Gone fishing in the middle of the workplace
by Richard Spence

(published in Anglican Taonga)

Our Lord famously enjoined his followers to fish for people[1]. Simon Peter and the others fished with nets, and for a thousand years Peter's heirs imagined they could hold the faith in a net from which none might flee. But there are several ways of fishing and that's only one In later centuries, it seemed that fishing for people might be better modelled on angling using a lure, in this case the lure being the promise of eternal bliss. Then in the twentieth century this Church set about evangelising asscuba ministry model though fishing with craypot or hinaki -- we made the trap as inviting as we could, set it in place and waited for the fish to arrive.

And yet, another fishing model is available to us -- that of the scuba diver -- the person who enters the fishes' own world, who shares the zone that the fish themselves inhabit. Initiatives in Lay ministry -- where these have been undertaken willingly rather than reluctantly -- are built on the scuba diver model. Another manifestation of the scuba diver model is the worker priest.

A worker priest, in my understanding, is one who exercises a priestly ministry while depending on a secular employer to put the groceries on the table. Such clergy are no drain on the Church's coffers and may look like a cheap option. But to concentrate on the stipendiary aspect is to miss the point. What is significant about the worker priest's situation is the challenge of combining being both a good priest with being a good employee.

For that reason, worker priests are sometimes called bi-vocational, reflecting that God has called them to two vocations -- one within the Church, one outside it.[2] Priests who are also office workers, factory workers, trade workers rely on the wages or salary for the necessities of life. But their secular occupation may also be a calling, and in its own sphere a godly one.

Such a ministry closely parallels what the Church asks of its committed Laypeople. The challenge is not to balance two callings one against the other, but to unite and integrate them. Secular and sacred callings need not be at odds with each other, any more than ministry and marriage are. In the life of the worker priest, secular career is informed by ministry, and ministry by the secular calling.

A different model

Accustomed to patterns of ministry formed around the norm of the full-time, stipended Vicar, the Church is presently ill prepared to sustain the ministry of worker priests. It needs to recognise that such ministry calls for exceptional time management and exceptional energy management. The worker priest in fulltime secular employment may, without damaging their health, commit about eight hours a week to the Church. These hours are precious and it's in everyone's interest that they be used productively. Hard decisions have to be made about what is peripheral to the Gospel and what central; for it is only the essential that the worker priest has time and energy for.

Worker priests need to be fully formed spiritually and theologically. There is no case for lowering standards on the grounds that their ministry makes little demand on the finances of parish and diocese. On the contrary, for the foreseeable future the worker priest, being a strange animal, needs the accreditation of the most conventional training available.

That said, somebody needs to acknowledge that worker priests are still priests while they are at office, shop or factory. Co-workers are people of God as are the parishioners of St X's, and the priest's workplace becomes another field for ministry. Secular society is less unspiritual than it may appear, as the worker priest quickly discoverers. True, the folk at the office or factory are less likely to be seen in church on Sunday, but their spiritual needs are real. Increasingly, they are willing to share their concerns with a priest who, from Monday to Friday, works alongside them doing what they do.

So what happens to a worker priest who loses their secular employment, whether by redundancy or retirement? The question needs to be addressed in advance and with some delicacy. How will the individual handle the situation, and how will the Church use a bi-vocational priest who abruptly becomes uni-vocational? It's an issue and a predictable one, and one that needs to be addressed at ordination or licensing, long before the situation presents itself. Nobody wants a useful worker priest to suddenly transform into an embarrassing liability. Nor should the individual experience a second redundancy to compound the first.

Three dangers

Three dangers attend the ministry of the worker priest. The first is to spend too much time and energy conducting Sunday services. Any priest needs to balance liturgical ministry with pastoral, and the worker priest is no exception. Fortunately, the developing pattern of modern family life is tending to push a good deal of pastoral care into evenings and weekends, so with good organisation the problem is not insuperable.

A second danger is the delusion of self-sufficiency. Some kindly people, seeking to avoid the wretched label "non-stipendiary", apply to worker priests the term "self-supporting". Yet this too is inappropriate, for they are self-supporting only in a financial sense. The support they truly require is firm, proactive supervision, ideally by somebody who clearly understands the issues they face.

The Supervisor of a worker priest has another duty: to stop their charge from falling into individuation. Trapped in shop, office or factory from Monday to Friday, worker priests are unavailable for clergy events that take place during the week. Their excuse for non-attendance is both convenient and undeniable, but the consequences are unfortunate. Not only do they miss out on opportunities for continuing education and refreshment; they also miss out on the clubby events which sustain the corporateness of clerical life. A disconnected priest handicaps everybody's ministry including their own.

The third and most difficult danger -- and it must be confronted -- is that of Mt 6:24: "No one can serve two masters..." Spiritual direction, of a more than usually directive character, is needed. For the Church in selection and ordination, for the individual every day, this will be a challenge and a test. Nevertheless it is the same difficulty that the committed Layperson has to deal with, and for that reason the worker priest's ministry has particular significance.

Saint Paul the tent-maker gave us a different model of ministry than Saint Peter the fisher with nets. The tentmaker's spiritual descendants -- the clergy who combine a secular vocation with a sacred one -- have a particular ministry to offer in the twenty-first century. To sustain such ministry will be a challenge for a Church accustomed to the Vicar model, but the benefits may well be substantial.

Richard Spence

1 Mt 4:19, Mr 1:17
2 Priests who are also mothers know about this too.

Reproduced with many thanks to Richard and Anglican Taonga

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