By Cole Hartin
One of my first summer jobs in high school was as a landscaper for a psychologist’s practice on the outskirts of my hometown. I did all the usual maintenance work: mowing the massive lawn, raking leaves, weeding flower beds. Once in a while I would take on a bigger project if asked. I was always given orders to make sure I accomplished all the work; I could work whenever I wanted, and when I was tired I could go home. I just needed to make sure I finished the work each week. That meant there were many long days, and some days when I wouldn’t go in at all. I remember my father, seeing me at home one Wednesday, asking me when I would get a real job that meant working 9 to 5, five days a week, much like his job on the automotive assembly line.
Many years later, I still haven’t had much of a real job at all. In the past several years my employment has been a patchwork of little positions at the college, with my parish, in IT, and at coffee shops. My hours are not regular, some days are extremely long, and on some days I do very little. I very often work evenings and weekends, and my day off is usually during the week. September, December, and March tend to be packed full, whereas there is not much going on at all in June and July. As I look forward to ordination (God willing) and settling into a clerical “career,” I don’t see myself entering the real job my father described, but only continuing with this patchwork schedule — even though I will be devoted to parish ministry exclusively.
The vocation of the priest or pastor can be difficult to pin down. By vocation, I mean the daily shape of ordained life. A priest is a priest no matter the employer, and yet for many, ordained ministry, in addition to being a vocation (something metaphysical or not), is a job.
But should a priest be paid to pray?
This question haunts me in part because I come from a family (probably like most families in this respect) in which prayer — public and private — is something offered to God above and beyond the weekly round of work. My father was not able to stop the assembly line to say morning or midday prayer. Even if he could, this wouldn’t be “working time” but would stall the day’s progress, leading to later nights. I think the same could be said for most working-class people who don’t have the flexibility that some professionals enjoy.
This question has pressed on me more heavily as I have seen parishes amalgamating, scraping together finances to afford a part-time priest, and as I have watched my colleagues in seminary coming to terms with a key reality: they’ve invested significant money and time in study, but it’s very possible that they will be applying for part-time ministry jobs that won’t make ends meet. In short: finances are tight, and staffing is lean.
Should a priest then be paid to say the evening office alone in the sanctuary before driving home? Or are daily rounds of prayer something that ought to be offered “off the clock,” part of a priest’s vocation, yes, but not part of the job?
These questions aren’t rhetorical; I really wonder what to do. I realize, for instance, that prayer is work in some sense (“the work of God” in St. Benedict’s Rule). Perhaps divvying up a holistic vocation into its various parts is artificial. However, it seems most clergy are not paid to be whatever it is they are, but they are paid to do certain things: preach, teach, plan and celebrate the liturgy, visit parishioners, oversee the everyday workings of the parish, network with colleagues, serve their bishop, and so forth. I think in this respect clerical life is more akin to that of the scholar or the lawyer (or even to my example of the gardener). The priest does not merely put in time until 5 p.m., but has certain tasks to accomplish. Sometimes a priest can finish a day’s work in shorter hours, but often these hours stretch out late into the evening.
Still, the lawyers and scholars in our parishes come to the Eucharist each week after their work is done, and they pray (or we hope they pray) in the morning and in the evening, reading the Scriptures too. How can we provide a good model to them as pastors when the activities we commend to them are simply part of our job? How can we expect others to offer themselves to be formed by a life of prayer, immersed in Scripture, when they can’t fathom anyone doing this save their priest, who is merely doing the day’s work? I am afraid that the greatest possible witness against priests has nothing to do with their theology, but their laziness.
The truth is, I don’t know how this life of prayer works itself out in the myriad parishes throughout the Anglican Communion (or in other churches, for that matter). And I know too, that burnout is a real problem for clergy. Keeping prayer within the bounds of the job, then — as well as other healthy practices such as little retreats, reading in the office for one’s edification, taking midday walks during office hours, etc. — partly prevents clerical exhaustion. In his beautiful little catalogue of priestly duties, A Priest to the Temple, George Herbert gives significant attention to leisure. The priest
sometimes refresheth himselfe, as knowing that nature will not bear everlasting droopings, and that pleasantnesse of disposition is a great key to do good; not onely because all men shun the company of perpetuall severity, but also for that when they are in company, instructions seasoned with pleasantnesse, both enter sooner, and roote deeper.
Further, Herbert suggests it is good to study other things, like anatomy and basic medicine, so that reading and “knowing of herbs may be done at such times, as they may be an help, and a recreation to more divine studies, Nature serving Grace both in comfort of diversion, and the benefit of application when need requires.” In both these instances, there is benefit in taking it easy, for the good of the cleric and the people. A priest must seldom be rushed, seldom be reactionary, but rather must have a quiet mind to attend to the work God has given.
I wonder if clergy ought to be paid to pray to challenge the modern commodification of work. Work, scripturally speaking, is never meant to sacrifice human flourishing for some other end. For what else do we live for, besides loving God and loving neighbor? Therefore, if our work and busy schedules prevent us from having time to pray, perhaps it’s not the kind of work we should be doing, at least in the way we are doing it. This isn’t even primarily a Christian vision of work; I think the best humanists see that work isn’t an end in itself, and producing something is not a worthy telos. Rather, work and production are meant to foster space for human well-being.
In the frenetic pace of our cities, where people are having nervous breakdowns during their three-hour commutes, so that they can afford a tiny apartment suspended over concrete, metal, and glass, intentionally setting up clerical life as a slow and to some extent “unproductive” antidote might offer a gleam of hope. Maybe the clerical life can even be a shining beacon: our pay is meagre, but we live within the parish bounds, take time to pray and think, and we do this in defiance of the norms of society precisely because the society has lost sight of what it means to be human in a very real sense.
Overworking or underworking are likely to draw criticism, and probably should. Is there an ideal then, for clergy, especially with respect to prayer? Is it part of our job? Or something that we do after our daily labour? And who decides? Our bishops? Or the parishioners to whom we are responsible?
I ask these hard questions with the hope that the ensuing conversations generate more insight than I am able to muster.
 George Herbert, The Complete English Poems, ed. John Tobin, 1 edition. (London: Penguin Classics, 2005), pp. 241-2, and 235.