Years ago, a volunteer who was serving on our front desk, said to me: “Robert, I just found out that not all priests make the same salary. Why is that?” I replied teasingly, “Because priests like me deserve more money than lazy, good for nothing priests!” She laughed and said, “I guess that’s right.”
I have been very fortunate over the years to have served in a parish that pays its rector much more than tiny rural parishes are able to afford. All the while, frankly, I have realized that the priests who serve in tiny rural parishes have it much harder than I ever have. They might not put in as many hours as I do each week or deal with as much stress but they are under much more pressure than me in many ways. They serve virtually all alone while I have always had a talented staff to share the workload and generate ideas. I get to listen to wonderful clergy colleagues preach and teach while those priests serving by themselves do not have such inspiration. The vast majority of Episcopal churches have only one priest and often that priest can serve only part-time due to financial restrictions. In my career I have received financial benefits more than other priests and the many other benefits associated with resource size congregations. It feels like the difference between a two-parent household with ample income and family support as opposed to a single-parent family living in poverty. Neither is easy all the time but the latter is infinitely harder.
Were I to believe that I have fully merited being in a place like St. John’s for so long and think the benefits are exclusively due to my hard work and ingenuity, you would be right to correct me and tell me that good fortune has played a huge part in my career. Sometimes we look at our lives only with the lens of reward and punishment. When we use only that lens, we wrongly associate all our good fortune with the effort we have put in. When we use only that lens, we conclude that those who have less good fortune somehow have brought that on themselves by a poor work ethic or bad decisions. “If they had worked as hard as me, they would have it better,” we conclude from such an outlook.
In that way of thinking, we totally lose track of the great gift that life is. We easily fall into thoughts about who deserves what in this world. We easily forget that life itself is a gift. We easily forget that the various worldly economic systems reward many of us far beyond our merit and hurt others who are at least as deserving as we are. I might think I am smarter and work harder than others. But, even if that may be true, I cannot take credit for either. My smarts were either given to me at birth or developed in an education system that favors people like me. Sure I work hard but where does that energy come from? How do I account for the good health which has allowed me to rise early each day virtually pain free and move through the day effortlessly. Give me a few health problems and my world would look entirely different. There honestly isn’t much in life that I have actually earned. And certainly I don’t deserve anything better than anyone else.
I’ve received one comment in particular about my retirement next year that has caught me by surprise. “Congratulations, you’ve earned it!”, I’ve heard from a few different people. That doesn’t sound exactly accurate to me for a couple reasons. I’ve persevered over the years and have served longer than the norm but I can’t take all the credit for that.
I will receive certain financial benefits when I retire. I will receive a pension. Many professionals do not receive such. The other professions offer a higher annual income but most require the individuals to provide for their own retirement. While I won’t enter retirement with a big nest egg that I have accumulated, I will have the assurance of an annual pension, one that I have not contributed to. My employers over the years have contributed to the Church Pension Fund. Each year the parishes I have worked for have paid 19% of my salary to a pooled fund managed by the Episcopal Church. I will receive a monthly amount based on my years of service and annual earnings. Once again I will receive far more than someone working in a smaller place. In retirement I will receive government benefits such as Social Security and Medicare. Yes, I have personally been paying 15% of my salary every year into that pooled resource but chances are very good that I will receive far more in benefits in my retirement than I ever paid in while employed.
Those of us who have worked hard over a period of many years may easily think we deserve the benefits we will receive. We also may be tempted to think those who do not work as hard or even those who cannot work at all don’t deserve such benefits. We may even refer to their payments as entitlements and see ours as earned benefits.
Who deserves what in this world? That’s a question I’ll leave you with. I’m not exactly sure of the answer myself. But for me personally, what I have received and will receive in this world, financially and otherwise, seems a whole lot more than I could ever earn. Is my life a gift from God or is it a reward based on good performance. That answer seems obvious and has some pretty big implications for how I should live each day.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.