Linda Topp: You Are an Employer

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As a member of UUCA, you are also an employer of 10 “regular” staff members and about 13 other support staff members (music, sound system, childcare, bookkeeping). Operating expenses devoted to personnel salaries and benefits amount to 68% of the budget. Although our budget process shields you from choosing among the various scenarios that can be funded with our projected income (having a sensible projected income number to work with is the reason we need your commitment by mid-March), your vote to approve or not approve a proposed budget at the annual meeting implies that you have made these considerations as an employer:

  • What skills do we need to pay for? Or, conversely, what jobs are you (as a volunteer) willing to do?
  • How many employees can we afford? And its flipside, what if we don’t have enough employees to make “that” happen, with “that” being anything we wish we could do but don’t have staff for? Would you be willing to do it as a volunteer?
  • Are we fairly paying our employees?
  • Are we providing opportunities for skill development?
  • Do we reward strong performance?
  • Do we offer good working conditions?

The employer-employee relationship is a significant human relationship of mutual dependency that has great impact on the people involved. The employer has a moral obligation to look out for the welfare of employees. It is not a question only of fair pay and good working conditions; there should be a real and enduring concern for employees.

UUCA currently has an exceptional staff. There’s no other way to say it. This is a group that is made up of individuals who each have a skill set that aligns nearly perfectly with their job, with personalities that function well together, and with commitments to the congregation’s well-being that result in prodigious work and idea production within the parameters of the hours available.

So, what skills do we pay for?

We pay people to lead:

worship for adults, youth and children; music programming; education programming for adults, youth and children; our pastoral care ministry

We pay people to organize:

worship experiences, newcomers’ experiences, volunteer opportunities, programs in lifespan religious education and social justice, a congregation-wide “care” system, our small group ministry

We pay people to manage:

the congregation’s staff, the congregation’s finances, a complex database, the congregation’s physical structures and grounds, facilities rentals, vendors, the sound system

We pay people to write:

sermons, blogs, eNews articles, web content, emails, announcements, brochures, pamphlets, scripts, lesson plans and curricula

We pay people to train:

worship associates, pastoral visitors, religious education teachers, connecting stewards, and new member connectors

We pay people to support volunteers who:

sing in the choir, teach lifespan religious education classes, wish to raise money for UUCA or various other causes, desire to become leaders in the congregation, welcome newcomers on Sundays, help integrate new members into the congregation, organize congregation-wide parties

We pay people to produce:

orders of service, website, Weekly eNews and inserts to the order of service, monthly mailed newsletter, RE News Weekly, videos, audio copies of sermons, music, posters, announcements

We pay people to enter data for:

a membership directory, financial accounting, religious education, room reservations,

We pay people to clean our buildings, host our coffee hours, take care of our youngest children on Sunday mornings and whenever parents need childcare to attend a UUCA event

We pay people to think about:

why do people join UUCA; what will be a compelling topic for worship; how can we help people learn what’s going on in the life of the congregation; what are the theological underpinnings of religious education for youth and children; do we have enough fun around here; why are nearly all religious organizations experiencing a decrease in funding and levels of volunteer commitment; what is the future of the institution of “church;” how do people develop the spiritual gift of generosity; what happens if our second service begins to regularly “overflow;” what does it mean to be a “beacon of liberal religious thought and action;” why do people say they want more opportunities to participate in social justice and then not respond when more opportunities are provided

Are any of these things something that you could do as a volunteer? You will have to make your own judgment about that, but so far we have chosen to hire for a position when we have learned that volunteers cannot or are unwilling to provide consistent quality in a program or administrative function. By hiring someone, we can demand a greater level of accountability, excellence and commitment to our mission.

How many employees can we afford? Unfortunately, at this exact time we can’t quite afford all the employees we have. We remain in a deficit-spending situation that will require some very difficult decisions in the next year or two if we cannot increase our income.

Are we fairly paying our employees? This is a bit of a trick question because it very much depends on how you think of the word “fair.” If by “fair” you mean everyone is paid no less than the Asheville Just Economics Living Wage, then yes, this congregation pays fairly. And we might be considered to pay fairly if you ask if everyone is paid at about the “Asheville norm” for their jobs. However, there are three exceptions to this since the salaries of both of our ministers and our administrator are considerably below the UUA norm for their levels of experience and responsibilities and are likely to be below the norm for Asheville.

Are we providing opportunities for skill development? Once an individual has been hired, professional development becomes the responsibility of the organization. Although the employee was hired with a certain set of knowledge, skills and abilities, if the roles and responsibilities of the position change—and they will—the employer has a moral responsibility to invest in their employees. This is also often the way new ideas are discovered and brought back to the congregation. For our hourly employees, we provide a pool of $2,800 to be accessed by 5 employees for annual training/learning opportunities. For our salaried (exempt) employees, we provide 6% of their salary for this (the UUA recommends 10%). This is not a huge sum and does often restrict these employees’ abilities to get out in the world to meet with peers, visit innovative congregations and attend trainings and events that may provide insights into new ways of doing things at UUCA. It can be difficult for employers to swallow the costs associated with employee professional development, but ultimately the organization benefits when its employees have the capacity to bring home changes and innovations that may make a big difference in working toward our mission.

Do we reward strong performance? Over nearly the past decade, no employee has received any pay increase except for annual cost-of-living adjustments when the federal government declared such an adjustment for Social Security beneficiaries (except when changes in an employee’s job description absolutely required a pay adjustment to bring that pay more in line with Asheville norms). So, the answer to that is “no.” Whatever an employee accepted for a salary at the time of hiring is all they will ever get, along with cost-of-living increases.   Our projections indicate that this will continue to be true for the foreseeable future.

Do we offer good working conditions? This is certainly the secret to our success in holding exceptional employees. The staff culture is supportive, generous, helpful, understanding and competent. The kind, friendly congregants who interact with staff outnumber the more challenging ones. Health insurance coverage is available for eligible employees (those working more than 750 hours per year). So is dental insurance. Long-term disability is paid for. There is no short-term disability program; we are essentially self-insured in that category. Contributions are made to a pension plan for eligible employees. Staff supervisors show compassion during times of stress for employees. Our bereavement and extended family leave policies are generous compared to most other employers, and we recently updated our personnel manual to provide an extra week’s vacation (more or less—many of us do work on Sundays) by closing the office between December 25 and January 1. Of course, it also helps the cause that people who work in churches choose that work as a calling rather than a job (lucky for us).

Here’s the bottom line. As an employer, how do you feel about the status of your employees? Are there changes you would make? Are you satisfied that you are a moral employer who is looking out for the welfare of your employees?