It’s Time To Stop Talking About “Vocational Priests”

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More and more, I’ve heard people talk about ‘vocational priests’ as if this was the future of ordained ministry in Newfoundland. It’s time for that nonsense to stop. The expression is ignorant, offensive, and does very little to further the conversation about trends in ministry.

People who talk about ‘vocational priests’ usually mean something like ‘vocational deacons’: clergy who work in a parish without being paid, or only receiving a small travel allowance. But vocational deacons are those who are called specifically to be deacons, as opposed to transitional deacons, who are ordained with the intention of eventually being ordained priests. By that logic, a ‘vocational’ priest would be someone who doesn’t expect to ever be made a bishop. Last time I checked, that was most of us!

Calling some priests ‘vocational’ might also suggest that the others are somehow not vocational. It implies that since they expect to be paid for ministry, their vocation is not as pure as someone else’s, or that they’re only in it for the money. I’m sure that when people use this expression, they’re not trying to be offensive, but I (and others) have already pointed out that it is. Once you know better it’s time to do better, and stop using expressions that you know cause offence.

It’s not as if there’s no better expression to use for clergy who don’t get paid a stipend. They’re called non-stipendiary clergy. We have been blessed with excellent priests who have offered their time and their gifts to the church without any thought of payment. Some people are called by God to be priests, but feel no call to serve for pay. The church has done a much better job in recent years in recognizing their vocations. What a shame if in affirming these clergy, we were to create a church where no one could imagine clergy expecting to be paid at all!

Sometimes people talk about unpaid, or semi-paid clergy as ‘tentmakers’, citing the example of St. Paul who, at times, supported himself and his ministry by working a secular job. He literally made tents. But Paul himself is quick to point out that this is not the norm. In 1 Corinthians 9 he reminds his audience that he does have a right to be paid, and even (if he had one) to be accompanied by a wife who was supported by the church. This, he says, is what all the apostles are entitled to.

He says that no one serves in the army at their own expense, and that those who grow grapes or tend flocks expect to enjoy some of the fruits of their labours. Jesus said that ‘those who preach the Gospel should get a living from the Gospel’. Paul’s tentmaking ministry was a remarkable gift that he was able to offer because of his particular circumstances and ability, just as non-stipendiary ministry is a gift that some clergy have been able to offer the church. To assume that eventually all clergy will be doing that is to fail to appreciate such a gift, and to risk alienating those who cannot afford to work without getting paid.

Perhaps those who talk about ‘vocational’ priests really mean to use the word ‘bi-vocational’, but that term is problematic in its own right. Bi-vocational clergy are those whose work is a response to two vocations at the same time. Alongside a calling to the diaconate or priesthood, they may also have a calling to be academics or teachers, social workers or other members of the caring professions. Often they could not imagine abandoning their secular calling any more than they could their ordained ministry, and often see both vocations as interconnected parts of a single ministry. But in most cases, it is more than just an arrangement for them to work a secular job so that the church won’t have to pay them.

The future of the church is radically changing, and the nature of ordained ministry has to change along with it. There will likely be many different models for ministry in the future. Some will be paid, others will be unpaid. There are many opportunities for creative ministries ahead of us. But we ought to discuss these opportunities using language that is expressive, respectful of others, and biblically sound. ‘Vocational Priests’ is none of those things. It’s time to stop using that expression. We should never have used it in the first place.

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