What can be done?
Regarding ministers, what can be done from a legal perspective if a church or employer is contributing to the gender wage gap? For female ministers and clergy (as for male ministers and clergy), the answer is: not much.
Due to the legal doctrine of the “ministerial exception,” “all clergy are prevented from bringing lawsuits against the church,” says Sommerville. In general, a court will only attempt to intervene in a church dispute when it can clearly see that a nonreligious issue is in question, due to First Amendment prohibitions regarding religious decision-making.
Because of this, conflicts concerning any issues of pay inequality are “not likely to be resolved through the courts or administrative action,” explains Middlebrook; the ministerial exception “protect[s] churches in their decisions related to the hiring, compensation practices (and ensuing disparity in compensation based on gender), and termination of ministerial employees.”
Sommerville points out that various denominations—including Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalian—have elected to have processes in place for addressing such issues: processes in which clergy can reach out to their conference or diocese and discover “some recourse—not legal recourse, but at least it’s recourse.”
Overall, however, if the wage gap is to be narrowed for female clergy, “it will be individual churches determining whether they believe in equal pay for equal services rendered,” says Middlebrook.
For women who are not defined as ministers—but are still employed by churches or ministries—the story is a little different. According to Middlebrook, “[W]hen it comes to non-minister employees at churches, the ministerial exception does not apply, and thus the aforementioned federal laws likely do apply.”
Assessing the church’s practices
For some churches, this may mean an assessment is in order.
“As a matter of fairness and equity,” says Middlebrook, “I think churches should evaluate their compensation practices to determine if there is a disparity in pay as to all employees who are performing the same job at the same location to determine if any discrepancies exist—and, if they do, is there a recurring trend of it being based on gender?”
Martha Simmons, a reverend in the United Church of Christ and founder of the Women of Color in Ministry Project, agrees with the need for assessment, and she urges churches to set concrete goals regarding compensation evaluation. “I tell churches, ‘You need to do a salary review every five years of all of your positions to make sure that [equitable compensation practices] do not change,’” she explains.
Himes also stresses the importance of encouraging benefits that will support women working in the church: “[I]f a church has things like a maternity leave, fully or partially paid…[so women can] not lose their years of experience, that’s important.”
Such solutions may sound simple enough. But for many women working in ministry, even broaching the subject of compensation is a complicated task.
The messages women hear
“It’s hard to talk about money in the context of ministry,” says Himes. She shares that for many of her single friends, “there’s not even a discussion of what a fair pay should be.” The reasoning? “‘It’s ministry—you don’t do it for the money.’ And that’s the end of the conversation.”
Diaz says that traditional gender roles in the church can also play a role in how women approach—or fail to approach—matters of money.
“In general, women are not equipped or coached or trained…to figure out ‘how do you have that conversation in the church?’” she says. “Because in some ways, too, women are trained to be submissive and to be grateful for what they have received and to not rock the boat—and to serve . . . To go and say, ‘I want $10,000 more dollars because I think that’s fair based on x, y, and z’—in some ways, it doesn’t feel Christian to do that.”
Simmons has encountered the same mindsets in her work with women in ministry. “It’s a part of that trick that says to women, ‘You need to be glad that we accepted you. We affirmed women. Give us credit for that,’” she says. “Then tie to that the idea of ‘since we did the right thing, you should be accepting of any issues that come up, because we gave you space to work for Jesus.’”
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