PART-TIME WORKERS IN THE CHURCH: ARE THEY REALLY WELCOME?
September 4, 2014
On Labor Day, The Diane Rehm Show rebroadcast a show recorded earlier in the year during which panelists discussed the state of part-time work, and part-time workers, in the current U.S. economy. You can listen to the broadcast and check out their excellent infographics here.
(Rehm’s show was prompted in part by a July 15, 2014 article in The New York Times called “A Push to Give Steadier Shifts to Part-Timers”, which you can read here.)
Here’s the gist of the conversation. In an uncertain economy, many businesses track labor costs carefully, making micro-shifts in their labor force by assembling shift-workers like puzzle pieces, and sending them home when there’s not enough work. Many part-time workers don’t know their schedule more than a week in advance; work hours vary widely from week to week; workers are on call to come in at a moment’s notice, and sometimes cancelled at the last minute or even sent home from work without clocking in at all. Many part-time workers find it impossible to schedule college classes, childcare, or second jobs because of the fluctuations in their work schedules. And many part-time workers report retributive scheduling (fewer hours, worse shifts) from their bosses when they ask for scheduling help.
Some municipalities have enacted legislation with part-time workers in mind, and Rehm’s show helps to sort through the kinds of things a government might consider to protect its work force. But as I listened I found myself thinking about the implications of part-time employment for churches, especially in a church that reaches out specifically to Millennials (young adults born after 1980) who hold a large proportion of hourly-wage jobs. Here are the things I’ve been turning over:
1. Hourly-wage workers with varying schedules often do not have freedom to consider Sunday off-limits for work. Our economy runs 24/7, and managers schedule their workers for any day (or night) of the week. It’s a sign of the end of American Christian hegemony that the market considers Sunday to have the same moneymaking potential as Tuesday or Friday.
We could debate whether that’s a good thing, but the fact remains: many of the “spiritual but not religious” young adults with whom we long to share community are not always (or ever) available during our once-weekly worship hour, and thus our invitation (“All are welcome!”) is not really genuine.
What if a church got serious about reaching out to part-time workers? It would have to create several possibilities for worship, community, table-sharing, and pastoral prayer each week, with a variety of possibilities from morning to late night on several days of the week. And that church would have to be serious about “counting” the people who can only come on Thursday, never on Sunday; there would need to be a deliberate repeat of announcements and meetings and celebrations.
At Galileo Church, with an average Sunday worship attendance of only about 45, we offer no fewer than nine weekly opportunities to gather, and one of those is on Sunday evening at 5 p.m. Anybody is welcome at any gathering, and it’s easy to find out where and when they happen. We have a practice of cheering when people come in the door, because it has likely taken some effort to get away from multiple obligations to make it to us. And we keep in mind that for some people, the Tuesday night “Bible & Beer” session on the taco bar patio is the only “church” they’ll get all week. We try our best to make it count, pastorally and theologically and ecclesially.
2. Part-time workers are often unable to commit to an event more than a few days in advance. Traditional churches really wish that everybody would “sign up” – those clipboards go around, or those lists are tacked up on the bulletin board, with such hope that people will say “yes” in plenty of time to order the right amount of barbecue or a big enough sheet cake. Sometimes we just want to know if there will be enough people to make the event happen at all.
But with over 40% of part-time workers reporting that they know their work schedule only one week (or less!) in advance (see Rehm’s infographic at the link above), churches that are waiting for them to commit ahead of time are going to be waiting a long time.
What kinds of alterations might a church make to its ministries if pre-commitment of the membership weren’t an option? At Galileo Church, we use social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, in our case) to announce what’s happening today, this week and next week – not much further out than that. If we need help for those events, we ask for availability and wait for someone to chime in with, “I got this!” in the comments.
We have designed some ministries to succeed without much advance planning. We regularly deliver homemade cookies to part-time, low-wage workers who work on holidays. We announce the date – Labor Day, Christmas Eve, etc. – and ask people to bake cookies at home and bring them to our packing location. Some people come just to pack, and some are happy just to deliver cookies. Baking, packing, delivering – the numbers of people are always sufficient (we can only deliver as many as we bake and pack), so the ministry works every time, and nobody signs up.
3. Hourly-wage workers with varying schedules often have a difficult time knowing how much money they will have from week to week or month to month. They have some idea of how much they earned last year, but their graph of weekly income is all over the place. Recently I was talking in one of our small groups about the practice of tithing and one woman said, “Ten percent of what?” She literally meant that she wouldn’t know what number to use as her base income from which to take a percentage. I gained a whole new understanding of why some of our members give $10 one week, $35 another week, and nothing a week later.
Annual congregational stewardship campaigns not only won’t work for part-time, low-wage, hourly employees; they can be discouraging. Young adults in these jobs are already feeling undervalued and exhausted. A request from the church to make a guess about next year’s giving can exacerbate those feelings. So how does a church teach generosity to a generation that doesn’t enjoy the stability of income that their elders did? (Even when we were broke, we knew exactly how broke we were.)
At Galileo Church we have provided multiple modes for financial sharing, none of which require a person to have cash or a checkbook on hand. (Ask any young adult you know if they have ten bucks on them. No, they don’t.) So while you can swipe your debit card during worship, you can also give online when you get your next paycheck. We’re happy for weekly or semi-weekly gifts of any amount, but we’re also grateful for the larger, once-in-a-while gifts that come through our website.
And every week we provide cards at the Giving Station that declare, “I gave my time and energy to Galileo Church this week,” or “I gave my heart and prayers to Galileo Church this week.” There’s even one that says, “I gave to the world in amazing ways you haven’t even thought about this week.” Before we pass a basket, everybody has a chance to grab a card or two. And everybody has something to share with our church, even if it was a lousy workweek and the tips were especially bad. We believe that by celebrating the beginning gestures of generosity among our members, even those without significant financial resources to share, we promote generosity as a gift of God’s Spirit that grows over time and changes with employment circumstances.
4. Finally, listening to Rehm’s show earlier this week made me want to talk to Christian employers and managers of part-time, hourly-wage workers. If we carry our be-like-Jesus way into our work, we should find ways to treat our employees with loving respect as befits any human created in the image of God. That means developing a humane system of scheduling workers, with or without the government’s intervention, and even if it costs the business some of its profits. The church has a role in preaching to business owners and managers about this, advocating for the low-wage workers on whose backs much of our economy rests, in much the same way that we advocate for the widow or orphan or alien in our land. We do that, right?
To conclude: thinking about part-time and hourly-wage workers as part of our community of care is just one way that evangelism to a new generation is not about replacing the organ with a guitar and wearing jeans to church. The church of the next generation will figure that out, with God’s help. Or die trying.