Dismantle the American Clergy Cartel

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

This means that American doctors can legally limit their competition and thus artificially inflate their remuneration. Although one does not want to be 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 aren’t the only ones wielding power over their own talent pool. The clergy too.

However, unlike the medical accreditation system, clergy associations have failed to ensure ethical conduct and competence. Over the past 40 years, faith in American religion has plummeted, and with good reason. Successive sexual and financial scandals in synagogues, churches, mosques and temples are exacerbated by attempts at cover-up and silence by numerous clergy associations. By repeatedly (if not systematically) dealing with clergy misdeeds, they reveal that their primary function is to maintain and consolidate clergy power.

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

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

But this union of clergy, the network of American Reform synagogues, and the seminaries that produce clergy are intertwined in a system that limits the supply of clergy and inflates clergy compensation. It does this through the admissions process to a one-time, expensive Reformed seminary, as well as through clergy contracts that raise salaries in the same way as private-sector contracts for executives.

Our contracts with clergy are shrouded in secrecy, thanks to nondisclosure agreements and an Internal Revenue Service loophole that doesn’t require nonprofit religious organizations to report the salaries of their top earners. Long-serving rabbis can seek huge sums from communities fearful of losing their spiritual leaders, while relying on accurate salary data from their clergy association to negotiate their income and benefits. This has particular benefits for those who fit the clergy archetype and appear “authentic” in their leadership, namely white, straight, cisgender men like us.

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

As a result, clergy association gatherings too often turn into conversations about compensation and benefits, rather than innovative ideas about how we can better serve our communities. We end up with a culture of materialism, rather than sacred purpose.

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

As America now faces a growing shortage of clergy, we have an opportunity to reconfigure faith structures and systems. Instead of focusing on our own power, we should focus on empowerment, especially that of the laity. By flooding the religious marketplace with ideas with inexpensive, highly skilled, and spiritually inspired lay leaders, we can break the monopsony power of the clergy and spark a spiritual renewal that is already taking hold around major religious institutions.

In recent years, our synagogues have embarked on small pilot institutes designed to train lay people in community building, ritual leadership, and program innovation. We plan to mature 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 could come together, pray, mourn and celebrate the key moments in life. They are not just enthusiastic about being “Jews in the pews”, but true leaders, with a unique status and the ability to give and receive spiritual guidance. With thoughtful supervision and strong accountability, we anticipate that they will take 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 supporting the status quo, and if our communities could look beyond our buildings and those with the traditional trappings of clergy. If we do, the history of American Judaism, and perhaps American religion more broadly, will be filled with optimism.

Rabbi Benjamin Spratt is the chief rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Rabbi Joshua Stanton is the rabbi of the East End Temple and a senior member of CLAL, the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Together they are co-authors of Awakenings: transformations of identity, leadership and belonging.

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