Tenure and Preachers’ Unions with Chris Christie

From tough-talking Governor Christie’s RNC speech tonight:

“We believe that the majority of teachers in America know our system must be reformed to put students first so that America can compete.

Teachers don’t teach to become rich or famous. They teach because they love children.

We believe that we should honor and reward the good ones while doing what’s best for our nation’s future – demanding accountability, higher standards and the best teacher in every classroom.”

I’ve been thinking a great deal about tenure these days.  Christie, of course, has been in the news for pushing education reform in his own state.  Not one to shy away from controversial issues – love him or hate him, he isn’t a political coward – Christy knows that “sacred cows make gourmet burgers.”

I also watched the controversial documentary Waiting for “Superman” recently, which advocates for educational reform through more choice in education (especially in the form of charter schools) and against the purported stranglehold that teachers’ unions have on education.  Among the more alarming statistics given in the film is the shockingly low number of teachers relieved of their jobs in any given year as compared to, say, doctors or lawyers.  To be fair, many pro-union voices have come out against the film and questioned its contents.  Still, the anecdotes  we hear on a regular basis are enough to inspire big questions about tenure.  Whose interests does tenure serve, that of the students/community/nation or the teachers and the union leaders themselves?Moreover, the differences between tenure at the university level and tenure at the secondary and under level are important.  University tenure could take a decade or more, and some professors will never get it anywhere.  Tenure in an elementary setting, for instance, can come after only three or four years of teaching and lasts for life.

In the United Methodist Church, ordination and “full connection” as a clergy member of one’s Annual Conference functions as tenure does in a non-university setting.  Ending the so-called “guaranteed appointment” (and yes, there is a mountain of meaning in the phrase “so-called”) was a major plank of the reformers at General Conference this year (also, curiously, in Tampa).

You know the arguments.  You’ve heard them already.  Those who emphasize fairness and security for teachers argue that the GA (guarantee of appointment) is important to maintain freedom in the pulpit, to prevent discrimination based on age/race/gender/theological school/favorite basketball team, and to discourage a vindictive executive from abusing their power by not appointing, under-appointing, or poorly appointing a pastor who is otherwise in good standing.  The focus for all of these arguments is on the good of the employee.

Those who emphasize excellence in ministry and effectiveness (and yes, these are notoriously hard to quantify or judge) point out that a de-facto tenure system does not encourage either of these.  To use the language of economics, tenure does not incentivize hard work or quality work and can, instead, incentivize laziness and substandard work.  Those who question the good of the GA are generally more concerned with the well-being of the church and the mission of Christ in the world.

Of course, it would be a cheap shot to call defenders of tenure (and/or the GA) selfish and narrow-minded.  I’m not really even attempting here to make a comment about education because that is far out of my wheelhouse, but I do think the argument about tenure bears heavily on our discussion of the guarantee of appointment.

Christianity Today recently asked a number of random churchy people, “Should Pastors Be Guaranteed Job Security?” and the results were interesting.  While some of the respondents didn’t seem to grasp what the question was getting at, Bishop Willimon can always be counted on to provide a worthwhile soundbite:

“Pastors have to be willing to lead a precarious existence. When we no longer are of service to a particular congregation and its mission, or to a living, demanding God, then we must seek ministry elsewhere. Tenure and contracts are out of place.”

Here is an excellent interview in which Willimon elaborates on his views of the GA.

To close with the good Governor, what are we in this for?  Is it about making a living, putting food on the table, or is it about Christ and his Church?  Will we expect the best from our clergy, rewarding excellence when we find it but demanding accountability when it is lacking, or must we perennially protect everyone’s job barring egregious misconduct such as a sexual or fiscal scandal?

All of this is very much on my mind as I look forward to my annual review this week.  If the work we do is important – be it in education, or law enforcement, or medicine, or in the church – then surely it is worthy of our best efforts.  In holding us to that standard, God and God’s people do us a great favor.

2 thoughts on “Tenure and Preachers’ Unions with Chris Christie”

  1. Tenure is an interesting thing. It is meant to offer the protection that is needed so that academic freedom is truly free but it has often become the place where some (and to me it is a very small number) can hide. I also know that there are many who wait until they obtained tenure before doing that which they liked or was important simply because to do so earlier risked not gaining tenure. The message has always been the same – play the game and when you reach the goal, then you can do your own thing.

    How does this apply to education reform? Well, the argument against tenure never speaks to actually reforming education. Teachers may do the job because they love the work but low paying salaries have this way destroying that love. I cannot speak to the areas outside math and science but compare what someone with a chemistry degree makes in the private sector with what they would make in education and tell me that they will take the education job first. Of course, with public sector jobs paying perhaps 50% more, they will seek those jobs first and perhaps go into education later.

    Eliminating tenure will not reform education; perhaps it will even make the present system worse. As long as teachers in public schools are paid on a salary schedule, which is independent of the nature of the degree, then those with a Masters will make more than those with Bachelors degrees and those who have hours beyond the Masters will make more than those who only have a Masters degree. And those who have taught will make more who are just starting out. If you eliminate tenure, then you have the ability to remove all teachers at the upper levels of the salary schedule and replacing them with “rookies” who make the minimum salary. With teacher evaluation “rigged” in favor of test scores that can be manipulated and very little about the ability of the teacher to do other than what the public wants, those who seek “reform” will get schools where teachers are paid far below what their education cost and students will be nothing more than automatons mass produced in our factory schools. The bright side is that you cannot outsource education; kids have to go to school where they live. But we can always use the Internet to bring the teachers in.

    If we want to reform education, let’s start at the top – are administrators making 6 figure salaries worth that? If they are, what are the classroom teachers worth? Are we encouraging the best and the brightest to become teachers or are we settling for second best? Are we providing the best educational support for the children or are we doing the same old thing year after year (it has been noted time and time again that the classroom has not fundamentally changed in over 150 years).

    The analogy to the guaranteed appointment process in the United Methodist Church is the same. Are those who we ask to be our elders the best and the brightest? What are we doing to insure that there is a future in the pulpit as well as in the pews?

    1. Dr. Tony, thank you for your thoughtful reply. As the saying goes, “Your system is set up to give you the results you are getting right now.” One issue with teachers’ salary seems to be the assumption that longer serving teachers must be better and therefore deserve better pay. Surely the best teachers deserve to be the best paid (and vice-versa). Administrators must also be held accountable (the analogy with the UMC holds here, and given the case of Bishop Bledsoe it seems to be actually happening in some places). At least according to the documentary I cited above, attempts to reform education by increasing pay on a merit basis have been shot down by teachers unions, at least in the Washington, D.C. system (and likely others).

      I think the issue is not just are we recruiting our elders and teachers who are the best and brightest, but also do we hold them to that standard throughout their careers and incentivize them to perform at that level? This, it seems to me, a tenure system cannot do because there is little reward for doing well or punishment for doing poorly. Again, education is not remotely my field of expertise, so I will gladly defer those questions to brighter minds; I am merely interested in the analogy with our GA. Thanks for stopping by.

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