The missing paycheck: Research reveals new evidence on the racial wage gap

You may not think about the paychecks of people who work at your parish, but I recommend Catholics pay closer attention. In fact, the future of the church may depend on it.

Thanks to a recent study and report, led by Prof. Hosffman Ospino at Boston College, it is clear that Catholics are not only suffering from a gender wage gap among those who minister in the church. We're also suffering from a racial wage gap.

What's in a paycheck?

Priests earn an average of $42,896 per year of taxable income. Lay ministers, the majority of whom are women, earn an average of  $32,547 per year. But the Hispanic Ministry in Catholic Parishes report revealed that laity, clergy and other religious workers who serve in parishes with large Hispanic populations receive significantly less wages.

For example, paid directors of religious education in parishes with Hispanic ministry -- the majority of whom are laity and 50 percent of whom identify as Hispanic -- receive an average of only $26,857 per year. The parish directors of Hispanic ministry -- where 64 percent identify as Hispanic -- receive an average of a mere $24,078 per year.

When one looks at diocesan directors of Hispanic ministry, the situation remains grim. While the median annual salary comes in at $45,000, 12 percent of directors earn less than $25,000. An incredible 22 percent who serve in this ministry at the diocesan level receive no salary at all.

Missing Paychecks

It turns out that not receiving a paycheck for one's ministry is, unfortunately, common among those who minister with communities of color.

Fr. Chris Posch, a Franciscan friar, has served in Hispanic ministry for 25 years -- coordinating everything from parishes to migrant camps to a mobile school of theology. He was not surprised to hear about the low wages and says, "the challenge is more significant than a wage gap … it is an employment gap."

He went on to point out that "the amount of parish and diocesan Hispanic staff is grossly under-proportionate to the percentage of Hispanic Catholics." In fact, he stated that the majority of Hispanic ministry he knows -- from music ministry to faith formation and other essential ministries -- is done by volunteers.

Tricia Bruce, an associate professor of sociology at Maryville College and the lead researcher on a forthcoming study on Asian and Pacific Islander Catholics, noted in an interview I conducted that she found a similar story of volunteer ministry -- rather than paid ministry -- among the communities she studied.

I also connected with a black Catholic theologian and we found ourselves unable to even locate a study on the ministerial wages of those who serve black Catholic communities in the United States.

In my own Chicago Archdiocese, the third largest in the country, there were once robust "ethnic ministries" offices. These offices supported full-time, paid lay directors. In approximately the last two years, each office has been closed and placed in the hands of an already stretched local pastor with a budget that will likely only support a part-time assistant.

In fact, with these offices removed from the Archdiocesan center, not one black Catholic remains working in Department of Parish Life and Formation, perhaps the most important office for meeting the pastoral needs of Chicago's Catholics.

Similarly, in an email interview, Ospino noted that "the Hispanic presence diminishes significantly at the higher levels of decision-making in the life of the Church: clergy, vowed religious, and diocesan offices."

Since the majority of high-level church positions are not filled by people of color, it may lead to oversight regarding the wage gap among communities of color. Ospino also believed the wage gap results from "the fact that most parishes intentionally serving this [Hispanic] population struggle financially."

Whatever the reason for the racial wage gap, he noted that the study "reveals that we as a Church need to be more conscious of investing resources in the next generation of Catholics, and that next generation happens to be largely Hispanic."

How can the Church respond?

According to the latest numbers announced last week, 49 percent of Catholics under age 30 are Hispanic. In five states Hispanics already make up the majority of the Catholic population including 74% in Texas, 70% in California, and 70% in New Mexico. The Catholic church in the United States is increasingly a church comprised of people of color. However, the ministers to support the people of this church are not being adequately paid and resourced, if at all.

For a church that has made multiple statements in support of just wages, it is distressing that we fail to support our own ministerial workers. Without well-trained and compensated workers to serve communities of color, we are failing the church as a whole.

"Not to accompany this community spiritually and pastorally in some way," Ospino wrote, "is the equivalent to what I would call pastoral negligence."

Ospino's report listed twelve urgent recommendations for Hispanic ministry. A quarter of them raise the alarm on the lack of resources the church places towards formation and wages among Hispanic ministerial leaders. Finding the resources is not an easy task, but he has some suggested strategies church officials could adopt.

Some of Ospino's suggestions included helping Hispanics to increase financial giving with the targeted goal of hiring a qualified pastoral leader that will in turn start a cycle of faith and stewardship formation. He also recommended developing relationships of solidarity between parishes of means and those that struggle or imagining creative ways for families or groups to sponsor a pastoral leader. Ospino also proposed that dioceses monitor and regulate how pastoral leaders in communities of color are paid.

If church officials cannot find ways to better engage and invest in ministerial leaders serving communities of color, then we are not serving a vast portion of our church today and we're missing opportunities to grow the church for tomorrow. Posch noted that the "very survival of the Church" is at stake.

Indeed, more than missing paychecks, in the future the Catholic church could find itself with less of its most important resource -- its people.

[Nicole Sotelo is the author of Women Healing from Abuse: Meditations for Finding Peace, published by Paulist Press, and coordinates She is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School.]

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