By Samantha Haycock
I was asked whether I thought I would be a priest in the Episcopal Church when I was fifteen years old. This was the first time I was on the receiving end of an inquiry about priestly call and vocation–but it certainly would not be the last. I now work as a lay minister in a congregation and have been employed by the church my entire professional career. Today I am equipped with language and ideas that I did not have as a teenager – I am called to ministry through my baptism. I am called to work in the Episcopal Church as a lay professional. I do not feel called to priestly orders and have articulated this in every realm of interaction that I have with the church. And yet, at least once a week I am asked: “When will you be ordained?”
The inquirers usually have good intentions. They are attempting to name and honor the spiritual gifts that they have witnessed working through me. But embedded in this question is a false equivalency of vocational ministry and the priesthood. Ordination is like a golden calf, worshiped for its position and authority over and above the laity. Rather than lifting up an individual’s unique call to ministry with and among the baptized, we attempt to fit people into a hierarchy we have constructed. When someone displays talent that contributes to and expands the life of the church, the church decides they must be called to be a priest.
When someone asks me about priestly ordination, the underlying message is that the work that I am currently doing would be more valuable or whole if it were performed by a priest. Instead of honoring the ministry in which I am actively engaged or inquiring about my call in an open-ended way that would enable me to share about my baptismal identity, it is assumed that my lay ministry must be a stepping stone towards ordained ministry.
This assumption is reflected in the way many churches build lay employment opportunities as entry-level positions. The compensation level and job structure are a stop gap. The church hires someone on the premise that their employment will be relatively short-term, preparing the new employee for a discernment process. Or a congregation patches together a lay position while they get their act together to gather money for a clergy hire. One church I worked for openly told me that when I left they hoped to hire a clergy-person for my position. When they gave me a raise, they explained, it was because they wanted to honor my work with higher compensation, but that they were ultimately increasing my pay in order to build the position incrementally over time so that they could afford a clergy salary and pension. What I heard when they told me this was: “we inherently value an ordained person more than you.”
This sort of experience is not unique to me. Lay people working in professional ministry contexts across the church share stories of their call and vocation being diminished. These stories exist because the institution and its people have handed ownership of ministry over to the priests. I should also note a reversed version of this narrative, namely the frequent exclusion of people of color, LGBTQ persons, and women from discernment for ordination. Because this is not my experience, I cannot speak directly to it, but neither do I want to ignore it.
This ministry culture flies in the face of our professed baptismal ecclesiology in which all people are called to ministry through their baptism, and undermines our convictions about the priesthood of all believers. Our lived practices show that our real assumption is that the minister is the one with a collar.
The church’s structures reinforce this divide. Theological education is primarily accessible to those in an ordination process. When lay people pursue formation beyond what is available to them at a congregational level, confusion abounds: to what end? I am a seminarian on a non-ordination track and consistently have to advocate for my place in the classroom. I know that deepening my understanding of the Episcopal Church, improving my biblical literacy, and expanding my ability to reflect theologically will enable me to serve God and the church more fully as a lay person. Still, I’ve found others to be skeptical about my pursuit: “Why would you be in seminary if you don’t want to be a priest?”
The idolatry of ordination goes beyond the language we use and the opportunities we provide, it is also embedded in how the church invests its financial resources. The church compensates ordained people at a considerably higher rate than lay people. To hire a clergy person in my position, the parish I mentioned above needed to more than double my starting salary.
To say clergy compensation levels are about education level or the financial impact of seminary is untrue. Nearly anyone who enters into an academic pursuit, whether lay or ordained, will emerge with student debt. Scholarship opportunities for individuals pursuing seminary education on a non-ordination track are nearly non-existent, and the financial support often provided by a sending congregation or diocese is not offered to lay people who will continue in lay ministry after seminary.
When I complete seminary and hold an equivalent degree, I will not gain the guaranteed benefits offered to clergy. No “ontological change” will occur to bring about the perk of a larger pension, minimum starting salary, free or subsidized housing, and tax advantages. A newly ordained clergy person in my diocese, regardless of experience, will automatically make a third more annually than my current salary with a pension contribution double my maximum. Additionally, the provision of lay pension and benefits is a relatively recent stipulation. Prior to 2009 there was no requirement to offer benefits to lay employees of the church. Long-time lay people do not have a pension that reflects their tenure. When a priest or bishop encourages a strong lay employee towards ordination it may be because they acknowledge that priesthood is the only option for a sustainable vocation in the church.
We have real reckoning to do as an institution, both practically and culturally, if we are going to truly live into the words of our catechism: “the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” We need to change the way we talk about call to ministry and vocation so that it encapsulates all orders of ministry. Part of this shift will include creating opportunities for discernment that are multifaceted, expanding on what is currently offered by most commissions on ministry. Approving or denying an individual’s ordination process ought not the end goal of discernment. Rather, authentic and unique ministry with, to, and by God’s people ought to be the goal.
The sort of transformation our church needs will not come easily but here is a place you can start: The next time you witness God moving through someone, instead of asking them about ordination, try inviting them to share with you how God is calling them to minister to, with, and in the world.
Samantha Haycock works in ministry with students, faculty, and staff on campus at the University Arkansas, organizes the Young Adult Ministry and Becoming Beloved Community initiative at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville. She has a passion for spreading Jesus’ call for social justice and she helps people to make connections between their daily and spiritual lives so that they can bring their whole and authentic selves to the world. She also serves on the board of Forma: The Network for Christian Formation, represents Province 7 on the Episcopal Office of Campus Ministry Council of Advice, and is a student with Bexley Seabury Seminary.