Break Up America’s Clergy Cartel

Daily Beast [New York NY]

June 15, 2022

By Benjamin Spratt and Joshua Stanton

We’re Reform rabbis who want more transparency for clergy contracts and fewer protectionist obstacles that keep good people from answering the call.

By 2034, the United States will face a shortage of between 38,000 to 124,000 physicians. The supply of doctors is tightly controlled by the number of medical school slots and medical residencies, both of which are set by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.

This means that American physicians get to legally limit their competition and thereby artificially inflate their compensation. While one would not want to get operated on by an unaccredited surgeon, the downsides of such monopsony power are evident in the high and rising costs of medical care.

But doctors are not alone in enjoying power over their own supply of talent. Clergy do, as well.

However, unlike the medical accreditation system, clergy associations have done a poor job of ensuring ethical conduct and competence. Over the past 40 years, trust in American religion has guttered—and for good reason. Successive sexual and financial scandals in synagogues, churches, mosques, and temples are exacerbated by many clergy associations’ attempts at cover-ups and silence. In repeatedly (if not systematically) mishandling clergy malfeasance, they reveal that their primary function is to maintain and consolidate the power of clergy.

Our own rabbinical association, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, is admirably working to come to terms with its history of missteps or inadequate steps in addressing clergy abuse. After a thorough external review of its processes for addressing ethics violations, its leadership is creating new systematic ways to prevent clergy abuse and to keep abusers from regaining positions of power.

“This process of negotiating clergy contracts is unhealthy for clergy-congregant relationships, weakens the finances of our spiritual institutions, and passes the costs along to our community members…”

But this clergy union, the network of U.S. Reform synagogues, and the seminaries that produce clergy are entwined in a system that limits clergy supply and inflates clergy compensation. It does so through the admissions process to a single, expensive Reform seminary, as well as clergy contracts that elevate wages in a similar fashion to private sector contracts for executives.

Our clergy contracts are shrouded in secrecy, thanks to non-disclosure agreements and a loophole of the Internal Revenue Service that does not require religious nonprofits to report the salaries of their top earners. Long-time rabbis can command remarkable sums from communities that fear losing their spiritual leaders, while relying upon accurate salary data from their clergy association to negotiate up their earnings and benefits. This holds particular benefits for those who fit the archetype of clergy and seem “authentic” in their leadership—namely straight, cis-gender, white men like us.

This process of negotiating clergy contracts is unhealthy for clergy-congregant relationships, weakens the finances of our spiritual institutions, and passes the costs along to our community members through fundraising and dues. It also leads to clergy burnout, as rabbis take on too many roles in order to prove their value. The system is driven more by the needs of institutions and professionals than by the needs of those whom they serve.

Correspondingly, clergy association gatherings too often devolve into conversations about compensation and benefits, rather than innovative ideas about how we can better serve our communities. We are left with a culture of materialism, rather than of sacred purpose.

Religion in America can do better. By noting the dangers and inefficiencies of market structures in the context of American religion, we may better serve the needs of our communities.

As America now faces a growing clergy scarcity, we have an opportunity to reconfigure the structures and systems of faith. Instead of focusing on our own power, we should focus on empowerment—notably of lay people. In flooding the religious marketplace of ideas with low-cost, highly trained, spiritually inspired lay leaders, we can break the monopsony power of clergy and unleash a spiritual revival that is already taking hold around the edges of major religious institutions.

Over the past few years, our synagogues have embarked upon small pilot institutes designed to train lay people in community building, ritual leadership, and program innovation. We anticipate maturing these initiatives into “Lay Clergy Institutes,” fostering communities of leaders and creators, rather than communities of followers and consumers.

These lay people are filled with new ideas about how we might gather, pray, mourn, and celebrate key moments in life. They are excited not simply to be “Jews in the pews,” but veritable leaders, with a unique status and the ability to both give and receive spiritual guidance. With thoughtful supervision and ample empowerment, we foresee them taking on roles that we once reserved for ourselves.

Our declining seminaries would also do well to focus less on expensive education for clergy and, instead, focus more on expansive education for all.

One wonders if our religious movements could move beyond support for the status quo, and if our communities could look beyond our buildings and those with the traditional trappings of clergy. If we do so, the story of American Judaism, and perhaps American religion more broadly, fills with optimism.

Rabbi Benjamin Spratt is senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Rabbi Joshua Stanton is rabbi of East End Temple and senior fellow of CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Together they are co-authors of Awakenings: Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging.