Starting an Urgent Conversation

Frederick J. Streets ’75 M.Div.

The relationship between religion, money, status, and economic justice is complicated and conflicted. Society reflects moralistic attitudes about who has earned their wealth and who deserves to be poor. It is urgent that religious tradition’s critique of economic assumptions and injustices be heard.

Often ministers see these economic tensions in their own lives and vocations. They try to balance their sense of call with an ability to make a living and live a comfortable life. They want to be justice advocates for people everywhere, yet find their own professional status or compensation devalued by society or even by their own religious institutions.

Some ministers are hesitant to be strong negotiators for themselves and their pastoral financial packages. This caution might be fueled by feelings of clergy guilt about standing up for adequate compensation at all. They don’t want to be perceived as motivated by greed or money rather than by doing the work as servants of God.

Deep social biases affect attitudes toward clergy work. Society confers status upon professions based on particular definitions of worth or utility. One’s prosperity is hailed as a sign of God’s favor. People in poverty are blamed for their own troubles, accused of a lack of initiative or some character flaw. If the culture devalues the poor, then those who work with them and on their behalf, ministers included, will also be accorded less value.

There’s an irony in such social devaluation: Religious organizations serve as local anchors and sources of hope across the nation. Their work figures heavily in the social welfare history of America. They partner with other community groups and agencies to meet needs regardless of religious affiliation or non-affiliation. Considerable charitable work is provided in a nonsectarian way by religious institutions directly or through nonprofits they have established. This work heavily subsidizes the fiscal cost of services that society would otherwise be forced to absorb itself.

Thus society has a stake in the viability of theological education and its graduates, many of whom become leaders in charitable organizations and nonprofits. The funding of theological training – the creation of more generous grants, affordable loans, and other partnerships – ought to be a part of our public conversation about the greater health of society.

Theological educators and other religious leaders must continue to shape this conversation and strengthen the position of future ministers – teaching financial literacy, assessing the moral values that move markets, analyzing the social impact of economic models, also helping students confront uneasy questions about how to manage finances, compensation, and retirement planning.

Seminaries and divinity schools could convene the broader academy and wider community, from the disciplines of business, law, political and social science, and craft an ethical vision of a healthy economic life.

The theological conversation ought to attend to the matter of a fair financial relationship between ministers and the congregations or organizations that hire them. There is an economic justice question for congregations themselves to face: They can’t fight for the living wages of others with integrity if they neglect the adequate compensation of their own staffs.

Money itself has never been the root of evil. What is evil is how we value money over human dignity, how we earn and use money at the expense of others, how we define profit in ways that exploit the consumer and limit the chances for others who despair to earn a living wage.

The greatest class divide among us is between those who privately own the means of producing and distributing our goods and services – and most of us who must “sell” our ability to earn an income. Those who own the goods and services that we in turn sell endeavor to earn a profit from our labor so that they can continue to provide those services and remain competitive in their domains and the marketplace.

The basic system of capitalism offers great benefits to the world. However, its focus on individual choices and behavior ignores systemic and policy causes of the poverty that grips many Americans. Underemployment, racism, the prison industry, criminal justice patterns, voter suppression, xenophobia, and repressive ideologies based upon religious beliefs obstruct a people’s right to reform structures that deny them basic economic security.

This a moment for faith and its many institutions to forge a vision of economic justice that considers the actual conditions of our working lives and challenges labor exploitation as well as environmental abuse. Our faith traditions can speak from a perspective that other dimensions of society don’t have – reminding us that living a meaningful life is connected to balancing our own wants and needs with the common needs of others.

Frederick J. Streets ’75 M.Div., former chaplain of Yale University, is adjunct associate professor of pastoral theology at YDS and senior pastor at Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ in New Haven, CT.