Working for the Church: A Brief Update on Church Lay Employment Policies in the Episcopal Church

Codex Aureus Epternacensis, Laborers in the Vineyard

In the just reward of labor, God’s will be done.” (F. Pratt Green, The Hymnal 1982, no. 424)

The good news is easy to report. Much progress has been made in recent years towards parity with clergy on compensation and benefits. The bottom line: if you work for the church for 1000 hours a year you are entitled to pension benefits, and for 1500 hours a year to health benefits.

Background: The journey has been long, however, and the current climate of uncertainty should make us all vigilant. A number of resolutions during the last twenty-five years have gradually defined the scope of employee benefits, including an all-important canon change mandating coverage for both clergy and lay employees.

Although benefits for clergy had been in place for some time, it wasn’t until a 1991 Resolution (A165a) recommended that church employers provide pension coverage for lay employees that we began to see progress. A resolution calling for parity in employment followed (Resolution B018, 1997). But after only 70% of congregations with eligible workers provided these benefits, a 2006 General Convention commissioned the Comprehensive Lay Employee Study and formed the Task Force on Employment Policies and Practices. I was privileged to represent the Association of Anglican Musicians on this Task Force, and rejoiced with all my colleagues at the passage of Resolution A138 at the 2009 General Convention, calling for canon mandated pension benefits. At the same 2009 Convention, a revision of the Denominational Health Care Plan (Resolution A177) was passed, mandating health care for eligible clergy and lay employees (those who work 1500 hours annually). The Church Pension Group provides a variety of plans and additional information can be found on the CPG website.

These were important milestones of church employment, and an inspiring example of fulfilling our baptismal vows in our treatment of each other. As Resolution D015a recommended in recognizing non-financial goals: “… in our various church workplaces… we need to promote the right ordering of relationships by fostering the principles of personal dignity, justice, accountability, and participation. By such principles we seek to promote both the dignity of individuals and the corporate responsibilities of church institutions. Using such principles, it is imperative that we develop church workplace procedures and policies that honor the rights of individuals while serving faithfully the over-arching common good entrusted to us as the church, that is, the mission of Jesus Christ to the World.”

The Association for Anglican Musicians continues to do important work for these causes, and the handbook “Musicians Called to Serve” is a vital compendium of wisdom for both clergy and musicians. A complete listing of relevant Resolutions can be found following page 35.

Additional resources can be found on the Episcopal Church website. A recent article details revisions to the pension plan.

Either as clergy preparing to hire a musician, or as a musician looking for employment, both need a clear vision for the worship we do together. Our biggest hurdle can be lack of communication between clergy, staff, and lay employees. That gulf in understanding needs to be a first priority as we help the church understand the combined power of music, liturgy, and the word. We also can all become more involved, work on Diocesan committees, even become delegates to Convention. It is clear that there is still much work to do!


Martha Niepold Johnson (M.A. University of North Carolina, D. Mus., Indiana University) has recently retired as Organist-Choirmaster at St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley (Paoli, PA) where she conducted three choirs. She has taught at St. Lawrence University (as University Organist) and DePauw University. Martha is past president of the Association of Anglican Musicians and serves AAM on the Investment Committee. She also served the national church as a member of the Task Force on Employment Policies and Practices. She is currently President of the Board of Tempesta di Mare (Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra) and enjoys having time to practice the harpsichord.