how much should a priest work?

It might seem an odd question, but it’s often quite difficult to categorise what is ‘work’, and how much to ‘work’ when you’re a priest, or even if the word is at all helpful to describe what a priest does.

Having recently changed posts from part time, to ‘full time’ (and no, I haven’t worked out what to rename my blog or my Twitter handle) I’ve been pondering this one.

One of the things that put me off rushing into ‘full time’, aka ‘stipendiary’, ministry (apologies, there are going to be a lot of quotation marks…) was observing the lives of full time ministers. I hate to say it, but they were often stressed, or miserable, or both.

You’ll deduce from this that I had the increasingly (?) rare ‘luxury’ of deciding not to work full time, though this decision came with some considerable down sides. And some considerable up sides.

The ‘not working full time’ went on for more than 20 years, during which time I had 3 children, worked part time, worked in the home, worked to support my husband, re-trained, studied for a higher degree and was a part time (sorry, ‘self supporting’) priest bringing up teenagers.

All of which added up to about a 50-60 hour week most years (apart from the baby bit which was, in the literal sense, ACTUALLY FULL TIME).

At theological college, during the assignment on work and rest, I was exasperated to discover almost no literature on the ‘work’ of motherhood, and rather stupidly felt second rate as other colleagues thought theologically about the work of teaching, lecturing, law, medicine, policing and other important things that were currently occupying them outside of the home.

At a clergy gathering a couple of years ago I spoke to a seasoned ‘full timer’ about his post, and he asked about my part time post. I told him I was nervous about full time ministry because a number of ‘jobs’ I’d looked at didn’t look like the kind of situations where I might flourish.

(You know, when the number of churches listed in the Church Times ad. passes 5 or 6 and you’re thinking, it would take the whole of my tenure in this job just to be able to repeat off by heart all the combinations of saints and villages that comprise it).

I said to my full time colleague, whom I didn’t really know well, “so many full time church posts look pretty unmanageable, and clergy are often quite stressed…” I tailed off, hoping he’d give me some encouragement, as he was obviously very seasoned.

After a short pause he told me he was recovering from his second breakdown.

One way of looking at priestly vocation is to say it most definitely isn’t work in the normal sense of the word; the ‘normal’ sense itself also being up for a theological critique.* So maybe you shouldn’t count hours because you’re not a functionary of the Church, you are in many ways just being. You ARE THERE. “Paid to pray”, is how one person put it.

But there are work-like tasks for the priest, in ever increasing number. In addition, loads of priests are not paid (the majority of these, I would guess, are women). Adverts for posts in the Church Times say things like ‘House for Duty’, which is defined by hours (kind of), purporting to be “Two days a week plus Sunday Duties”.

Then there’s that rare beast, the ‘half stipendiary’ post. The actual difference between a House of Duty post and a half stipendiary one is often negligible in terms of hours, but represents the difference between no ‘income’ and £13k a year.

Also shady is the difference between a half and a full time stipendiary post. I knew a Rector who was receiving half a stipend for looking after three churches (she was housed). Her Diocese added one more church to her care, and doubled her stipend. So, three small churches for half a stipend; four for a full.

Maths and the C of E, eh?

Which brings us to “full time ministry”. Wise people say “make sure you count your hours”. I presume this is so that when you finally burn out you don’t turn round and say, Oh, I didn’t realise I’d been working 60 hours a week for the last 5 years…

Then again, it seems very churlish to count hours. The worst thing you can say in Anglican ministry, as everyone knows, is “I can’t do a funeral then, it’s my day off”.

Maybe we all secretly yearn for the days when the parson went to dinner with the Squire, took food baskets to the poor and wandered down country lanes idly pondering his sermon and losing track of time…

If only…

At one of my less than helpful Ministry Development Reviews (C of E annual chats about your progress), I attempted to ask the reviewer, a full time-er, how many hours were ‘expected’, thinking one day I might take the plunge, so to speak.

When she answered 50, I was uncomfortably pitched back into knackering teaching days, working 8am – 6pm, preparing lessons at the weekends and sweating over termly plans in the holidays.

So I pressed my reviewer. 50 hours, for a priest? And she said 40 hours was considered normal and then to add 10 more, because that’s often what lay people put in to their local church.

Call me dense, but I couldn’t for the life of me see any logic in this and I drove home in a huff and was irritable for several days.

Even if you want to tot up hours though, what counts as work? Does prayer, for instance? If ‘laborare est orare’ (to work is to pray) surely the opposite is true. For a priest, to pray is to work. By the same token, to reflect is to work (because we’re all reflective practitioners now).

And as you’re always thinking about the church and the parish, maybe thinking is work. In fact, not being able to stop thinking about ‘work’, is one reason why priests get so flaked out.

And then there’s study. THE STUDY DAY!!! What an absolutely wonderful concept for a clergy person; one whole day when you are ‘working’, aka studying, not even writing your sermon but reading and thinking and reflecting, being prayerful.

A seasoned clergy person laughed when, as a Curate, I mentioned having a study day – “Oh, you won’t have time to read”, he assured me. How very sad, I thought. But later I asked myself, what do I know of his stressful life and endless workload?

(Does anyone even have a study day anymore?)

So, I’ve returned to ‘full time work’ (along with so many other women who’ve taken a euphemistically named ‘long career break’). I take comfort from the little book, Flourishing in Ministry, that our Diocese has produced, which rightly takes a much wider view of ministry than how many hours can you put in.

Because theologically, work and rest are about God given rhythms, vocation and human flourishing. I am more than my ‘work’. I am primarily in relationship, with God and with people, trying to find ways to live the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ (Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 11:28-30).

*For further reading on the theology of work, see Armand Larive’s After Sunday (Continuum, 2004).













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