The Day to Day Life of an Anglican Parish Priest
First, let’s get the jokes over with:
“Great job!” says the friendly humorist, “You priests only have to work one day a week!”
The parish priest – indeed any ordained person – is most visible at the weekly Sunday service. There he or she stands before a crowd of people and performs a ritual, or says a lot of words, for about an hour. This is followed by a few minutes at the church door shaking hands. But is that really the sum total of a priest’s working week? Of course not.
There is another, and somewhat kinder stereotype of the clergy that you may have heard: “You guys are on call 24/7!” This conjures up an image of a priest sitting quietly by the telephone day and night, and when the phone rings, going out to pray with someone who is dying, or to calm down a family dispute, or to hold someone’s hand while they identify a body in a morgue.
I don’t suppose there are many priests who have not been called out in the middle of the night, but such dramatic moments only happen occasionally. The picture is inadequate simply because a priest doesn’t do a lot of sitting around when the emergencies are not happening.
So what is a parish priest’s life really like?
I should emphasize that this is a discussion of the life of a parish priest. Not all priests are parish priests. Hospital chaplains and military chaplains are full time jobs in which priests are frequently employed, and such people have very different lives from those of clergy who serve in congregations. Monks and nuns can be priests, too, and their lives are different again. But the vast majority of Anglican priests function in parish leadership, and that is what this article is about.
And, even after limiting the topic in this way, if I try to describe what your life is going to be like as a parish priest, I still have to say “it depends.”
The daily duties of a parish priest can be extremely different from one parish to another, depending on the size of the parish, and what sort of people it serves. It varies, too, depending upon your own set of skills – the gifts that God has given specifically to you.
All of this is due to the most important fact about parish work: your daily life is very much up to you.
There is no clock to punch, there is no supervisor breathing down your neck observing your every move. Even if you are on the staff of a large parish with several clergy, where you will certainly report to the Rector 1 (perhaps at the beginning of every day, perhaps once or twice a week), most of the time you are on your own – meeting people, preparing group sessions, visiting hospitals – whatever duties have been assigned to you are going to be done at your own speed and in your own way.
Few priests, however, are part of a large church staff. The greatest part of your working life will be spent in parishes where you are the only paid priest, and all that you do will be on your own initiative and according to your own priorities.
Some may therefore say, “Great! Then this is a job where I can work only one hour a week, or wait for the phone to ring before I go anywhere!”
I suppose you could, but the priesthood is, after all, a vocation, and few are interested in abusing it like that. In fact many clergy work extremely hard, putting in long hours, simply because they know that there is more work to be done in Christ’s name than anyone can possibly do.
But you don’t get much supervision.
Or I should say, you don’t get much structured supervision. Because there is another thing that is true for all parish work: you actually have an enormous number of unacknowledged and unofficial supervisors; namely the members of the congregation.
The goldfish bowl
Church members tend to take a great interest in their Rector. Here is a person who is entitled to tell them how to live (in sermons, and sometimes in individual counselling), so they tend to notice how his or her own life is lived. I remember very vividly a moment when I was about thirty years old and Rector of a church in a small town. I had stayed up late one night, with the light burning in my upstairs study well past midnight, and I can’t remember what was the reason... was I writing a sermon? or reading an important book? or just being idle and playing solitaire? I don’t recall. But the next morning I was in the main street coffee shop and a parish member sidled up to me to say, “Up pretty late last night, weren’t you?” I didn’t even have the presence of mind to retort, “And what were you doing up so late yourself?” I just admitted that I had indeed been up when sensible people should have been in bed. But I have never forgotten the lesson: parishioners 2 note how you spend your time.
You do have a boss, in the person of the Bishop, but he or she is not in your parish every day, and will not know what you do 3 unless they get an angry phone call – and bishops do get angry phone calls. “Our Rector didn’t show up for midweek service; or, forgot an appointment; or, changed the church furnishing; or....” Any number of things can bother parishioners to the point of giving the only known supervisor a call.
Prior to calling the Bishop, however, they will likely call the churchwardens. 4 A pleasant and affectionate warden, that you like and trust, can still take you aside to say, “I’ve been getting a lot of calls about your...” and then you’ll hear some critique of your policies, or your sermons, or your most recent session of the Confirmation Class. It could be anything.
So you shouldn’t ever think that as a solitary parish priest you are in a totally unsupervised position. The supervision is random, and unstructured, but it is most definitely there.
The only person who should be frightened by the above paragraphs, however, is the person who is looking for a job where they are not accountable to anyone and can live to please themselves. If you are such a person, you should not even think of being a priest! (a) because it’s simply wrong, and an abuse of the Gospel, and (b) because before long you will find that you’ll go nuts living in the goldfish bowl of the church.
Probably your most important supervisor is located right in your own heart. Conscience is the mechanism deep inside everyone that God uses to call, guide, and direct us in the way that we should go. The still small voice saying, “Don’t you think you should give Mrs Wilkins a call?” or “Maybe next Sunday’s sermon could be a little less slap-dash than last week’s?” needs to be listened to attentively.
Now this assumes that a priest’s conscience is in good working order. However, some consciences are overactive, and some are underactive. Let’s use time off as an example. It is morally right to take time away from work – a weekly “rest” is one of the Ten Commandments, after all – but a priest with an overactive conscience feels guilty whenever he or she has some recreation; while a priest with an underactive conscience slacks off far more than the standard time off and vacations of parish work would allow. 5
Regular daily prayer, examination of conscience, spiritual retreats and visits to a good spiritual director are important methods for keeping one’s conscience in good shape, and are as much a part of a priest’s daily duties as are any of the standard parish clergy tasks, to which we will now turn.
The Basic Duties of a Parish Priest
All parish priests have to do all the things in the table below. The list is arranged alphabetically, because it is impossible to rank these jobs in order of importance (for example, presiding at church services is hugely important, but so is pastoral care of the parishioners, and making sure the organization runs smoothly). Of course you will be better at some things than at others, and it will be tempting to put all your energies into whatever you are good at, but the fact is you will need to develop basic competency in every single item on this list. 6
A “day in the life” of an Anglican parish priest
Finally we come to the section that you were looking for in this article. What is it like to be a parish priest? The following would be a pretty typical day for the Rector of a mid-size suburban parish. Size and location of a parish make a big difference in how clergy spend their time, and I will turn to that in a minute, but for now, this is how, in a North American Anglican church, a day might play out for the Rector sometime around the beginning of Lent.
(I’ll tell it as if you were that Rector:)
The day begins by meeting a parishioner for breakfast at 7:00 AM. This is a bit of a strain because you were out until after 10 PM last night at the monthly Board Meeting. 10 But you want to connect with this fairly young businessman in hopes that he will take on some leadership in the church, so you agree to breakfast. The conversation is pleasant, but at this point he doesn’t want to commit to anything, and is merely interested in getting to know his priest, and the parish programmes, a little bit better. If there is a big issue on his mind, he keeps it to himself. However he suggests another breakfast for about a month from today, and you accept.
It’s about 9:15 AM when you arrive at the church. This is your normal time to get there, because you try to be in the church office for an hour or two every morning. For one thing, that’s when the part-time secretary/bookkeeper is at work; for another, this provides a regular time that your parishioners can find you if they wish.
Upon arrival, you spend some time with the secretary, asking her about her day. She proudly hands you the draft minutes from last night’s Board Meeting for your quick perusal. You praise her for this, because you know that getting them out in a timely manner has been a challenge for her. She then tells you that a man, who regularly makes the rounds of churches seeking financial assistance, is waiting in the vestibule.
You go out and greet this person by name (you have tried to help him before). He gives his tale of woe, and you carefully ask whether he has spoken to his welfare worker (“They’re too busy and give me the brush-off”). You ask how his job search has been going (“Temporary labour doesn’t want me because my back is bad”). You congratulate him because he was able to live on his social assistance for three months without running out; then you go into your office and prepare a voucher that he can take to the local supermarket and exchange for $10 worth of groceries.
When you arrived in this parish a few years ago, you found that people frequently came to the church door looking for handouts. So you made an appointment with the store manager and after a few meetings were able to set up with him and his staff a system of grocery vouchers. They agreed to honour vouchers signed by you, treating each as having a maximum ten dollar value. Once a month the supermarket would simply invoice the church, and the treasurer would then send them a cheque for the total amount that has been redeemed. Money for this comes out of a budget line called “Rector’s Discretionary Fund.” The project is extra work for the supermarket staff: not only must they keep track of the amounts of money involved, they must also monitor what the bearers try to purchase (chewing gum and junk food are not permitted, for example). So you make it your business to keep a good relationships with the store, encouraging and thanking them for this outreach.
You give the voucher to your needy guest and say goodbye, then go to your desk. Someone has placed an envelope on top of your papers. You open it, and find an itinerary for a group of parishioners that will be going to Africa later this year. This group has been raising money for a water-supply project in a village where the Anglican parish is your church’s prayer partner. The itinerary looks good. You are proud of these people and their project, but this note doesn’t require any action on your part today, so you set it aside.
Next you look over the draft minutes of last night’s meeting (which you chaired), making notes. The main business had been the Africa trip, which the Mission and Service Committee of your parish has well in hand. True, they reported some frustration because they hadn’t heard from their African contact person for three weeks, but the board member who is doing the coordinating is a travel agent and thinks that there is no reason yet to be alarmed.
You don’t see too many things that need correcting in the minutes – just some terminology here and there – so you go over these few items with the secretary and leave the minutes in her care. She promises to have the finished draft distributed to the board members via email by tomorrow. You thank her, and return to your office.
Phone messages follow. One of them is a prospective bride who wants to know how much you would charge for her wedding; another is an Altar Guild member who wants to know if the palms for Palm Sunday have been ordered yet; and the third is a parishioner who asks whether you know that Jim Hathfield is in hospital?
You reach the bride-to-be and tell her the price for weddings that was set by the church board. You also explain that she and her fiancé will have to see you in your office for some premarital preparation, and it would be good if they were to attend Sunday service from time to time. She does not actually belong to your church and doesn’t sound interested in premarital interviews. She hangs up without committing herself to anything. You make a note to yourself to ask the secretary if there is some way she could screen calls like that for you.
Second phone message – about the ordering of palms. This is something the Altar Guild itself can look after without your involvement, but you courteously return the complainer’s call anyway. After a few niceties, you ask her if she has checked with Mary, the Altar Guild president, about the palm order. The complainer hasn’t, and begins to offer excuses, but you know very well that the real reason is the two women don’t get along. You say “There is lots of time yet. Perhaps Mary has already done it, and the palms just haven’t arrived. Anyhow it is Mary’s responsibility and I am sure she’ll come through. You could always offer to help her with the palms, which would be an inoffensive way of reminding her yourself, don’t you think?”
The third phone message – about Jim Hathfield being in hospital – is from a woman who sits with Jim’s wife, Ethel, at church services (Jim himself you don’t see very much). You call her, but it turns out that she doesn’t know anything more than what she has said in her message. Although you wanted to prepare for tonight’s adult study class, you decide to drive over to the hospital right away. You tell the secretary where you’re headed, and off you go.
You locate Ethel and she thanks you ever so much for coming, and says that really everything is okay. It turns out that the patient is in minor surgery, getting treatment for a hernia – a process that has been in the works for several months. “I guess Isabel called you,” she said. “She’s so sweet! But really, the doctor said that he’s treating this early enough that it’s not a very big deal.”
You sit down and visit with Ethel anyway, and before long a nurse comes to say that Jim has been taken to the recovery room. You ask if they would like you to come along, and Ethel says, “That would be very nice.” Jim is extremely groggy, but accepts a kiss from Ethel and assures her that he is fine. You stay in the background until Ethel motions you to come forward, whereupon Jim cracks a joke: “The priest’s here! Am I dying?” “Of course not,” you say, “I’m happy to make a hospital call even if someone just has a hangnail!” Jim and Ethel laugh. “Anyway,” you continue, “I don’t intend to stay long. I’m just glad to see that this is minimal and comparatively successful. Would you like me to offer a prayer before I leave?” They consent, you lay your hands on Jim’s head saying, “Behold, visit and relieve this your servant Jim...” and not long afterwards you are in your car on the way home for lunch.
The house is quiet; the family is in school or at work. 11 You have some lunch, then go to your personal corner to say the Daily Office 12 and spend some time in prayer. Although the Daily Office is intended for morning and evening, you hardly ever find solitary time in those phases of the day, so instead you’ve developed a practice where you have a single long-ish prayer session once a day in the early afternoon. It works for you most of the time. The familiar words of the psalms and the prayers, along with the regular round of Scripture readings, anchors your day, although like thousands before you who have tried to follow a regular prayer discipline you have to wrestle with distraction, and on days like today, sleepiness.
After a while, prayer completed, you begin to prepare for this evening’s Bible study session. You’ve started a group that meets each week to discuss the Lections 13 for next Sunday. Although the people in the group come well prepared, and are willing to venture opinions on the passages, they usually ask you to contribute some technical background from the world of Bible scholarship. You spend the next hour or two “cracking the books,” taking notes and trying to cram as much into your head as you can about what scholars and preachers have said about this week’s readings. Despite such hard cramming, you enjoy this group, and find that the discussion often gives you good material for your sermons.
Some older parishioners would prefer a day-time study group, but you have encouraged evening sessions in order to allow working adults a chance to participate, and you are pleased that your group has a good gender mix and is mostly middle-aged. However you’re thinking about creating a second group – for retirees – that would begin with the mid-week 9:30 AM Eucharist that your parish has had (with poor attendance) time out of mind.
Your family members come home in the later afternoon. Since becoming a parent, you’ve made it a practice to devote this part of your day to family life. For you, the daily evening meal is an essential building block for any family, and you’ve long since let it be known that no one should miss it without a very good reason. 14 However, because of the upcoming evening study group, and because your spouse had to work today until almost 6:00 PM, tonight’s meal is store-bought pizza: simple and quick. But the younger ones like it, and there is good conversation around the dinner table about the day’s doings.
When your children were very young, you tried not to miss their bed-time, but thankfully they are a bit older now, because your job does takes you out of the house several evenings a week. Last night’s Board Meeting, for example, and tonight’s study group are quite typical. And tomorrow night you have an appointment with a young bride and groom (not the one who called you about pricing, earlier today).
After dinner and dishes, you go over to the church to meet the study group. They gather, pray, discuss, and grow in the faith, and you do enjoy the session. Several items that your afternoon’s research uncovered prove to be most interesting to everyone. Finally, at about 9:45 PM, you say goodnight to the last participant, lock up the church and wearily head for home. Checking your appointment book you note with pleasure that there is nothing scheduled for the morning. It’s probably safe to delay arriving at the church until 10:00 or 10:30 AM.
Size matters 15
This “day” that I’m describing here is something that would happen in a small to middle-sized congregation. In such a church there might be 75 to 150 people in church on a Sunday. The secretary only works mornings. There is a (very minimally paid) organist who is a civil servant during the day. A paid janitorial service cleans the church once a week. That is the setting in which our imaginary priest works.
The smallest churches generally have no paid secretary at all, and any required building maintenance is done by parishioners themselves. In such a setting the Rector will likely do most or all of the secretarial work – Sunday bulletins, church newsletters, etc.; and may also take up hammer and saw, or paintbrush, or broom and dustpan, from time to time.
In churches that are larger than the one in my scenario (let’s say 300 or more attending church on a Sunday) there are staff members who prepare services, choose music, visit hospitals, and run classes. In the very biggest churches of all, the Rector relates to the staff team and board members, but rarely to the membership. In such churches, the Rector is probably expected to exercise a specialty: strong preaching, for example; or property expansion; or financial development; or a television ministry.
If your parish is in the inner city, an enormous amount of time will be required to deal with the poor, the homeless, and people with special issues: mental challenges, addiction, immigrants, and visible minorities. As well, many inner city church buildings were once very grand and imposing, and their large structures can be a constant strain on time and money.
Parishes in neighbourhoods with a high average education and income will have many people who can work in committee, who can initiate sophisticated projects, and who are used to having tasks delegated. There the priest is much more of a team leader and coordinator. Neighbourhoods with low incomes and education, on the other hand, may have very willing parishioners, but they will need assistance from the priest in taking on tasks that require complex organization and leadership.
Rural churches usually reflect the seasonal cycles of farming. There your parishioners might not be able to show up for anything much at the church during seedtime and harvest – sometimes not even Sunday services. So, when they’re out on the fields there is less for the priest to do, other than visit the sick. By contrast, in the city, apart from Christmas and Easter the most intense church participation – and the busiest time for the priest – often takes place in spring and fall (the very time farmers are busy and unavailable).
Many small towns have health centres and nursing homes, and your visits there would be similar to that fictional encounter with “Jim Hathfield” and his wife. But serious medical treatments would happen in the big hospitals of far-away cities, and you would sometimes spend an entire day on the road driving to and from a single hospital visit. Thus the priest in the country has a different pattern of busyness than a priest in the city.
However, it is my impression that the average day of the average priest of the average Anglican church is roughly like the fictional example above.
Gifts and Talents
The New Testament says that God always provides gifts to the people of the church so that their mission in the world can be accomplished successfully. 16 All members of the parish will exhibit some of the gifts of God, and I might stress that an important aspect of any parish priest’s work is bringing out and encouraging all such gifts in the lives of parishioners.
There have been at least twenty-seven “Gifts of the Spirit” identified by Bible students 17 – some with very technical names and meanings (“prophecy,” for example, and it’s sister, “interpretation” – or “apostleship”). However, understanding those gifts and applying them to the work of a priest would be a whole essay in itself, so I will stick to the more familiar words for skills and talents that English speaking people can easily recognize. Be assured that the theologically specific gifts – technically known as charismata – are embedded in all the elements of the list below. Indeed, three of them – “Teaching,” “Leadership” and “Administration” – are actual charismata in and of themselves, even though I’m using the words in their common English meaning.
In this article I have tried to show that the daily life of an Anglican parish priest is very much up to the individual. We priests have few direct supervisors, although in fact all of our parishioners are our “supervisors” in a very unoffical and unstructured way (because parishioners care very much about how we spend our time). We have certain jobs that must be done in a parish, and I’ve tried to list as many of them as possible. Also, priests need various skills and talents in order to accomplish such jobs, and I have listed and described some of those. The imaginary “day in a life” that I created is based on my own experience, and that of my peers, but I think most active clergy would say that it is pretty true-to-life. If you’ve read this, and think I have missed something important, I would be more than happy to hear from you.
If you are reading this page because you’re wondering if you yourself are called to parish ministry, I hope that what I’ve written will help with that discernment. An additional essay, entitled “How do I know if I’m called to be an Anglican Priest?” may be found here.
Three other places in this website give additional perspective on what it’s like to be a priest: (1) “Chaplain or Coach?” – my own reflections on the nature of parish ministry that I wrote upon leaving a parish where I had served for seventeen years; (2) A letter to a friend saying what I, as a working parish priest, was doing as Christmas approached; and (3) a sermon given at the ordination of priests.
(The Rev’d Canon) Tony Harwood-Jones
December 23, 2011 (with subsequent revisions)
© 2011-2012, Tony Harwood-Jones
1 I use the word “Rector” throughout this article. But the word could just as easily be “Incumbent” or “Priest in charge” or “Vicar.” In all cases I mean ‘the priest with primary responsibility for clergy leadership in the congregation.’ For more clarification, see the articles under any of these words in the Glossary of Anglican Clergy Titles.
3 Some bishops deliberately call their clergy in (or visit them) on a regular basis for a one-on-one reporting session, but such a practice is not consistent throughout the church. As well, very few dioceses and parishes use job descriptions for clergy – so reporting sessions, while extremely valuable, are not systematic in the oversight of a priest’s work. Don’t get me wrong here – a bishop who asks “How’s it going? Are there any problems? What are your goals? How are you feeling about your work?” is a very valuable support, and creates a splendid opportunity for creative guidance, but the fact remains that time spent by a priest “on the job” from day to day is entirely at his or her own initiative.
4 A churchwarden (or more simply “warden”) is the most senior lay official in an Anglican parish. There are two wardens in every parish – equal in authority to one another. They are lay persons and volunteers, but very often see themselves as responsible for the well-being – and the behaviour – of the Rector.
5 In most parts of the world there is a standard for clergy time off and vacation, but it will be different, depending on your diocese. A very common standard in the dioceses where I have worked is: one day off per week and a month’s vacation each year. I know clergy whose parishes consider two days off per week to be acceptable, and my own diocese currently has a six-week annual vacation. Study leave is also granted in many parts of the church, over and above time off and vacation.
6 It is worth noting that seminaries don’t often teach these basic skills. Seminaries are good at church history, scripture, pastoral psychology, doctrine, and the interface between the church and the current social order. But the new priest sometimes has to “fly by the seat of the pants,” learning the hard way how to manage staff, write a good bulletin notice, read a balance sheet, teach a Confirmation class, or form good relationships with undertakers.
10 “Board meeting,” is just a generic term. It could be the “Parish Council” or the “Vestry” or a number of other names for the regular monthly administrative meeting of congregational leaders, who are usually elected to this body at an Annual General Meeting.
11 Okay, okay! I said that this is written as if you are the Rector, but I don’t know if you are married or single, have little kids, big kids, grown up kids or no kids. So if this doesn’t fit your family life, just play along with me for a bit. Please?
12 For a discussion of the “Daily Office,” which is a form of daily prayer, see the “Anglican Priest FAQ” page, and the heading, “Are Anglican priests required to say certain daily prayers?” Click here to go there.
13 “Lections” – Scripture selections from a “Lectionary,” which is a list of Bible readings systematically arranged for use over a period of time. Anglicans generally follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which gives an Old Testament reading, one or more psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel for every Sunday and many holy days over a three year cycle. The Revised Common Lectionary is a shared project of a number of Christian denominations.
14 Single clergy have an advantage here. Without family obligations, they can frequently accept invitations to have dinner in parishioners’ homes – a very effective means of building relationships between priest and people. The advantage for the married clergy is that by being unavailable to have dinner with parishioners they are easily able to model good family life. Letting it be known that your daily family dinner is something pretty important in your home is an excellent teaching tool.
15 An important little book on the effect of size on the life of a congregation is called Sizing up your Congregation, by Arlin J. Rothauge. It is available for free download from this page: http://congregationalresources.org/sizing-congregation-new-member-ministry.
16 I have always enjoyed I Corinthians 1:7, where St. Paul says to the fractious and troubled Christians of Corinth that they “... are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”