For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God? (1 Timothy 3:5)
The church leader must be “one that governs well his own house.” Even those who are without the church have the saying that one who is a good manager of a house will be a good statesman. For the church is, as it were, a small household. (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Timothy, 10. in Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.)
There are many things that happen in the lives of brother priests that break our hearts; you know the full list so I won’t repeat it here. But despite the long list, surely one of the most heartbreaking has to do with the financial destitution of older priests and their families.
Yes, it hurts when we see young priests with their families struggling to get by, but the pain is even more acute when it comes to older priests and their families. America remains a place where the hard-working and enterprising young or middle-aged man can pull himself and his family up by the bootstraps… but for older priests who find themselves with mounting bills, increasing health problems, no savings, no assets, no retirement plan, and either serving in a parish that cannot (or will not) pay him a living wage or who, because of infirmity simply can no longer serve? Not so much. It’s not like we have homes for retired priests and their families (perhaps some dioceses do, but they are the exception here in America).
This is the reality that faces every priest that does not take his future – and the future of his family – seriously.
I get sad when I see this happen to older priests… but I get angry when I see younger priests doing the same things that that ruined the lives of those older priests. Priests need priests, and sometimes they need priests to talk some sense into them; so I’ll say it here and now (and ask others to join me in repeating this message until it becomes the kind of norm that Saints Paul and Chrysostom (as above) expected it to be):
If you are being financial irresponsible (i.e. are living beyond your means, are not working your way out of debt, don’t have an emergency fund, aren’t saving for retirement, and don’t have health and life insurance), not only are you failing in your role as a man, a husband, and a father; YOU ARE NOT CURRENTLY FIT FOR THE PRIESTHOOD. If this is you GET HELP NOW.
Again, I putting it bluntly because it’s that important.
The priesthood doesn’t pay much, so many of us have been in your shoes. But we took ownership of our lives and responsibilities and sweated and bled our way out. We’ll help you do the same (here’s the plan I used; contact me and I’ll walk you through it). But know this: if you don’t get help, you really are a danger to yourself, to your family, and to your community; the very three sets of people you have been called by God to serve! Bishops and wives will eventually lose patience with men that are dangerous to their parishes, and families.
You can still be the man, the husband, the father, and the priest God called you to be, but it’s going to take some serious sacrifice. Christ didn’t consider His Godhead so much that He wasn’t willing to become man for the salvation of the ones He loved and served; no priest should consider his priesthood so much the he isn’t willing to work three extra jobs – and even walk away from the priesthood itself – for the sake of the ones he loves and serves.
Is that harsh? Yes, it is. There are plenty of things that disqualify a man for the priesthood. The inability to run a household is one of them. Not only does it indicate the kind of managerial incompetence that automatically renders a man unfit for parish leadership, debt create stresses and temptations that make priests and the members of their families vulnerable in spiritual warfare (this stuff is real).
Personally, I think that a financial background check should be part of the screening we do on every candidate for ordination and that credit score checks should be part of some sort of periodic evaluation for every clergyman; but that’s probably not going to happen any time soon. Ditto for making sure seminary education is inexpensive enough to allow students to graduate debt-free (the fact that we actually encourage – much less allow – priests to start their priesthood with debt THAT WE OURSELVES PUT THEM INTO is beyond my understanding).
We am I so hard on this? Because I’ve seen lives ruined, families suffer, and parishes broken by men who did not take responsibility for their financial security. I love those men. I love their families. I love their parishes. I love every priest (including you); and I simply don’t want to see any of them suffer as martyrs to their own irresponsibility.
Yours in Christ,
PS Obviously not every priest’s family that suffers from debt etc. is the victim of irresponsibility. Many victims of this fallen world are completely innocent (or as close as makes no never mind). God bless and protect them. While it is true that not every financial disaster is avoidable, we have to admit that financial risk management is not something that all priests take as seriously as they should. This has to change.