A group of United Church ministers in Ontario has joined Canada's largest private-sector union.

Clergy have launched Unifaith, a community chapter of Unifor, which has more than 300,000 members.

'The institutional church was not able to do much for us.' - Rev. Jim Evans

"A large number of colleagues are aware of issues of workplace bullying, isolation and desolation for those serving in their vocation. This has been an ongoing concern for us for many years now," said Rev. Jim Evans, Unifaith's interim president. "We’ve looked at various ways to address what could happen in terms of advocacy and professional development for those who are indeed in desperate circumstances."

According to Evans, he and volunteers from the United Church have spent a decade educating colleagues in self-care and social unionism, communicating with church people across the country, and researching concerns regarding benefits, pensions, church closures and other issues.

"The institutional church was not able to do much for us," Evans said. "They could pray for us, but in terms of providing effective, approved accountability to uphold the values and policies of safety and job security and protecting [us] … from workplace violence and harassment, it was very limited."

Nora Sanders, the general secretary of the United Church of Canada, said church membership has declined by about 20 per cent since 2004 and that between 50 and 60 churches are closing every year. All of that is affecting job security for the clergy.

"So I suspect the issues this group has raised are part of a bigger picture that's under review in our church right now, of our structures and how we do our work to make sure our resources are focused on the work of faith," she said.

Community chapter, not a local

The new national faith workers association was formed under the Unifor banner but is not a local. Instead, it's a community chapter.

On its website, Unifor describes community chapters as "a new form of union membership that aims to reach out to groups of workers that are generally excluded from union membership."

Potential groups may include those in workplaces where organizing campaigns have not yet succeeded; workers in precarious jobs; unemployed workers; students and any other group of workers hoping to improve their economic and social conditions.

Community chapter members still pay dues: a minimum of $5 a month for "non-waged members" and a $10 minimum for waged members.

The Unifaith movement is a national initiative with members across Canada.

"To be in solidarity with our clergy brothers and sisters is an opportunity for us to do something that is going to change those realities," Evans said of the problems clergy face in the church.

No strikes

Community chapters don't negotiate collective bargaining agreements with any employer. Evans said there is no chance of a strike at any time.

Evans said "part of the goal" is to get enough members to sign union cards to be certified under labour legislation to negotiate collective agreements with the United Church.

"Many would joke about clergy marching around churches. That’s not an approach we would take," Evans said. "We work with our congregation. We serve our congregation. Our employment is with the United Church of Canada."

Rev. Janet Walker doesn't think a union is necessary, though.

"If our focus is only on ourselves, we're missing what our ministry is," she said. "I guess that's why, for me, I haven't had an interest in looking at what this union is about. I'm more focused on what we can do for others."