Vocation Compensation

In his fantastic Harper’s Magazine essay “Getting Schooled,” Garret Keizer talks about going back to teaching for a year after a fifteen-year hiatus. He writes:

One of the more remarkable and, I think, telling things about the teaching trade is the number of people who need to believe that you love it… “I know the pay is not the greatest, but you’re doing what you love”– a sentiment that puts me in mind of the trope of the happy slave….This is not to suggest that contemporary teachers are slaves or that I was ever treated like one, only that I am inclined to distrust people who expect me to work for love, or who need a sentimental mythology to gloss over the impossibilities of my job and the daily injustices it lays bare.

It’s true. People need to hear from me that I love teaching at a church. It’s odd. We don’t need hedge fund managers to assure us that they love their work. Maybe if I love my work, it’s more acceptable that I don’t get compensated generously. I love working with young people. I love learning. But I’m with Keizer here with the happy slave trope. As a healthy adult how can I say truly that I love working long hours for so little pay? It’s emotional, psychological work that I do with young people. It’s soul work. I would expect the same pattern to ring true in so many relational fields like social work, non-profit direct service or church work. A few posts ago I mentioned a priest who got his real estate license to supplement his income so that he could retire someday. We are supposed to disregard proper compensation as an option because we love our work and feel vocationally fulfilled.

I think this all matters, and to help me articulate why, I would point you in the direction of Dan Pallotta‘s TED talk, “The way we think about charity is dead wrong.”  He pushes me to look at my assumptions about nonprofit work in the modern world.

Here he addresses how the nonprofit sector has a different rule book than the rest of the world. One of the places of differentiation is compensation. We don’t want to pay people to help other people. Young people with school loans have to choose between well paying jobs and jobs that help other people. And long term, the different rule book for nonprofits mean nonprofits are not able to do the work they should be able to do. They aren’t able to take risks, take time to grow or spend money on advertisement.

Pallotta traces our thinking about nonprofit back to the Puritans. He says that they were a people both pious and savvy about making money. Charity became their penance for making money, five cents on the dollar, so they would not go to hell for being selfish. “How can you make money on charity if it is your penance for making money?” he asks. Today, this looks like wanting our charity dollars going straight to people in need instead of overhead, instead of salaries. This restricts growth in the nonprofit sector. Pallotta says that morality is not synonymous with frugality. What if we were to commit to improving the world by really investing in people doing good work with other people in the education, religious, health and human services sectors?

Published by Ellie Roscher

Ellie Roscher is the author of How Coffee Saved My Life, and Other Stories of Stumbling to Grace. She holds a master’s degree in Theology/Urban Ministry from Luther Seminary and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

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