Canada's overtaxed clergy look for the union label

Citing tough working conditions, some United Church ministers are joining with the Canadian Auto Workers.

When the phone rang near midnight, Jim Evans shuddered at the thought of the whispered taunts that would come from the other end of the line. The Rev. Mr. Evans, minister for the United Church of Canada, was being stalked by a woman from his own congregation. Ever since he'd rebuffed her sexual advances, the late-night telephone calls had become a daily ritual. For nearly five years he asked church elders to intervene, but they refused.

"Those were the darkest hours," he recalls, having only recently fled his small-town ministry in southern Ontario at the urging of the police, who said his life could be in danger. "There were so many times when I thought about just walking away from it all. But I love the church, and I felt that somehow I had to find a way to honor my call to the ministry."

Promoting godliness in a secular age is no longer the only challenge for some of Canada's clergy. Between low pay and stressful working conditions, more ministers say they are feeling overtaxed - and not finding relief within traditional church channels. So instead of turning to the Bible for guidance, they are seeking salvation in a place once reserved for coal miners and dockworkers: the union.

In addition to what they say are "sweatshop wages," these ministers say they face both psychological and physical abuse by their own parishioners. According to United Church figures, 60 percent of its ministers experience conflict with their congregations, and 80 percent say they have no peer support.

"Quite simply, it's now crisis proportions," says Evans, who now practices in the small town of Ingersoll, Ontario. He says the church's outdated hierarchical structure is both unwilling and incapable of responding to such problems.

Historical ties to CAW

Working alongside some 30 pastors across the country, Evans has enlisted the Canadian Auto Workers Union to help them organize 4,000 pastors in Canada's largest Protestant denomination.

"I think that after you get over the shock that you're talking about ministers and you get down to brass tacks, it's an employee-employer relationship that can only be strengthened by a union," adds the Rev. David Galston at Eternal Spring United Church in Hamilton, Ontario.

Mr. Galston says that members of his group believe a union will help them negotiate better wages - up from a minimum salary of C$37,000 (US$31,000). A union would also help them implement a structure in which they wouldn't be forced to negotiate their salary with leaders of their own congregation - a practice which often creates its own divisiveness.

More important, union proponents say, is that the union could help clarify which part of the church is responsible for overseeing problems when they do arise, such as Evans's concern about his stalker. Too often a problem is passed off from one part of the church to another without ever reaching resolution, Galston says.

He sees the union move as an extension of the historical roots of a denomination that has long been at the forefront of social and economic issues - often in alliance with the CAW.

CAW organizer Mike Shields admits that the union was stunned when it was first approached by a handful of clergy with a request for representation. "But when we began to understand what was happening, we felt that we could help them," Mr. Shields says. According to the disgruntled ministers, 18 percent of active clergy are out on stress leave at any one time, Shields says. "If that happened in your workplace or mine, there would have to be a major investigation."

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.

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."

Opposed by church hierarchy

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."

Bombarded with calls

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."

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