Some people express surprise when meeting one of our Orthodox Catholic priests in a “non-church” environment. Yet if someone asked you to imagine a monastery, what sort of a place would you imagine? A place of retreat and prayer perhaps? An isolated spiritual oasis distant from the constraints and concerns of the material world? A place where men and women who have renounced the world live dedicated lives of consecration and service to God? For sure, monasteries are often all of those things, but a common foundation for all of them is material self-sufficiency, a shared or common economy i.e. the monastery, the monks and the nuns, must usually support their life of contemplation financially and physically themselves. They are not so divorced from the world, yet everyone imagines their lives and the places they live in, “to be holy.”
Just like the monks and nuns in monasteries and in common with many other Orthodox Catholic clergy around the world, some of our priests are “bi-vocational”, meaning that they combine regular, secular employment with their priestly ministry, financially supporting themselves and their families, contributing like members of their congregations to the Church and her ministry where they live and work. Like the monks and nuns too, the clergy are also sanctifying i.e. making their lives holy by observing the canonical requirements to pray the Divine Office, offer the Divine Liturgies and administer the sacraments to the faithful who are also committed as Christians, “to be holy”. In many respects and contrary to a general rarified regard of clericalism, our clergy share literally in the same struggles of daily life as the laity and are thus perhaps better able to care and guide them in their pursuit of God than some other clergy, from whom all worldly cares have been removed; housing, sustenance, expenses, all the ordinary things of life, are no more taken for granted by our priests than anybody else.
“Tent-maker” ministry is sometimes used to describe this bi-vocational calling after the Apostle Paul who supported himself by making tents while living and preaching in Corinth (Acts 18:3). Unlike the other apostles in the early Christian Church, who devoted themselves entirely to their religious ministry and lived off the money donated by Church members (cf Acts 4:34-37), St Paul frequently performed outside work, not desiring to be a financial burden to the young Churches he founded. In Thessaloniki, St Paul states that he and his companions “worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:8). St Paul’s purpose in working was to set an example for the Christians, “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ” (cf Acts 18:1-3; 20:33-35; Philippians 4:14-16). He also hoped that his refusal to accept financial support would build his credibility among non-Christians, thus giving him the chance to win over more of them (cf 1 Corinthians 9:1-18) “If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.”
Our clergy find that by living in two worlds, they are exposed to people who might not otherwise meet an Orthodox Catholic priest. They are able to encourage co-workers who are searching for God and when appropriate, they can mention how an Orthodox Catholic might view a certain situation or issue. Seeds are being planted and awareness of our faith is being spread. The fact that our clergy often do not receive a salary makes a positive impression on some who have come to view the Church as a money-making enterprise more than a place of salvation. While Scripture is clear that a minister may be compensated for his work, it is also the case that throughout history, some have tarnished the priesthood by abusing this privilege. Our clergy want our missions to grow, and recognise that they can’t take money from them and expect them to grow at the same time, let alone function well or engage in charitable works. This also means that our clergy have no need to compromise on teaching for the sake of not “offending the hand that feeds” them!
Certainly, we wish to encourage laypeople with means to support our mission work and if our Mission blossoms into a full parish, it may be possible for one or some of our priests to receive the opportunity to become full-time pastors, and there is much that could be accomplished if that were so. We do ask that those with means prayerfully consider supporting our mission priests and perhaps establishing mission societies to help our clergy, so that they can dedicate more time to ministry. However, at this time, we think being bi-vocational is a blessing for our ministers and our Mission and they are just as dedicated as any full-time pastor, as time and circumstances allow.
Among the Brighton Oratory’s worker priests, two of our priests were formed at residential seminaries, another studied theology part time for five years holding down a demanding job and commuting! Two have considerable experience working in the hospitality and catering sectors, the civil service and small business, another in education and corporate City high finance. Three have lived, worked and studied abroad and collectively speak ten languages. We are truly blessed to have such a range of gifts and abilities to further our work in mission. However, our clergy need your prayers just assuredly as they pray for you. Fulfilling a bi-vocational ministry has many stresses and strains, competing priorities and frustrations, and we all need God’s grace and assistance.