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
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
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
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
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
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