Anglican Watch

AW study reveals time theft endemic among Episcopal clergy

Time theft prevalent among Episcopal clergy

Over the past several months, Anglican Watch has investigated time theft among Episcopal clergy. And while it’s fair to say we are skeptics in the best of times, the results shocked even us.

What is time theft? It is getting paid for hours not worked. 

Before we go further, a few disclaimers are in order:

  • In most jurisdictions, salaried employees like priests are responsible for outcomes, not hours.
  • Most letters of agreement reflect at least eight hours a day in the office or engaged in church duties, from writing sermons, visiting shut-ins, and preparing for events, to community service.
  • Our investigation has multiple known flaws in methodology. These include:
    • Excluding de-minimus issues, like rolling in 30 minutes from lunch. 
    • Excluding arguable issues, like flying to California to do a wedding, then spending a week hanging out. With little ability to know details, we opted to take a pass on issues of this sort.
    • Relying on wardens or church staff for data and correlating it with known regional or diocesan meetings.
    • An unwillingness to publish names due to potential claims of defamation or invasion of privacy.
    • Recognizing we all need downtime. So 30 minutes watching the priest’s son playing football on local cable channel re-runs got a pass. A whole afternoon spent watching lacrosse games was treated as time theft. And with no clear guidelines for what behavior counts as time theft, we tried to accommodate by being as flexible and generous as possible.
    • We also tried to balance our calculations during hectic weeks. For example, if a priest did four funerals on a Saturday and worked the rest of the week, we ignored it if the priest took extra time off the following week.

Our sample was 96 parishes scattered throughout the country, mainly in urban and suburban areas. Some were thriving, many were struggling, and about ten were dying. The majority were broad churches, several high churches, and about 20 evangelical churches. One was Pentecostal (yes, they are still around!).

At the highest level, we found that time theft occurred in all cases, no matter how generous or flexible we were in our assessments. At the low end, time theft amounted to 4.5 hours a week. In a handful of cases, total time theft routinely ran into 30 hours a week or more. The average time theft was 12.4 hours a week.

The financial implications varied precipitously. Many of the worst offenders were also the highest earners, thus skewing averages. Therefore, a handful of well-paid, senior priests cumulatively account for $280,000 in annual theft. Pull them out of the mix, and the average theft is just shy of $15,000 a year.

We also documented several other factors. One is that women and LGBTQ clergy overall are much more diligent. Meanwhile, being male correlates strongly with time theft, with the worst offenders having more than 40 years of service. Recently ordained priests are relatively diligent.

Often, vestries are indifferent to these issues, while church staff typically cover by saying, “He’s out of town,” even though they are fully aware it’s not for church purposes.

There’s also a certain amount of self-deception. Priests consistently reported working more hours than they were observed working, even when multiple sources were consulted. And several displayed the clinically narcissistic behavior of pronouncing themselves “great priests,” or “awesome supervisors,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Not surprisingly, the worst offenders were prone to ignoring parts of their jobs they didn’t like, typically financial and facilities-related issues. And when one considers that several of these priests are gone 3-4 months a year, or routinely play the out on Sunday evening, back Saturday evening routine, these individuals are compensated at a staggering hourly rate.

When approached about these issues, bishops consistently referred the complainant to the vestry or wardens. In every instance, parish officials either ignored the matter, accused the complainant of having a vendetta against the priest, or made excuses.

Then there’e the ever-popular self-care argument. Several justified their “time away” as needed self-care. But four-hour stints of shopping during work days, time for the gym or running, hours at the salon, and sabbaticals on top of that are not self-care; they’re self-indulgence at a level that would be unacceptable in any other workplace.

A surprisingly high percentage of offenders used their time away from the church office for extramarital affairs. In most cases, they made very little effort to conceal the affair, returning to the office disheveled, covered in lipstick, or otherwise looking worse for wear. And church staffs and vestries were often well aware of the priests’ conduct.

A variation on the theme: Sitting in the office with the door closed and the curtains drawn, drinking away. Yes, those persons may technically be in the office, but going on a daily bender does not count as work, and leaves the priest unable to respond effectively to pastoral emergencies.

Another disturbing trend that emerged among high-time-theft priests was that in all but one case, parishioners suggested they believed the priest was improperly using church funds. These claims ranged from personal use of church credit cards, to abuse of discretionary accounts, to outright embezzlement. These allegations typically emerged reluctantly, but their prevalence was troubling. And in every case we observed the fraud triad: motive, opportunity, and rationalization. We also observed a number of questionable practices, including church mail going to post office boxes to which only the priest had keys, or personal bills coming to the church office–suggesting the priest is trying to hide data from family members.

We also noted multiple incidents of abuse of power. For example, in one case, the priest unilaterally told the church school to change their policies so his son could attend the school, even though he was otherwise unqualified. 

Overall, we noted that bad priests tend to be really bad, with multiple reported misconduct incidents. And in every instance, they surround themselves with empaths, enablers, and sycophants. As a result, episcopal referrals to local parish authorities are meaningless and unlikely to result in any resolution. We believe that bishops understand this and use this as a tactic to avoid dealing with unpleasant issues.

Bottom line, time theft is shockingly prevalent among Episcopal clergy. And its prevalence correlates with a high level of other questionable conduct.

Bishops and standing committees must take this seriously. These issues are cancer in the body of Christ.

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