Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Relationship with my Employer


When I planned this sermon series on life’s most pivotal relationships, several months ago, a psychiatrist friend of mind, Dr. Alan Seltzer, said that I should be sure to include today’s topic in my list of essential relationships. How well we get along with our boss is very important to those of us who aren’t independently wealthy so, obviously, I’ve taken Dr. Seltzer’s advice.

I think of some famous boss/employee relationships: Lucy Carmichael and Theodore J. Mooney, Andrea Sachs and Miranda Priestly, Jane Hathaway and Milburn Drysdale, Barney Fife and Andy Taylor, Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover, J. Pierpont Finch and Jasper Biggley, Florence Jean “Flo” Castleberry and Mel Sharples, George Jetson and Cosmo Spaceley, Homer Simpson and Montgomery Burns, James Bond and M, Sam Hanna and Hetty Lange, David Wolfson and Margaret Thathcher, John Lawrence and Nancy Pelosi.

Jarrett asked me the other day who my most memorable bosses have been. I said, “Well, in one way, I haven’t had many bosses. In another way, I’ve had more bosses than I can count since, in a respect, the pastor works for every member of the congregation.” This is a frightening thought and a matter that isn’t made absolutely clear to seminarians who, therefore, head out to do ministry under the illusion that when they are called as pastor to some church, they are the head dog in that congregation. Now, it is true in many African American churches that an established pastor is much more a kind of CEO than in the predominantly Caucasian churches, which is one of several reasons we routinely hear about the tenures of numerous Black pastors in the 20-40 year range. In a predominantly white church, the pastor’s role ranges from slave to temporary consultant, and her or his tenure is dramatically less; this is not true in a predominantly white mega church, where the pastor will often have the same kind of power a typical established African American pastor has.

I guess when I was coming through seminary, the favored model talked about in terms a pastor’s relationship to a church was “player/coach.” The truth is, there are all sorts of models, and the pastor is increasingly powerless, functionally speaking.

I don’t think the pastor should be a dictator, but neither do I think the pastor should be put in a position of being expected to satisfy the whims and demands of every church member. Trying to do that will rob a pastor of her or his mental health more quickly than anything I know. When I first came here, there was a member who made a complaint to the Pastor Relations Committee, back before it became the Pastor Staff Relations Committee, about how inappropriately I’d placed my desk in my office. And we all know that there are churches that tell the pastor how long her or his hair must be cut. I do not know of such churches personally, but I have heard about them.

The latest statistics I’ve seen show that one in every four pastors you meet are depressed. Depression doesn’t always lead to suicide, but most suicide begins with depression. The present economic situation has increased suicide among clergy, and among members of other professions as well.

Outside the church, I’ve done alright with bosses. The worst boss I ever had was my first boss. He hired me to bag groceries at the Piggly Wiggly Grocery State in Halls Crossroads when I was 16 years old. We didn’t have a huge staff; still, he didn’t know one bag boy from the next. I suppose there were ten or twelve of us. That takes us to a different time, doesn’t it? Back to when grocery stores employed mostly young men to bag your groceries for you and carry them out to your car for you.

My glasses broke one day at school, and I needed to get them fixed. Part of the problem was that the plastic piece that covered the eye screw was gone, and the screw stuck directly into my nose. They didn’t make featherweight glasses back then so this hurt enough to notice. I called my boss, who owned the store, and told him that I’d probably be late for work that day because I had to get my glasses fixed before I could work several hours; plus I needed the glasses fixed before I tried siting in school all day the next day. He said that, no, I couldn’t get my glasses fixed on work time, that he was tired of me taking time off all the time, and being late all the time. I told him I’d never been late for work, and I’d never asked for any time off for anything. He said I was lying, and I said, “Well, check my record. Check my pay record. We get paid based on when we clock in and clock out. You can see when I was there and when I arrived.”

He said, “You’re not questioning my authority. You’re fired.”

I said, “Well, if telling the truth and needing to get my glasses fixed are grounds for termination, I might as well be fired; otherwise, I’d quit.”

When I got home that afternoon, my Dad who had just gotten home from work asked me why I was early, and I told him the story. He had a fit. He said the job was more important than anything else so he called my boss, B. H. Hodge, and apologized for the rude behavior of his son, and asked for my job back. I got the job back, but to this day I don’t think I was in the wrong in any way.

I worked for three pastors. Two were crummy bosses; one was pretty good. The good one, the late E. V. Cullum, brother to actor John Cullum, was a wonderful person, and his care for his staff made him a good boss to us.

My best boss was Louise Snodderly, Carson-Newman College’s Periodicals Librarian. I worked for her for two years, and she was the kindest and most fair person I ever worked for. If I messed up, she never made it a personal issue, and she’d already thought through the solution before confronting me about my error. She also was always ready with a compliment for jobs done well. She encouraged and rewarded initiative.

Overall, I’d say I’ve had it better than most in the boss department, and that has made me always want to be a good boss when I’ve been in that role. I’ve been extremely fortunate with the people I’ve been called on to supervise--mostly amazingly gifted professionals and just plain good people.

I think it matters a great deal that bosses treat their employees well, and our state’s policy of termination without cause works against the respectful treatment of employees. My younger son’s boss recently let him go because Carson’s doctor finished an appointment 15 minutes later than planned. Obviously, you won’t be seeing me any more at that restaurant.


Dr. Jan Stringer is a specialist in the psychology of the American workplace. She’s compiled a list of ten top complaints the typical American worker has about her or his job.

1. Lack of Communication

We’re not talking about information that some workers want just so they can be “in the know.” We’re talking about essential information workers need in order to do their jobs, meet company expectations, and plan for the future.

Since I’m a mere adjunct, most folks would consider this a small matter, and maybe it is; but I felt seriously left out of the loop when I learned from a student this week that this is the last year Palmer Seminary will occupy the building it has long occupied in the Overbrook section of Philly. The move itself may make no difference as to the time I invest in travel, but it mattered to me that a student had been informed of the impending move; and I hadn’t. I am now the proud owner of a secondhand email, from the President of Eastern University directed to faculty, students, and staff, but evidently not to Dr. David Farmer. That may or may not mean anything, but it might mean that I’m not seen in the picture after this academic year. Wouldn’t that be one of the top ten ways of letting me know my services were no longer needed? I don’t think that’s the case because of the work that is asked of me, but I’d like to have known when everyone else did.

2. Unfair Pay

Dr. Sterling points out that it’s hard to find a worker who believes that she or he is being paid too much. Even those CEOs who make hundreds of thousands of dollars in year-end bonuses while many of their employees struggle to feed their families, and even in this economy, believe they deserve all that money--not just that it’s a nice perk, but that they actually deserve it.

The typical worker, however, feels that she or he is paid too little, no where near an amount that reflects her or his true value to the company. A company filled with dissatisfied workers who think they’re underpaid will not be a productive company--or at least as productive as it could be.

3. No Job Security

Our current economy has taught many American workers the truth that the job security of an age gone by is now rare. Outsourcing has hit us and hurt us big time. When I call for some kind of technical support and end up with a technician for whom English is not the first language or whose BRAND of English is not one that connects to my ear, I try to be patient and polite as I hope the person will be with me, but there are times when I flat can’t understand what the person is trying to say. I can’t say I never get angry, but instead of taking out my anger on a fellow human being who is just trying to do her or his job, I now say to the person, “Obviously, I can’t understand what you are saying to me. I do not think you’re incompetent, but asking you to repeat yourself over and over again isn’t getting either of us anywhere so I’m going to end the call now and try to call back at another time.” I detest having to do this because I know I have another long wait, and the next tech may not speak English my ear can take in any better than the person I just stopped talking to, but I try. Sometimes it works. The point, in any case, is that that person didn’t invent outsourcing and didn’t will to bring down the American worker.

With outsourcing, we have downsizing; we have globalization, and we have the bottom line. I think it is correct to say that most companies that have done well in this economy have done so by requiring more of fewer workers.

Mrs. Mitch McConnell, former Secretary of Labor for President Bush, Elaine Chao, said in a speech she gave before leaving office in the present climate, the average American will have ten jobs between the ages of 18 and 38. Can you imagine? She also pointed out that the American work force changes about one-third every year. Many of our workers change jobs in the hopes of fleeing downsizing.

4. Under Appreciation

I don’t care how sturdy someone’s ego is; she or he wants to be appreciated for a job well done. I learned this from my former associate minister in New Orleans, Ann Ernest Blackmon. She came to work with me at St. Charles Church from Baptist Hospital where she was Director of Volunteer Services; she built that program from scratch, and she built it from zero volunteers to 400 volunteers who did work that saved the hospital millions and millions of dollars. I love Ann, and she taught me that with the right kind of appreciation you can get people to agree to volunteer to help you with just about anything.

As I say that I’m reminded that most of us are benefitted all the time by people who do thankless tasks day in and day out. A simple thank you really does go a long, long way. I know a waitress who worked the breakfast shift at a diner for years. She got up between 3:30 and 4:00 five or six mornings a week, and got to work by 5:00 a.m., started brewing coffee and letting in other employees who weren’t trusted with their own key. Because of this person, the place was ready to serve customers by 6:00. Her hourly pay was exactly what the other servers made as base pay before tips, and not one time in all the years she did this did the owner ever say, “Thank you.”

By the way, thanks to each of you, who volunteers here, often behind the scenes, to make what IS seen more lovely or functional or useful. I really appreciate you.

5. Favoritism

Dr. Sterling says that a lot of American workers believe they work in situations where some of their coworkers get special treatment. Maybe someone sleeps with the boss to get extra favors, and maybe the disgruntled person would sleep with the boss too--if only the boss were interested.

I really enjoyed the musical, “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.” I saw the revival with Matthew Broderick and Megan Mullaly, not the original 1967 production with Robert Morse, Michelle Lee, and Rudee Valley. One of the characters, Bud Frump, ONLY has a job with the company because he’s the nephew of the boss’s wife.

6. Overworked

Plenty of American workers feel overworked. Some are; many are. Some aren’t. Several other countries, say in Europe for example, are much more attentive to R&R time for their employees--on a daily and an annual basis.

7. Micromanagement

Some managers try to show their expertise and their value to the company by continually breathing down the necks of those whom they’re supposed to be supervising. This poor management practice often results in counterproductively.

8. Incompetent Managers

Too many of our workers have to work under the supervision of someone who is incompetent, someone who couldn’t do the job they are supervising, but this doesn’t keep them from pretending. The usual result is more work for the person who knows how to do the job and is doing so.

9. No Opportunity for Advancement

In a workplace as changing as ours is, people want a sense of opportunity to move up the ladder even if they never take advantage of it. No one wants to feel stuck.

10. Overbearing Boss

This is a tough one in any economy, but especially when workers are afraid for their jobs, they will put up with almost anything. The fact that there are bosses who will personally insult workers and cuss at them when unhappy astonishes me. If this boss holds a position way up there in the company, there may be no real solution but to grin and bear it or leave. In a well-run company there are ways of dealing with an overbearing higher up, but not too often, sad to say.


In Jesus’ era, we know very little about employer/employee relationships. There are several reasons for this. One is that many of those who did have a job--and the rate of joblessness among the Jews who were ruled over by the Romans was astronomical--were independent contractors: carpenters, fishers, potters, weavers, farmers, and, of course, prostitutes. We read nothing at all about madames or pimps as far as I know so, yes, prostitutes also fit in the category of independent contractor except, perhaps, for those prostitutes who worked in the temples of certain goddesses and gods where their job description read “Temple Priestess.” Don’t turn up your nose at prostitutes; though not the profession we wish for our children, Jesus had a few in his family tree. Where I grew up, people used to like to say, “If it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” If that applies to having a few prostitutes in your genealogy and dying on a cross, then, here’s to you!

Jesus was an independent contractor at both of his jobs. He was a carpenter--probably a master carpenter--as were his brothers. In addition, he was an itinerant preacher. He didn’t make much money at that and didn’t charge for his services, but people did make donations now and then--some of them, like Mary Magdalene, substantial.

Many shepherds were employees. To have enough sheep for one family to make a living, they almost surely needed shepherds to help watch the sheep around the clock so the sheep wouldn’t be stolen or eaten up by the wolves. Tax collectors, too, were employees and were hated because their employer was the Roman Empire. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and so was Matthew, one of the twelve men closest to Jesus.

Most of Jesus’ followers were poor people who maybe eked out a living by farming or fishing or baking or begging. By the time of Paul’s ministry, say twenty something years after Jesus’ execution, and in a very different part of the world--namely, the Greek world--few followers of the teachings of Jesus were wealthy, but neither were so many of them poverty stricken. The followers of Jesus during the time of Paul were more economically diverse, and many more of them knew what it was like to be a boss or to have a boss.

There would have been even more people in this category except for slavery. Many people decided that a guarantee of food and shelter was better than an economic gamble so indentured servanthood was widely practiced, and the institution of slavery flourished. It was much cheaper to own a slave for an established number of years than to have to worry about salaries and employee benefit programs.

A large number of Christians were slave owners, and when slavery was attacked as unethical in both England and the United States don’t think the religious communities led by Christian churches failed to refer back to Paul’s times in defense of slavery. There were so many slaves, in fact, that when Paul made a list of responsibilities for family members in a typical home, he usually included a section for slaves. These codes may not have been original with Paul, but he may have adapted those that were widely known and quoted and taught to children as part of a proper rearing.

Husbands, this is how you treat your wife or wives. Wives, this is how you treat you husband. Parents, this is how you treat your children. Children, this is how you treat your parents. And, finally, masters, this is how you treat your slaves, and slaves this is how you treat your masters. The German scholars called these teaching tools Haustafeln, household codes, and they appear in several places in the writings of Paul.

There’s not much to worry about in terms of slaves’ rights, but Paul did insist on fair treatment of slaves and the encouragement of their spiritual lives.

The one employer about whom Jesus spoke at length was probably a fictional character who appears in one of his parables. At a time of harvest, probably, he needed lots of extra hands so several times during one day he went to the market place where people available for day labor waited to be hired if any hiring was being done, and he hired several work crews throughout the day. At the end of the day, he paid all the workers the same wage--those who’d worked ten hours and those who’s worked two hours, same pay. Those who’d worked more hours complained, and this employer said to them, “Look, I paid you the hourly wage we agreed to this morning. You have no complaint with me. Whatever I pay those who started later is between them and me.” This man in the parable represented God, and the message of the parable was that those who start their journey of faith seeking earlier in life than some others who, for all sorts of reasons, don’t get started until late in life get no special reward as compared to the late comers. Those who understand the love of God understand this; those who try to make God a humanoid don’t get it at all and, in fact, resent it. The Glen Becks of the world don’t get a God whose love is the same for the long time church- or mosque-goer and for the old addict at one of Gordon’s halfway houses who in a moment of clarity finally feels the love of God pulsing through his battered veins. The America Beck and the Tea Party want to reclaim for God has always been more interested in the country than in God.

In another parable Jesus told, he gave some insight into how a master trusted his servants, even though not every challenge given is fulfilled the way the master wants. Still he gives his servants the opportunity to use their brains and a measure of independence he affords them. This tells us that slaves and servants weren’t necessarily ignorant and uneducated; many of them, as is true of some of those standing at intersections these days holding “HOMELESSS” signs, were well educated and experienced.

In the parable from Luke that Brent has read for us today, a parable very similar to another parable nicknamed the Parable of the Talents, the master entrusts some of his investment money from TIAA-Creff to three servants. His only instruction to them is to make sure the money makes money; then, off he goes on a long trip.

Two of the three servants, dared to withdraw some money and invest it in slightly riskier funds. It worked for them. Both made some money for their master. The third guy didn’t withdraw a coin, and he explained to the master when he returned that he was afraid of losing the master’s money. Seems perfectly honest and respectful to me, but the master was every kind of mad about it; and gave the guy hell. Geez.

In this parable, the master represents God, and we are the servants. Money isn’t the issue, but rather talent. Employers are supposed to take some cues from the master in the story, and employees some cues from the first two servants. Even with many rote jobs there are ways workers can take initiative and maybe suggest positive change.

Here is the spiritual message of the story. God endows us with gifts and sometimes leaves us to our own devices to use those talents to accomplish some good in this world. There’s no penalty for trying to do good and falling short, but there’s a penalty--and it’s not a literal hell by any means--for doing nothing. The penalty for accepting what is unacceptable in this world is more of what we already have that is bad, destructive, and evil.

The truth is, there’s no way to fail at making the world a better place if we just try, sincerely. These people who are sitting around waiting for some blueprint on what to do to make the world better are represented by the third servant who said, “I might botch things up if I try to change something so my motto is: JUST DON’T MAKE MATTERS WORSE.”

And the master says, “You moron! That’s why there’s hell here on earth!”

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