Working for Free... in the Church

Tim Kreider recently made a splash on the New York Times with his opinion piece, "Slaves of the Internet, Unite!" Here is the gist:

Not long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.

Kreider goes on to explain that people soliciting free labor promise the writer or artist that she will receive "exposure" instead, thus increasing her audience. Kreider's view, however, is that venues offering decent exposure are often those that can afford to pay. In his article, he offers a template for graciously declining such offers to work for free, and also admits that there are times when pro bono work is perfectly OK: to help out a friend, or to support a cause one believes in. But freebie work can get out of hand, and after all, writers are professionals and deserve to be treated as such.

There's a lot of stuff wrapped up in this article:

  • an undervaluing of creative work and/or the view that "anyone" can write, design a website, etc.
  • the sheer proliferation of writing and artistic endeavors, especially on the Internet, much of which is given away for free... so why should we pay YOU for your work? What makes you so special?
  • the sense that artists and writers are so passionate about their work---that they would "do it for free"---that they can be asked to give away their stuff.

Being in the church adds another layer to all of this. As a pastor, I know that most churches aren't exactly flush with cash. And that "help out a friend/believe in the cause" stuff that Kreider talks about? In the church, that's baked right in. We aren't just friends, we're brothers and sisters in Christ! Yikes! And belief in the mission? One would certainly hope so.

Besides, we ask all kinds of people to offer their gifts to the church for free: gardeners tend the lawn, amateur electricians do minor repairs. But we have to be careful we're not taking advantage of people who depend on such skills for their bread and butter.

I really like NEXT Church's policy on this. We are getting ready for our fourth national gathering in Minneapolis next spring (which by the way is going to be OUTSTANDING). We are a lean, nascent, grassroots organization, with one paid staff person who works out of her house. When it comes to speakers for our big events, we invite people to come and share their expertise as a way of fulfilling their ordination vow to "be a friend to our colleagues in ministry." However, there are two important caveats:

1. We cover their travel and lodging expenses, so at least the experience doesn't cost them anything.

2. If a person is a so-called tentmaker, i.e. if speaking at conferences is a part of how she makes a living, we will offer an honorarium.

I think this policy has integrity. I also know that the Wild Goose Festival got off the ground by asking its speakers and leaders to give their time the first year (not sure about the second year). And they had BIG names who took them up on it.

Gender stuff is wrapped up in this too. For all its limitations, Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In continues to have an impact on a lot of women I talk to. Friends who write and speak are constantly struggling with negotiating speaking fees that honor their experience and expertise yet are within the reach of a congregation or judicatory's budget. I know women who presented at a conference only to discover that they received a lower honorarium than the men at the same event. I know women who give their time and gifts for free because their family's economic situation is such that they don't need the money. I know others who work for free, hoping the volunteer work will transition to something for pay.

I don't have a pithy conclusion to this. Just wondering what other people's experiences are. And I'm glad Tim Kreider raised the issue. (By the way, I've used his article The Busy Trap in numerous retreats and workshops, so I owe him a debt. Hmm... maybe I owe him some cash too.)