Opportunities for Work as a Priest

As a priest, it will be your task to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to fashion your life in accordance with its precepts. You are to love and serve the people among whom you work, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. You are to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to share in the administration of Holy Baptism and in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, and to perform the other ministrations entrusted to you.

(Book of Common Prayer, “The Examination” from Ordination of a Priest, p. 531)

The ministry of a priest can be done anywhere. But finding a job where you will be paid to do the work of a priest is not always easy.

If you are exploring the priesthood, it is important to also consider also how you will earn a living in your vocation. Jesus saves us from our sins, but not from our utility bills. Be realistic about the burden of seminary debt in your financial future. Be realistic about retirement planning, especially if you are discerning ordained ministry in your forties, fifties, or sixties. Be realistic about your willingness (and your partner or family’s willingness) to move across the country if you don’t find a position in the Diocese of Chicago or the geographic area of your choice.

There are a limited number of paid positions in congregational ministry, especially in the Diocese of Chicago. Jobs are competitive here; many priests are seeking full- and part-time positions in the churches of northern Illinois, especially in the Chicago area. More and more churches can afford to pay a priest only a part-time salary, which is not enough of an income to live on. Assistant positions are becoming scarce.

From Bishop Lee’s pastoral letter on the 2010 ordination sabbath:

“Half of all Episcopal congregations (50.7%) are small or family-sized congregations where average worship attendance is 70 persons or less (2007 Parochial Report data).* Our diocese mirrors The Episcopal Church average.

“Overall, only 63% of Episcopal parishes have at least one full-time paid clergy. Given the economic challenges, this percentage is expected to decrease. Another 25% are served by part-time clergy, unpaid clergy, retired priests, or by seminary students. The remainder report having no clergy at all or that they are served by supply or interim priests.*”

In this diocese, ordination is not a guarantee of paid work. Priests are free agents (think baseball!). So, while on the one hand our bishop won’t have the power to place you in a church you might not want to serve, on the other hand, you will be fully responsible for finding a job for yourself.

What kind of paid positions allow an ordained priest to do ministry? Here are a few examples:

  • Priest Serving a Congregation: part-time or full-time, as a rector, assistant rector, vicar, priest-in-charge, church planter, in a rural, urban, or suburban context.
  • Chaplain: in a hospital, nursing home, hospice, college, university, high school, or in the military. Many chaplaincy positions require more units of Clinical Pastoral Education than ordination in the Diocese of Chicago requires.
  • Non-profit work: doing advocacy, management, fundraising, social work. This sort of work may require an additional degree and relevant work experience.
  • Counseling: pastoral counseling, in private or group practice. This requires a specialized degree beyond a Master of Divinity.
  • Teacher, lecturer, or professor: in a high school or a college, university, or seminary. Teaching in higher education almost always requires a Ph.D.
  • Your current profession: doctor, organist, computer programmer, clinical psychologist. There are priests in this diocese who currently earn their living in each of these fields. Most also serve as associate priests who share in the ministry of a parish in a limited, unpaid capacity. It may be that your community is calling you to serve as a priest in the context where you work now; or that you will have to return to that profession to earn a living because you are unable to find a paid position as a priest. Please know that the church ordains into the service of a community. In fact, Episcopal Church canons recognize this with a requirement that one have secured a "cure of souls" (a community in which to exercise the office of priest) judged appropriate by the bishop prior to ordination.

Be realistic; however, there is no need to be pessimistic, especially if you are open to a variety of options for employment and compensation.

*From Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey by C. Kirk Hadaway.