Imams

The Age of the Full-Time Imam is Over, Here's What the New Era Of Islamic Work Looks Like

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In the corporate arena, there is a new trend emerging - the freelance economy. The hypothesis goes something like this. The age of joining a company, and slowly progressing upward for 30 years and then retiring is done. This used to be the goal for many people, but it no longer reflects reality for most people. Instead, people are switching companies and careers quicker than ever before. They go through 'tours of duty' at one place, then move to another. It's also not one role. People now have multiple job titles - sometimes at the same time. It's not uncommon to have your "day job" and also your side hustle or passion project.

Similarly, the age of the full-time Imam seems to be coming to an end. Gone are the days of someone spending the ages of 8 to 18 regularly going to one masjid, and growing under the guidance of one Imam. Instead, we are seeing the rise of a similar freelance economy. Some Imams will spend 3-5 years in one place, and then move to another community (sometimes moving up, sometimes moving laterally).

The freelancing economy is there in the Muslim community now as well. Instead of working full-time in a community, a person will create a full-time income through some mix of income streams such as-

  • An arrangement with one masjid to give 2 khutbahs a month, and a weekly Halaqah
  • An arrangement with another masjid similar to the above
  • Teaching Sunday school
  • Private tutoring
  • Weekend seminars
  • Fundraising
  • Guest speaking / Traveling
  • Family counseling
  • Teaching at an Islamic school
  • Part-time resident scholar or religious director
  • Ramadan (Taraweeh, classes, khatirahs)
  • Chaplaincy
  • Performing weddings
  • Part-time youth director for one community (or more than one)

The reason for this shift is a constant inability of boards and imams to properly mesh as it comes to vision and leadership. And then when they do mesh, it is upturned in a matter of months with new elections. This is something that has been documented extensively on this website and readers are familiar with by now.

The freelance model provides both parties with a layer of security. Boards don't have to make a commitment to an Imam, and can operate more freely without their oversight (although I would personally make the case that this is usually a very bad idea). Imams are no longer tied down to potentially hostile and unstable work environments, having more freedom and flexibility to move around and try different projects. They're also able to focus their work on their strengths and not having to take on demands outside their scope, as well as create better work/life balance.

The downside to this model is the community members miss out on the long term stability of a full-time Imam. However, this is a price everyone seems willing to pay.

Let me explain.

In any type of community work, there are always checks and balances. For example, an Imam is accountable to a board. If an Imam is underperforming, then it's not too difficult for the board to remove the Imam from that position.

What about if a board member goes renegade? In this case, the checks and balances come from the community. The board represents them, and are elected by them. When the community doesn't hold them accountable, then it results in a lot of the conflicts we see now. In other words, if the community doesn't care that much, and therefore can't put enough pressure to retain a good Imam, then it seems to be a moot point whether the community benefits from their long-term presence or not.

Part of this may be due to the fact that the average community member is also "freelancing" their own spiritual development. Instead of having a deep connection and relationship with one local masjid, they'll often attend different ones regularly. Masjid hopping in Ramadan is not uncommon. Even simple tasks like providing Islamic education for your children can be done online with tutors on Skype. For our own development, we turn to our favorite teachers via online videos, podcasts, and books. So maybe we're just not that dependent on our local community providing those services anymore.

None of this is to say that one model is necessarily better than the other, but an observation of the direction in which we are trending, and how to deal with that.

For the community member, it means taking charge of your own spiritual development and your family's development. Chances are, your masjid will no longer be able to fully provide that due to the (well-documented) lack of human resource development and investment.

For the Imams, or students who wish to serve the community full-time later it means learning the landscape. It means developing the skills needed to function in a "freelance economy." And this is not unique to Islamic work, corporate and professional work is trending the same way. It is important to start identifying the skills needed and close the gap.

Finding a community with infrastructure that will take care of someone is going to be even more rare than the prospect of joining a company today and working there until the year 2046.

Future Talent Shift and the Impending Breakdown of the Masjid

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It was July 8, 2010. Unfulfilled for 7 years chasing a dream and vision that the organization he was with could not help make a reality. Clad in a plum gingham print shirt, talking to Jim Grey, LeBron James famously announced he was taking his talents to South Beach. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTeCc8jy7FI

This incident has always fascinated me. He was the hometown hero. Born and raised in Akron, playing for his local team the Cleveland Cavaliers. He took them to the finals, they should have been on the cusp of a championship. Movie scripts could not be written better. If anyone was emotionally vested in helping this organization, it was LeBron. Yet he realized that Cleveland could not help him reach his potential. So he left for an organization that would.

Cleveland lucked out in finding the talent, but they weren't able to retain it.

We can talk about the importance of team (and we have), but there's a reason certain NBA players make $21 million a year, and some make $700k (i.e. 30x less). You can have a world class organization, but without some level of talent, you won't achieve much. By the same token, you can have amazing talent (Carmelo Anthony), but it will go to waste in a terrible organization (Knicks).

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[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ver the past 20 years, the Muslim community in the US has seen major shifts. There was a stage where we struggled to get basic facilities off the ground. Many places were in survival mode doing whatever they could to establish Juma prayer and Sunday Schools.

Imams were brought in from wherever possible and were expected to lead and guide the community. In general, they often grew with the community. They would be there when a kid finished reading Qur'an for the first time (ameen ceremony), and most likely for their high school graduation as well. It was a spiritual pillar of support. For me, from the age of 7 until 15, our masjid had a total of 2 imams [and I only cut it off at age 15 because we moved to another city]. Now, it is not uncommon for a masjid to go through 3 or 4 imams in that same span of time (and that includes periods without an imam at all).

So what's changed?

Communities are essentially Islamic organizations. You have talent, and this is what attracts the people. But you also have an administration that has to provide support. You can have a great superstar, but they will not perform to potential without a great coach, general manager, front office, scouts, assistant coaches, trainers, and so on. The talent is only one part, but there is a whole system that is required to make it work.

Put it another way - imagine if Barry Sanders ran behind the Cowboys' offensive line in the 90's.

How do we define the "talent" in our communities? Obviously there is the imam, but there are more - resident scholars, youth directors, khateebs, sisters coordinators, Qur'an teachers, and Sunday School teachers just to name a few.

The nature of organizations has changed as well. The masjid is no longer the only organizational type. We now have humanitarian organizations, third spaces, educational institutions, and a host of online outlets. Each of these organizations are magnets that attract (or compete for) different types of talent.

The masjid has for the most part been a fairly static institution. Many have tried to expand the masjid with Islamic schools and gyms, but the purpose of the masjid beyond a prayer space always opens up a debate. In this case, direction must come from one of two places - the talent, or the organization.

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat happens when the two are in conflict? The community, in general, looks to the imam for guidance and vision. What can this community accomplish? What should it do? What is the best way of achieving that? What is the organization's role in shaping or supporting the vision?

This year the Philadelphia 76'ers are tanking. This means they are losing games on purpose to improve their ability to get good young players and be successful in the future. That is an organizational strategy. In 2007, Kobe Bryant famously ripped on Andrew Bynum and building for the future when the Lakers could have had Jason Kidd.

And in 2011, the NBA owners 'locked out' the players due to an inability to reach an agreement on how to divide revenues in their negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement - leading to a work stoppage and a shortened season. Players during that time were said to be exploring the possibility of creating another league to compete with the NBA.

When an organization starts going in a different direction, they often do so at the expense of their most talented players - who want to leave for winning situations (talent attracts talent).

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[dropcap]E[/dropcap]very couple of weeks on Facebook, I see a new announcement about an Imam leaving his local masjid. Although these messages are diplomatically worded, they make clear that the root is a fundamental disagreement in vision with the administration.

This was more difficult to do before because Imams didn't have many options. If there's only one league you can play in, then you're stuck. Now there are other types of organizations to join - and even the option of becoming your own personal institution.

In other words, masjids no longer hold the same leverage they once did. This means having to adapt. The cheese has moved.

Change comes naturally. By definition, talented people are usually in a growth mindset. They've been trained to continue learning and growing and trying to reach their potential. There is a season in one's career where teaching Sunday School is the best use of a person's talent. There is also a season where they grow out of it and need to use their time for something more valuable. A doctor is well qualified to teach life science to middle schoolers, but it's not the best use of their time - they need to be taking care of patients.

When an organization can't (or refuses) to keep up, conflict occurs. The crisis has been well chronicled.

The landscape we see now is reflective of what is mentioned above. People are losing their attachment to the masjid. Fights are becoming commonplace.

Organizations will always complain that they can't find dedicated people. There is no shortage of dedicated people. They're simply finding other outlets.

People are pouring their energy into private institutions, third spaces, and online ventures - not because they don't want to help the masjid, but because they feel marginalized. This is not something that will happen in the future, it's already happening. More and more imams are leaving the masjid (in terms of full time occupation) and devoting themselves to other ventures. Talent attracts talent. People with other skills and motivation to help the community are going with them. And just to connect the dots, financial resources are usually the next to follow in this exodus.

We dream of the masjid being a community center, but without someone to lead the community, and without servicing the needs of the community - the institution will break down. It will become a place where you go for Juma and taraweeh. But for anything meaningful outside of the ritual acts of worship, you'll have to go elsewhere (as many already are).

Now what?

Masjids and imams breaking up isn't just a sad love story. The exodus has started. It should be a wake up call. Organizations need to refocus and realign. Take the role of being a representative for the community seriously - see what they need, find the leadership to lead it, and create the support structure to sustain it.

I'm happy that we're developing organizations and institutions that will serve the community, and providing outlets for people to develop and grow. However, it comes at the trade-off of that happening in the masjid and the masjid no longer being the point of attachment for the hearts of the community.

The checks and balances in our community are out of whack. An administration should not be able to drive out people the community loves. They can only do this when there is apathy in the community. Although, it must be said that even when people care, constitutions and procedures get amended to formally marginalize those who do.

There is no straight answer to the question: Now what?

We need to marginalize the influence of those who want to build jannah on earth through the Masjid and shift to building our akhirah.

In short, we all need to do a better job of serving our communities and supporting those who serve our communities.

How Much Should Islamic Clergy Make?

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Originally posted at MuslimMatters.org. Slate raised the issue of the salaries of religious clergy highlighting salaries of Priests and Rabbis. Data about Imam salaries was (un)surprisingly hard to find.

The topic of imams’ salaries is for some reason a touchy one, but it is not a complicated issue if approached objectively. We have previously discussed what to look for when hiring an imam. Communities though, set extremely high expectations of what they want.

If those qualifications and expectations were to be put on someone in any other working environment, I would venture to guess the salary discussion would start somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000 a year.

If your community wants a Superman imam, then they need to be ready to pay a Superman salary.

Aside from that, an imam should be assessed by any other normal scale. Check a person’s qualifications. Someone with a Master’s in Islamic Law and 15 years experience leading a community should command a higher pay than a fresh graduate with no experience. Most masjids though, just have a set amount that they throw at whoever fills the position regardless of qualification.

Along with qualification there needs to be a built in growth mechanism (or career advancement). As the imam gains tenure in the community, the salary should be raised accordingly based on their performance [something ideally settled on in the interview process].

The problem that we run into is we want imams who will give 80 hours a week, but be paid based on 20. In our secular fields, if we have a 4 or 6 year degree, we expect a certain minimum salary to be commensurate with our experience and education. For some reason, we feel this does not apply to imams as if studying Islam and serving or leading a community do not really count.

If we need someone to spend 30-40 hours a week in the masjid, provide 10-20 hours a week of counseling, and on top of that be constantly on-call for marriages, funerals, and other emergencies, then a pay structure should be built to reflect that. Regular jobs that have such requirements will either pay high enough that they can make someone salaried and they will deal with the hours, or there are incentives built in (overtime and on-call pay).

Unfortunately, not only are we not there yet, but we don’t even offer the most basic of benefits yet such as healthcare and reimbursements for education and development. The fact that Slate could so readily collect salary data from the Jewish and Christian communities, but had no starting point for the Muslim community speaks volumes about how far behind we are.

If we truly want community leaders who lead us in prayer, deliver the khutbah on Fridays, counsel our families, and teach our children then it behooves us to make sure they are so well paid that they never have to worry about money. Buy them a house and pay them a full time salary on top of it. We need to take the benefits of a corporate pay structure and apply it to the masjid – with one huge caveat. We cannot adopt the ruthlessness and attitude that people are dispensable that permeates corporate leadership. These are our community leaders, the people we have entrusted our spiritual education to – make sure they are taken care of.

I personally feel that the imam position should be a 6 figure income (adjusted according to cost of living and so on). Smaller communities should still aim to pay at least 50-60 (if not closer to 80). These are simply rough numbers, but I want to throw them out there and move our communities past the expectation that we get tenured scholars who are on the same paygrade (or less) than most entry level positions.

Many communities are still living in a naive reality where they expect an Imam to take a pay of 30-40k just because they are “working for Islam” without any regard to supporting their family. Then we get upset when they take a second job to make ends meet, insisting instead that they dedicate their time to the community. In our non-Islamic professions we aim to secure the highest salary possible and feel insulted if someone offers less than our worth. Let’s stop doing that to our community leaders.

We don’t live in a Muslim country where there are endowments and government grants to support our scholars. Our communities have the money. Fund-raising is not the problem. We just need to understand that our investment in human resources should take precedence over our investment in architectural ones.

Epilogue

In the 2 days since posting this article on muslimsi.com, there has been an outpouring of feedback via comments, Facebook shares, and even personal emails. Based on that feedback I felt it important to highlight a few points.

Most obviously, this is an extremely contentious issue in our community, and it is one that must be resolved in a way that allows our communities to grow and move forward.

When it comes to opposing higher pay (or even pay altogether) for Imams, it comes from a few very specific perspectives. First is the view that people who do Islamic work should not be paid at all (a view that I feel is naive and somewhat ignorant). Second is the view that if an Imam is paid, then it means he must be a perfect human being, or at worst, be like one of the Sahabah in all his actions. Third is the view that if a board pays an Imam, then it means they somehow have total ownership of him.

In all these cases, the root of the problem is a lack of respect for the scholars and community leaders of our ummah. They are not perfect, but if they don't guide us, who will? Our responsibility as community members is to help them grow, because the more that they grow, the better equipped they are to lead our communities. Instead, we find masjids that are expecting one of the khulafā’ al-rashīdūn to magically come and lead their masjid (and do so for a minimum wage salary at that). Many of our boards have yet to realize that the job description of an Imam in America is vastly different from what an imam does in nearly any other country in the world. The expectations we put on them are herculean to say the least.

This lack of respect comes from not understanding what function the Imam plays in the community. 99% of the people will never see the hours of marital counseling, family counseling, and late night phone calls that imams have to yield. They'll never see the people who randomly walk into the masjid at odd hours dealing with drug abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and sometimes worse trying to find help from the imam. They won't see the hours of work that will go into preparing a 45-minute halaqah that is then only attended by 10 people.

Our communities are growing rapidly, and with that growth comes new problems and new situations that we must deal with. If we want to live our lives in a way pleasing to Allah, then it is imperative we supply our communities with people capable of leading them and helping us deal with those problems. I find instead that many masjids treat their imams even more ruthlessly than the worst of corporations, not realizing the need the community has for spiritual leadership. They nitpick at them in ways that make it appear as if they consider themselves to be angelic.

Aside from the arguments resulting from a lack of respect, the only other issue is money. I do not think money is an issue. In some smaller communities, it will be, and they'll have to work through it. But I cannot fathom how seemingly every other masjid has multi-million dollar blueprints and expansion plans, but they can't afford to invest in quality human resources. This is a joke. Without proper human resources, we will just have empty (but beautiful) structures. Put the money where it's needed most.

One of the most promising developments I have seen is that there is a surge of people who want to serve this deen full time. They want to study Islam, they want to work for the community full time. But they are held back. Their parents will not stand for them taking a career in the service of Islam and instead push them into other professions. Now it may be easy to criticize a parent and say they are being short-sighted or materialistic, but I do not think that is the case at all. I think most parents have seen the way our communities treat Imams - the most telling sign of which is their low salary (as the saying goes, "put your money where your mouth is") - and they do not want their children to have to face that.

If our masajid do not get their acts together on this issue, then we are planting a destructive seed that will prevent our development of sustainable scholarship in this country.