the congregation," says Peter Short, head of the United Church of Canada. "It creates more problems that it solves."
Mr. Short says clergy should be accessing the church's employee assistance plan, which offers counseling services for everything from addiction to work stress. He says he'll continue to meet with ministers in retreats to discuss the problems and urges them to seriously consider the pros and cons of unionization.
Despite the United Church's denunciation of the minister's move to join the CAW, Evans says he's confident their drive will ultimately prove successful. "I've been talking to lots of other ministers who have come out of the woodwork since they learned of what we're trying to do. It's a huge issue for them and it won't be easy, but we're determined to make this work."
CAW's Shields says he's been bombarded with calls since the story made headlines earlier this month. He says research has shown a significant percentage of the church clergy support unionizing. He warns that the union plans to take action if any parishioners intimidate their pastor into not signing a union card. No date has been set for a vote yet.
Some church members say they are supportive of the clergy - no matter what decision they ultimately make. "I don't think people understand how difficult it is for our ministers," says Sharon Konyen, who attends a United Church in central Toronto. "I think all of this has made us realize that we've got to think about what we can do to support our ministers better."
At the very least, Evans says, ministers are finally beginning to talk to one another about shared problems. "There's been a sense of tremendous isolation all along - that the ministry is a very lonely and difficult place to be," he says. "Now, at least we've begun a dialogue and can start the healing."