By Zac Koons
In these early days of my priestly ministry, the questions I’ve thought about the most are the ones that fall into the same category as Cole Hartin’s “Should priests be paid to pray?“ — a category I might call questions of theological scheduling. In my daily life, I feel many of the tensions that Hartin articulates. Is it okay for me to wait until the start of the traditional work day to say the morning office? If I had to skip my day off last week, does that mean I take an extra one the next? Do I count a midnight call to the hospital as “working hours”?
To be a parish priest is, if nothing else, to live in a world of bizarre rhythms — you don’t clock in but you also never really clock out. On one hand, you work for a volunteer organization, which means you often need to be available after 5 p.m., when your volunteers are free. On the other hand, you also work in an institution that looks in many ways like the offices many of your parishioners work in from 9 to 5 — with office hours, staff meetings, terrible coffee, and a regular UPS guy.
Some weeks I feel like I have limitless flexibility with astoundingly little to do. I can write a sermon at the dog park. I can run home for lunch. And I never wait in line at the barber. But then there are others that feel like I’ve been thrown into a marathon I never had a chance to train for. Emails get missed, hospital visits get rushed, and we eat one or two too many takeout dinners at home. In a strange way, I can see both how easy it would be to become lazy in this job, and simultaneously how easy it would be to become a workaholic. And I fear at different moments of being seen as either.
What’s helped me as I think about the shape of my days and weeks is that I have — with the help of a mentor — come to see a theological significance in the distinction between a salary and a stipend, and the freedom that comes because we priests are, in essence, paid the latter. In most instances this distinction is meaningless (if anything it only implies that if you receive a stipend, you probably are paid less), but in the bizarre rhythms of priestly life, it’s eased my anxiety about answering these questions considerably.
The difference between the two, essentially, is that a salary is something you pay someone to do a job while a stipend is an allowance you give to someone to live on. And as far as the IRS is concerned, the only people eligible to receive stipendiary payments (because they come with certain tax exemptions and benefits) are those whose work can be classified as trainees or learners, or those whose work cannot be measured in terms of a task.
Priestly work cannot be measured in terms of a task — how true and how beautiful. And you can see immediately then how this distinction opens the path to challenge the modern commodification of work — an end Hartin seems interested in pursuing, though here accomplished through different means. Priests never need to concern themselves with a distinction between what is “productive” and what is not. Precisely because the nature of our work defies measurement, we are free, as Hartin says, to live into slower, healthier, more prayerful rhythms of life in “defiance of the norms of our [frenetically paced] society.”
To go to the heart of Hartin’s question, then: I feel the significance of this freedom the most when parishioners ask me pray for them. Lord knows that when most of us ask a friend to pray for us, a big part of us expects them to forget and so in self-preservation we don’t really expect them to. But I feel a different and unspoken expectation when I receive those kinds of requests as a priest, which is something like: “Of course I hope my friends pray for me. But I suspect most of them are too busy for that. However, the Church has set you aside as a priest — the Church has freed you to live an intentionally unproductive life — so that I don’t have to doubt that you will pray for me.”
We can take the theological significance of a stipend one step further still. Because our work cannot be measured in the form of tasks, we receive an allowance to live on. So should priests be paid to pray? No, because priests aren’t paid to do anything. We’re given an allowance so we can feed and clothe our families, pay our mortgage, and even go on vacation. But we’re given that money to live on so that we’re free to be priests. Priests are paid so that taking care of life’s basic needs doesn’t distract from our vocation.
If we’re not paid to do any of the things we schedule, write, or facilitate, then all that we do is therefore offered as a gift. In other words, the church isn’t actually paying us to be there on Sunday to preside at the altar. The church is paying us so that we can sleep in our beds the night before. We’re not paid to preach. We’re not paid to administer last rites. To think that we are cheapens those beautiful moments by stirring in a transactional flavor. We’re paid so that we can pray for free.
This distinction doesn’t resolve all the tensions Cole so wonderfully expresses, but it has at least given me a different framework with which to approach decisions about when to pray, when to be in the office, and when to go to the dentist. It has made me a better preacher and pastor (I hope). If nothing else, it’s taken some of the pressure off. For starters, I’ve learned the important thing is not when I pray but that I pray, not when I spend time with my family but how and how often I’m present with them.
Far be it from me to accuse the IRS of theological nuance, but I’ve received this distinction as a great gift, and I offer it with gratitude to Cole for initiating the conversation.
The Rev. Zac Koons is the associate rector at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church in Round Rock, Texas. He grew up in Arkansas, and attended Wheaton College and Duke Divinity School.