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 Contents: UU World Back Issue

Pay raises for religious educators, thanks to grants

by Donald E. Skinner

It was a social movement launched from rocking chairs.

Pat Ellenwood remembers the moment. People attending one of the weeklong conferences for religious educators on picturesque Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire had gathered on the broad veranda of the historic Oceanic Hotel for a “porch chat.”

The topic turned to compensation for religious educators. Pat describes the scene: “As some people began to share what they were being paid, I remember a stunned silence falling over the group. Some of the figures were very low.”

One of those people on Star Island that week, in the summer of 1996, was Paul Drezner from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhassat, New York. “It came as a surprise to me that there was a very high rate of turnover for religious educators because of low salaries,” says Drezner, a longtime religious education teacher.

Drezner went back to his congregation and talked with its minister of religious education, the Rev. Dr. Barry Andrews. Together they encouraged the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) to develop a proposal to address the low salaries many Unitarian Universalist religious educators were getting and to present the proposal to the Shelter Rock congregation, which over the years has generously supported many UU causes.

“I'm a CPA, and I don't like to throw money at things as a Band-Aid, but in this case it seemed that the lack of money really was the problem,” says Drezner.

In short, Shelter Rock put up $800,000 in 1998 that provided grants of $15,000 each to 50 congregations to give them a one-time boost to raise compensation levels to at least the minimum levels recommended by the Unitarian Universalist Association. The plan was that the grants would give the congregations the incentive and the time (they were to be paid out over three years) to create strategic plans to continue the salaries at the higher levels.

The plan worked. Reported increases in total compensation ranged from 14 to 54 percent. Last June at General Assembly in Boston, representatives of many of the 50 congregations gathered for a reception to celebrate the culmination of the grants and the fact that most congregations had managed, after the grants had run their course, to continue the higher salaries.

The plan worked so well that a second grant of $250,000 has been approved by Shelter Rock and LREDA to help the 20 or so congregations who had applied for the earlier grants but were not accepted because there wasn't enough money. Those congregations, after successfully reapplying, will begin receiving funds in early 2004 .

Although the grants immediately benefit religious educators in terms of salary, they are an important investment in the congregations. Strong religious education programs are vital to the health of a congregation. Not only do they provide essential services to congregants and their families, they are a major point of attraction for families seeking a church home.

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe, New Mexico, was in the original group that received grants. Alice Springer remembers that she applied to be director of religious education there about the time the grant was approved. “If it had not been for the grant, I would not have been able to take this position,” she says. Springer says the former DRE was paid for 20 hours a week. Springer is paid for 30 and earns about $32,000, and plans are being made to make her job full-time. The religious education program has grown from 62 to 90 children and youth.

Religious education is also extremely important to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County in Churchville, Maryland, a Baltimore suburb. The congregation has 138 adults and 90 children and youth, a higher than normal proportion of young people.

Yet when Lisa Chenoweth became DRE several years ago, her salary was about half of what the UUA recommended. “I could live with that the first couple of years, but once I grew into the job, I expected and deserved more,” she says. The congregation applied for and received a LREDA grant that doubled her salary. When the grant expired last year the congregation maintained it at the higher level.

“I love the job, but don't think I could have stayed in it without the extra income,” she said. “Because I stayed, we were able to grow the program by using my experience.”

Andrews of Shelter Rock is delighted with the program's results. “I think this has been the most successful program this congregation has ever funded,” he says. It not only helped the individual educators but also raised the bar across the denomination by creating salary levels that other congregations would have to meet to be competitive. And it gave educators an incentive to improve their skills and raise the level of professionalism. It's one of the best things that's happened to our denomination in the past twenty years.”

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
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