Ministry and Unions

Over the last several days there has been an interesting Facebook conversation among a group of Unitarian Universalist ministers about whether or not it would make sense for there to be a ministers’ union, either instead of or in addition to our current professional organization. As is often the case in Facebook conversations, issues were raised that are too complex and intricate to explore very well in that format. So I thought I’d use my blog instead.

Typically we Unitarian Universalist ministers want to identify with the workers rather than the management in labor conflicts. Many of us actually have been or are members of one union or other. In fact, more than one of my colleagues were union organizers or negotiators in a pre-ministerial life. We walk picket lines; we agitate for workers rights, equitable wages and decent working conditions. It at first blush it would seem a natural step for us to unionize.

And yet. There is something that strikes me as a nonstarter here. In the first place, unions are appropriate when management has created a situation of tension and opposition with its labor force. The union rises to that and stands its ground against management. And so unions are created out of opposition. It is necessary and appropriate opposition, to be sure, but it is an essentially antagonistic, confrontational situation.

Ministry, though, thrives, not on opposition, but on building relationships. We work to heal antagonism and bridge confrontation. And so our work seems to me to be different in kind from the work of unions. It is in be thing to be in support of unions; it is another to be a union.

In the second place, inasmuch as the minister is the church’s chief of staff, we are management. In any church collective bargaining situation we would be sitting across the table from church workers. And were there to be a strike, it is we, as managers in chief, who would be picketed. Should we be unionized, then, with whom might we bargain? And whom might we picket? A management union seems like a hollow gesture to me.

And yet. There are times and situations in which it seems as if the church has, let us hope inadvertently, created just the sort of situation in which a union would be appropriate. All too often church staff is inadequately paid; working conditions are substandard; and staff is treated with arrogant superiority. This can happen to staff at every level, from very part-time childcare workers through music staff and up to the minister. Doesn’t this suggest that unionization would sometimes be appropriate?

One might think so. Yet the skills that make unions work are not often the skills ministers possess. Of course, some of us do have those skills, but as a profession, we do not. This suggests to me that a different approach is in order. What would happen if, instead of stepping up as an opponent, we were to step up as partners, both of our boards of trustees and of our workers? What would happen if we were to create relationships using all the skills and authority we have in virtue of our education, status, and calling as ministers? What would happen if we were to build bridges rather than walls?

I have always been uncomfortable with walls. As Robert Frost writes,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

Wise man, Robert Frost. We are all better off with fewer walls and more bridges. Or so it seems to me.


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