Church employees are vulnerable to workplace injustice

Can the church be trusted to use the ministerial exception to federal discrimination laws responsibly?
In the Pews

Mary Jane Murphy (who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her new parish job) worked in parish ministry for decades without hearing of the ministerial exception. That changed when she moved to Florida and began work for a diocese there. When one of her colleagues lost his job, the diocese invoked the ministerial exception to let him go. Murphy, who herself would go on to become the 18th woman in four years to lose her job at this diocese, recalls the dynamic as a “hostile work environment with no legal protection whatsoever.”

The protection—or lack thereof—she references is the U.S. legal doctrine that states that the government cannot interfere with the hiring and firing of employees who are deemed ministers of their religion. This was most recently ruled upon by a unanimous Supreme Court in the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor ruling, which found that federal discrimination laws simply did not apply to religious groups’ selection of ministers.

Where this gets slippery is that the definition of a minister is not limited to ordained clergy—which some religious groups don’t even have—but any employee the religious group in question says is a minister.

“But that doesn’t mean that churches have to take [the ministerial exception] and run with it,” says Jacquelyn Oesterblad, an Arizona-based civil rights attorney who advocates that church employers should be more transparent with lay ministers, teachers, and other employees about their “exceptional” status.


Oesterblad and Murphy agree that the ministerial exception should exist to protect religious groups from government overreach—and protect the government from entanglement in the inner workings of religion. But they also argue that how this freedom is lived out casts a light on how the church relates to people in its employ overall.

“I think that this is another form of abuse,” Murphy says bluntly, noting that a legitimate protection for the church “became the vehicle to get rid of people without duress, without any reason, without any protocols, without any evaluation, without any feedback.”

The treatment of employees matters for a church with robust social teaching on the dignity of work and the human person. It also matters when the institutional church is still crawling out from under the decades-long revelations of sexual abuse crises involving both children and adults. And it matters as the Catholic Church lives more fully into what it means to have empowered laypeople working alongside ordained clergy in co-responsible roles. In all of it, an institution set up to serve people is called to examine its track record as servant of the servants.

Place of privilege

While on its face, the case law on the ministerial exception seems to apply to a matter like the government not being able to tell the Catholic Church it has to ordain women on the grounds of gender nondiscrimination, the cases that make the news usually involve lay employees. These include Catholic school teachers who were fired for breaking the morality clause of their contracts, whether that means an unwed teacher who is pregnant out of wedlock or an LGBTQ teacher who has married or otherwise disclosed a partner of the same sex. The volatile nature of these examples raises an important distinction for Cathleen Kaveny, professor of law and theology at Boston College.


“What the church legally can do or has a legally protected right to do isn’t necessarily the same thing as what it ought to do, morally or prudentially,” she says.

For instance, Kaveny has written that the church should not engage in the practice of firing teachers for getting pregnant out of wedlock, when it’s not the pregnancy, but the sexual activity that led to it, that is objectionable to the church.

“I don’t think that can be done fairly, because it applies only to women,” she says. “If you want to discourage abortion, which seems to be a priority, then firing pregnant teachers isn’t the way to go.”

Kaveny is also wary of the idea that the ministerial exception is a legal loophole. “[The church] believes that nondiscrimination laws are important, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be following them,” she says. “If it looks like what the church is doing is calling everyone a minister without them actually having ministerial function in order to escape the requirements of age discrimination or other kinds of discrimination, it becomes very problematic as an ethical issue.”


On the question of firing gay teachers, Jesuit Father David Hollenbach, moral theologian and professor at Georgetown University, says the question becomes whether the church even has good theological grounds for such action.

“That’s where we get into a very major discussion about the theological ethics of the response to gay people. And the official teaching of the church is in the process of being examined in that regard,” Hollenbach says, citing Pope Francis’ recent moves that have been more progressive than the tradition to date in their inclusivity.

These moves by the pope have not dissuaded Catholic bishops from going so far as even to strip the Catholic status from schools that refuse to fire, for example, gay teachers. If a bishop was worried about undermining his own legal protections by retaining such an employee, Oesterblad says that is not the case.

“That doesn’t even undermine the same school’s right to fire a different teacher for also being gay, because the point of the ministerial exception is there’s no inquiry into it,” she says.


Wounded ministers

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Paula Kaempffer did not expect her work with abuse survivors to suddenly take off. But that’s what happened.

“People felt very comfortable in virtual support groups,” says the longtime minister, who was hired by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as coordinator for restorative practices and survivor support in the Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment. Soon the group was picking up people from across the United States and other countries, with monthly presentations drawing more than 100 people at a time.


As the work grew, so did the focus of the various support groups. One new group that Kaempffer was particularly interested to see get off the ground included present and former employees of faith institutions that had been abused in any way. For Kaempffer, this group overlapped with her own experience.

“I have experienced incredible abuse—verbally, emotionally, and mentally—from pastors with whom I’ve worked,” she says. She is also a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. A pivotal shift in her perspective occurred at a gathering for faith formation ministers in the archdiocese.


“There were eight women around my table. And every single one of us had been abused—either sexually, emotionally, mentally, or physically—by clergy, by pastors,” she says. “I thought, this is wrong. How could this be happening? Why is this happening all over?”

Pope Francis has famously called the church a field hospital filled with wounded people, but Murphy in Florida, who is now writing her dissertation on these issues, takes the image a step further. “It’s filled with wounded ministers, and hurt people hurt people,” she says. “So unless we get to the reason why our ministers are wounded, we will constantly have people in and out of the church getting hurt.”

After Murphy spent five years pursuing a master of divinity degree while still working in ministry fulltime, she found a mix of sexism and clericalism to be particularly harmful.

“They had no understanding of what a master of divinity meant for a laywoman,” she says of the pastors who employed her. Women were expected to be quiet and take direction, and they often defaulted to the roles of taking notes at meetings, cleaning up after events, setting up Christmas decorations, and other roles that even laymen on staff never volunteered to fill.


But sexism and clericalism aren’t the only isms marring the church’s witness and the experience of those serving it. Ansel Augustine, the new director of African American Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, describes the role that racism has played in turning many young Black people away from the Catholic Church.

“You can’t see yourself in leadership, meaning people that look like you or think like you or relate to you,” he says. “You see your own culture being seen as less than, or put down, or seen as anti-church or anti-holy.”

These issues were reflected in the discussions of a gathering of Black Catholic young adults from around the United State in late 2023 at Xavier University of Louisiana. In addition to a lack of representation and investment and a failure to address white supremacy, the report on this gathering named clericalism as alienating Black youth from the church as well.

“You see all these scandals coming out with clergy, and yet it’s the laypeople who suffer most,” Augustine says.

For Kaempffer, clericalism goes back to the apostles. She cites their concern in the gospels with “who is going to be greater? It’s right there, and I believe it’s been all throughout.”

Kaempffer wholly embraces Pope Francis’ position that clericalism is at the root of systems of abuse of all kinds in the Catholic Church. She believes that spiritual and emotional abuse go hand-in-hand and often serve as part of the grooming process for sexual abuse. This also comports with her memories of her formation before the Second Vatican Council, in which the priest and everything he said went unchallenged.

“We’re all guilty of putting [clergy] up on a pedestal, but we didn’t know any better,” she says, adding that another word for clericalism is simply power.

“If you’re one filled with power, do you want to hear that you’re filled with power?” she says of the difficulty of breaking clericalism. “People try to turn it back on Francis and say there’s something wrong with him!”


Boundaries and best practices

Stacey Noem remembers vividly when Ann Garrido spoke to her class in Notre Dame’s master of divinity program. The author and speaker made very clear to the students that when they work for the church, they should not mistake their employer for their family.

“It was a rude awakening for a lot of young ministers in training to hear,” Noem says. But it’s also a crucial shift to make from seeing church as a place of belonging and identity to a workplace with professional boundaries to be minded. “As soon as they’re your employer, or as soon as they’re your workplace, make sure you’re making the same shift mentally, to [seeing them as your] workplace,” she says.

This is especially important for laypeople to realize because, whether they are working for a particular religious community or just ordained clergy in general, they will always share a mission but not a vocation with other church leaders.

“The church doesn’t always have best practices when it comes to workplaces,” Noem says. She notes the need for both lay and ordained ministers to bring to their work both theological savvy and pastoral management acumen. However, even as she works to train future ministers, she recognizes that this expertise by itself can even set up conflict. “Those folks are going in a workplace context where that has not been a standard historically.”

Noem gives many ordained ministers the benefit of the doubt in terms of the gaps in their experience around marriage and family life that inform things like not scheduling a staff meeting at 2 p.m. when staff have school-aged children to pick up or prioritizing work-life balance in general. She found that priests with many siblings, especially sisters, were often the best in this regard, because that filled out their understanding. “It makes it extremely easy to work with those men,” she says.

But Kaempffer notes the presence of less healthy formation at work. “Some of these guys are very angry. . . . And they just let it out on us, the staff.”

Noem cites the idea of co-responsibility between lay and ordained ministers as the practice that could ultimately yield a positive result. And the message to the ordained in such spaces is clear, she says: “Get used to activating laypeople. You’re here for them.”

Mission mindfulness

True co-responsibility between clergy and laypeople is a vastly different vision from a world where calling lay employees “ministers” makes them more expendable than ever.


“I think the thing that’s going to stop [the ministerial exemptions] from being a damaging thing is the people who are wielding it making smart decisions with employment,” Oesterblad says of current practices around firing people. She notes that many students in Catholic schools come from families “who are trying and failing in some way to be Catholics.” And if church leaders are concerned about the lessons these students and their families will glean from the private lives of employees, she offers the reminder, “You could also learn from the example of how the church treats teachers.”

As the synodal process enters its next phase, the Vatican has offered guiding questions that include: “Where have I seen or experienced successes—and distresses—within the church’s structures/organization/leadership/life that encourage or hinder the mission?” and “How can the structures and organizations of the church help all the baptized to respond to the call to proclaim the Gospel and to live as a community of love and mercy in Christ?”

These questions offer an orientation that could shape decisions in many facets of church life, including how policies relating to the treatment of employees help or hinder the church’s mission and ability to evangelize in a changing world.

“What we really have is just an employment crisis, and we’re dealing with it in a bizarre way,” Oesterblad says. “We just don’t have all the teachers that we need, that look the way we want them to look.”

“Why are you complaining that people in these parishes can’t fill these positions?” Murphy asks. “It’s because you have a lot of people who are scared to work for this beautiful church.” 

This article also appears in the May 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 5, pages 26-30). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Stephen Caserta

About the author

Don Clemmer

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