Equal compensation and opportunity in employment for minorities and women should be as American as baseball and apple pie. Would that they were as Episcopal as the 8 o’clock Rite One, stoles at justice marches, and swag in the Exhibit Hall!

Biased hiring processes are not simply a justice issue for the those who suffer the consequences of bias. They are detrimental to the mission of the Church, and they rob the Body of the gifts poured upon God’s people by the Holy Spirit. How good that we are talking about concrete ways to address this issue!

The Constitution and Canons Committee will take up resolution D026, seeking to help the Episcopal Church to eliminate bias in hiring and deployment through proposed changes to canons I.17 and III.1.2. The resolution expands the protected classes, and it imbeds prohibitions to discrimination in employment in canons related to the ministry of the baptized and access to the ordination process. An addition to Canon I.17 limits questions known to support biased hiring practices and forbids any request for a photo of the candidate prior to employment being offered and accepted. The provided explanation imagines disparities will be corrected through the Church’s “[willing submission] to restrictions that protect applicants in secular employment.” Unfortunately, these canonical proposals are unlikely to provoke healthy reform.

The primary problem here is a lack of enforceability. The inclusion in the ministry (III.1.2) and discernment (I.17) canons mingles a matter over which no single authority has control with matters for which the accountability at each level is clear. For instance, the Bishop Diocesan ensures that the discernment process is opened to all; the rector controls access to licensing in the local congregation. Such centralized authority, operating under vows and disciplinary canons, does not exist for employment across the Episcopal Church. In fact, many of those responsible for this work are volunteer lay people chosen by other volunteer lay people.

When there is no centralized authority and clear method of holding the institution or those with the power to violate a law accountable, training is a better option than law. Otherwise, those who feel that they have been the victims of a violation experience the law itself as a promise of protection and rightly seek a remedy when wronged. In the Church, those who experience biased employment practices will only have two choices: Title IV complaints or the civil courts.

Inviting suits and Title IV complaints is unlikely to serve the victims of unjust bias in the Church, and it will not serve the Church’s mission. The Supreme Court itself has given nearly complete latitude in determining employment qualifications to religious organizations, and even costly litigation is unlikely to deliver satisfaction. Title IV complaints must be leveled against a clergy person who is actually accountable for the behavior at the center of the complaint. There will be instances in which a clergy person acts with bias, but, in many instances, the bias will have been perpetrated by a committee or a lay person. Given the difficulty of proving bias in an individual case (most successful bias complaints rely on company-wide statistics in companies for which there is centralized human resource accountability), this process will be painful, costly, and yield no clear answers.

This well-intentioned resolution attacks biases implicit, if not explicit, in many job searches in the church, both for lay and ordained positions. Vestries, search committees, and rectors routinely define ideal characteristics using factors such as gender, age, and the imagined added benefit of a priest or lay minister coming with a wife and young children, and focus their greatest enthusiasm on “golden” candidates. Though seemingly justified by the desire to call and hire those who will be a “good fit” for the position or ministry, such habits result in hiring that summarily eliminates applicants, minimizes proven performance and ministerial experience, ignores potential, and causes real and lasting harm to candidates who do not fit these characteristics. Commissions on Ministry regularly ask questions of women, such as the challenges of priestly ministry while a mother, that they do not ask of men with similarly aged children. Race and ethnicity are often utilized to direct and limit opportunities offered to clergy and lay leaders. These habits are misguided and a travesty enacted not by a pernicious institution committed to injustice, but often by under and ill-informed volunteers trying to extend calls that will help their congregations thrive or, at least, survive.

Those hoping for meaningful change might instead support requirements for anti-bias in employment training for those responsible for discernment, deployment, and hiring in the Episcopal Church. Standing Committees, Commissions on Ministry, transition ministers, clergy (including bishops), and search committees need sound formation in the harm bias in hiring causes to the mission of the Church and the lives of clergy and lay people. Materials for such training, used in secular organizations, are widely available, and could be identified by the staff of the Office of Transition Ministry. Furthermore, the report of the Task Force on the Episcopacy contains illuminating materials on diversity and bias. These materials, used more broadly than suggested, have the potential to stimulate lasting change by revealing and discouraging bias in call processes.

Finally, studies have found that much of the improvement in outcomes in sexual misconduct and abuse has come not from educating the potential perpetrators, but those in danger of being victimized. As the Church works to train those in power, we must also work to empower those against whom bias is often leveled and those who will stand in solidarity with them.

Posted by Eileen O'Brien