Why Should We Have To Warn New Priests?

priest in a collar
E. Rowe

I try to stay away from harsh topics in my editorials. I don’t want to stir any pots—at least not in my professional capacity as the editor of this paper. But I have been sitting with something for months that got under my skin, so here it is.

There is a concerning tendancy in our Church to downplay the need to value and pay the clergy. I don’t often publicly speak out about this. Many who know that I am a clergy spouse might just look at it as a personal money grab—a raise for my husband would be more money for me, right? I assure you that it is not about that, and the fact remains: you’re possibly underpaying your priest, and you’re possibly even considering paying them less in the coming years.

I heard an ordination sermon in which the preacher literally told the person who was being ordained that they were probably going to have to get a second secular job some day, and that the Church simply wasn’t a long-term option for employment anymore. This was at an ordination! Consider for a moment the struggles that people go through to even get to that point—the difficulty of discernment; the years of education, the pastoral training, and the nearly crippling student loans; the sacrifices that they and their family members make in order to offer their lives to the thing that they believe God has called them to do. What kind of Church is this that produces clergy who feel the need to warn the next generation like this? The good news of the Gospel, which should be the focus, is taking a back seat to a warning that this is not a sustainable vocation.

An ordination is a joyful day, and the Church was literally saying to this person, “Well, that’s nice that you feel this calling, but don’t give up your day job.” 

But is it so shocking? Too often, “part-time” clergy are expected to work full-time, but for part-time pay. Part-time positions are often filled by members of the clergy who have other sources of income, either in pensions or other savings. Then you get fewer young vocations because working for the Church isn’t a viable option. That’s where the “young” priests are—they can’t afford to work for the Church. When a priest works full-time for part-time pay, they create an unreasonable expectation. After all, what parish would pay for a full-time priest when they can get the same work for less money?

Please don’t misunderstand me—I know that it’s not from a place of bad intentions. Parishes are struggling, and so they have to switch to part-time clergy. But there are still the confirmation classes, the Bible studies, and the dozens of other things to run, and so the priest takes on all of it, and gets paid whatever the parish can afford.

The deal used to be that the clergy took care of the parish’s spiritual needs, and in return, the parish took care of the living needs of the clergy with a fair stipend, a house to live in, a car allowance, etc. The expertise that a priest brought—the education and experience—was valued by the people in the pews, just as we value the knoweledge brought by a nurse, a carpenter, a musician, or a teacher in their fields of expertise.

During Holy Week, I created a social media post in which I reminded people to be kind to their clergy, because Holy Week can bring so much stress and pressure on them; it also reminded the clergy that they should be kind to themselves—give themselves a break when they need it. Almost at once, the comments came in about how hard everyone works during Holy Week, and within a few hours, someone had copied and “fixed” the post to replace “clergy” with “everyone.” That person missed the point completely. Of course we should be kind to everyone, but the post was about the clergy, especially in a Church culture that is suggesting, literally in an ordination sermon, that they get “a real job” if they want to pay their bills, and then also expects them to run a parish with less help every year, constantly having to prove that they are “worth the cost” of having them.

Being a clergy spouse is not so much a position—it is more often a predicament. We are on the inside—we see all of this, but often say nothing for fear that it will be misunderstood as us seeking personal financial gain. But we who work in the Church don’t do it for the money. We are deeply invested in our Church, and love it so much. Any person who gets “through the process” to get to the point of ordination has given up a lot to get there. To be told at that point that the Church, their Church that they love, will not value them enough to support them in their vocation is a sad comment on how little we value our clergy, and how they must accept that they will be overworked and underpaid.

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