Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Differently Visible, Not Vanishing

Selfie at AAP National Nominating Committee
meeting with pediatrician, Dr. Sarah Stelzner.
The Atlantic published an article yesterday by David Wheeler entitled, "Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy," that discussed the high-debt load and poor job prospects of clergy.  Shrinking and aging congregations have resulted in fewer full-time, paid positions for seminary graduates, who have had to seek secular jobs to supplement their parish incomes or support them entirely.  The Church has labeled these clergy "bi-vocational" or "tentmakers."  This is, of course, old news.

In fact, I remember, when I was a lay person in the early stages of the ordination process, talking about the likelihood of gainful employment with the Canon to the Ordinary (who, incidentally, is now a bishop).  When I showed up at Canon Hayashi's office at the appointed time in my suit and tie, instead of asking me to sit down, he lamented that his elliptical machine had just broken and wondered if I'd be willing to get a little exercise.  It was deep into the Chicago winter, so we worked our way through the corridors that connected the diocesan offices to the cathedral.  As we power-walked around the perimeter of the nave, he challenged me to rethink the decision to pursue ordination.  I had worked with him for several years on a diocesan commission, where we had developed a good rapport, so I was surprised to hear discouragement instead of a pep-talk.  He was very pastoral, but he laid out honestly the grim state of the job market for clergy.  He had always encouraged my call to ordination, so I suspect he was trying to spare me disappointment and sacrifice, for which I remain grateful.  There are simply too few parish jobs, and there's no point in sugar-coating that fact. 

As I read the article, with its take-away message about bi-vocational clergy, essentially, "the job market is bad, but we're making the best of it," I remembered Canon Hayashi's kind attempt me to steer me along a safer career path.  I don't deny the dearth of full-time paid clergy positions; and I respect those clergy who take on multiple congregations, or get some other job just to pay the bills.  More alarming still is the stark reality that for many clergy a full-time parish job may not provide an adequate income to cover the cost of seminary and other educational debt, save for retirement, and sustain a reasonable standard of living.  We all do what we have to do.  However, I question the assumption that the job market is necessarily bad news, that the sky is falling, or that the Church is no longer relevant.  I believe that the current state of affairs may be calling clergy to serve in different capacities, as well as in traditional parish settings.  Sure, we have hospital chaplains and seminary professors, but there must be other places where we can be life-giving and productive, not in spite of the fact we are clergy, but because we are clergy.  Unlike Mr. Wheeler, I'm not discouraged; I'm actually quite hopeful.  I would argue that clergy are still relevant even in this increasingly secular culture.

With women members of the AAP Board of Directors.
Like many new clergy, I found the parish job hunt daunting.  And I wasn't entirely sure I wanted a full-time job as a curate, vicar, or rector.  At least, not at the moment.  I considered returning to my prior career in health policy with an unpaid Sunday gig at some poor mission or a parish with an overworked rector who could use some help.  As it happens, I became a staff executive for the American Academy of Pediatrics, a not-for-profit organization for pediatricians that does research, education, child advocacy, and policy.   Although my clergy credentials were unusual, they proved to be an asset in the interview process, since the position's complex relational, administrative, and leadership development responsibilities were remarkably similar to parish ministry.  In fact, several members and staff shared how glad they were to have someone with a clergy background in the position.  Everyone knows I'm a priest, so staff and members frequently seek me out for pastoral care and spiritual guidance--in addition to my official duties--which has expanded my understanding and practice of priestly vocation.  As unexpected as it may sound, I believe that my training and identity as a priest are benefiting the organization; and similarly, I also know the organization is benefiting me as a priest by teaching me skills valuable to parochial ministry and the wider Church, such as managing a multi-million-dollar budget, doing leadership development, conducting policy and advocacy work, and enhancing administrative competence.

Censing the Lady Shrine at Choral High Mass.
In the Episcopal Church, vocational deacons and many professed religious support themselves through secular employment, which means they may have much to teach us priests about how to engage our priestly identities more fully and creatively outside the familiar parish setting.  One clergy colleague approached me after mass one Sunday, and asked where I was now serving. "I assist here on feasts, evenings, and Sundays, but I work for a not-for-profit during the week,"  I said brightly. "Oh," she said as she gently touched my arm and donned a sad smile, as if to convey, "I'm so sorry.  How awful for you."  I'm sure the sympathy was sincere, but I was disappointed and a little hurt that she was not able to perceive that both parish and not-for-profit work were healthy parts of my priestly vocation.  I need to say mass, to do pastoral care and community outreach, to baptize and bury.  I say the Daily Office, go to confession, and see a spiritual director.  But I care for people at work, too; and this is a very fulfilling part of my life as a priest.

I admire my priest colleagues who are doing full-time parish ministry, and I am not suggesting that this should change.  At some point, I may wish to join them there.  I loved being a parish priest, and often miss aspects of it.  I offer my perspective and experience simply to encourage those clergy for whom a full-time paid parochial cure may not be feasible or desirable, to say, "do not despair; there is life after parish ministry."  In many instances, our skills as clergy are transferable and applicable to other professional settings.  The Church has not been very effective, however, in re-visioning priestly ministry outside congregations or in helping clergy leverage and promote their skills for work in other professional settings.  Younger generations of clergy will need to take the lead in this area as paid parish positions continue to decline, but with initiative and imagination, the Church and its clergy can still be relevant and responsive to a world in desperate need of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Peace and Blessings,
Fr. Ethan+

The Rev. Ethan Alexander Jewett, SCP
Convenor, Chicago Chapter-in-Formation, Society of Catholic Priests
Assisting Priest, Church of the Atonement, Chicago
Director, Executive Services, American Academy of Pediatrics

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