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The importance of a priest's stipend

I was recently asked a question by my accountant.

“Can you put down what your salary is please?”

I thought about explaining that priests don’t get a salary – but I didn’t. It was easier just to go along with the practicality of the question. But it set me thinking. The modern Church of England seems more and more like a business. That’s another article perhaps, but there a measurements of almost everything. Talk of successes and failures of initiatives, The clergy are subject to ‘performance standard assessments’ – even if they are called by a (slightly) different name.

Priests don’t get a salary. They get a stipend instead. That still means an amount of money arriving in the bank every month – but there is a subtle difference.

Scrabble tiles spelling salary

A salary is an amount of money, pay for a task performed. A stipend is an allowance provided so that the priest doesn’t have to do a paid job.

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.

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 to live into slower, healthier, more prayerful rhythms of life in “defiance of the norms of our [frenetically paced] society.”

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 pm, 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.

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”?

Some weeks I feel like I have limitless flexibility with astoundingly little to do. I can write a sermon in the garden. I can nip 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 sandwich lunches. 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 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.

I feel the significance of this freedom the most when parishioners ask me to 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 holiday. 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 flavour. We’re paid so that we can pray for free.

This distinction doesn’t resolve all the tensions, 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.

Fr Andrew

(With thanks to Fr Zac Coons, whose article inspired this)

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