May 10, 2007
Workers in the Kingdom
— Courtney Wilder
The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago recently released the results of an eighteen-year-long study on job satisfaction and general happiness. One interesting finding reveals that members of the clergy are both most satisfied with their jobs and happiest overall. The position of clergy members at the top of these categories is somewhat anomalous within the context of the other results, which show that both job satisfaction and happiness are strongly linked to the prestige associated with an occupation. But as Tom Smith, Director of the General Social Survey at NORC, points out, "a number of very high prestige occupations do not finish at the top of either list."
An overwhelming 87.2 percent of clergy described themselves as "very satisfied" with their jobs; in contrast, only 47 percent of the general population described themselves this way. In the second, related set of results that NORC revealed, which measured happiness in general, clergy reported that they were "very happy," in great numbers — 67.2 percent versus 33.3 percent among the general population. Among the people who reported the least satisfaction with their jobs were roofers, waiters and servers, non-construction laborers, and bartenders. Those who reported the least amount of happiness overall also tended to have what Smith describes as "low-skill, manual and service occupations, especially involving customer service and food/beverage preparation and serving" — for example, garage and service station attendants, roofers, and machine operators.
Speculation abounded in media reports of the study as to why members of the clergy were first in both job satisfaction and happiness — but virtually none of the analyses were theological in nature. As the Chicago Tribune headline put it, "Money really can't buy happiness, study finds." Most news stories focused on the explanation that practicing one of the so-called helping professions made people happier and more satisfied with their jobs. Even news stories which included responses to the study from members of the clergy did not explore the concept of pastoral vocation, or touched only briefly on the idea of having a call from God and what this might do for one's happiness and job satisfaction.
The notion of vocation as a call from God to do a certain kind of work owes a great deal to Martin Luther. Luther's teaching on the theological significance of vocation had the effect of broadening the concept. He argued that "vocation" should not refer exclusively to a monastic calling, for even the occupations of laypeople are vocations. "On the basis of the Word of God," Luther wrote, "we pronounce the sure conviction that the way of life of a servant, which is extremely vile in the sight of the world, is far more acceptable to God than all the orders of monks."
This is closely related to Luther's position that faith, and not works, is salvific. As theologian Karlfried Froehlich puts it, "through his bold theological move of equalizing the value of all work before God," Luther was responsible for the "secularization" of the idea of vocation. He encouraged lay people to think of themselves as part of the priesthood of all believers, and thus to see their jobs as vocations in the sense that their work was blessed by God. The job of the pastor is necessary for good order, but should not be elevated above other work.
But if the NORC study is any indication, in modern American church circles clergy seem to have an especially strong sense of their work as vocation. To take up one example of how this calling is nurtured, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (my own denomination) has a detailed process of candidacy by which a prospective pastor is encouraged to discern her calling. Her home congregation, her synod, a candidacy committee, and seminary faculty are all asked to help a candidate for ministry reflect upon her call from God and to decide whether to pursue ordination. Different denominations approach ordination in different ways, but the NORC study results suggest that as a group, clergy are well supported in their vocational choices and see their professional lives as enriching and rewarding.
Of course, not every pastor is satisfied with the job, and not every pastor is happy. But for many pastors, the process of discernment is evidently successful, and the experience of their work as a vocation — a calling from God — is a powerful one.
"Job Satisfaction in the United States," by Tom W. Smith of NORC/The University of Chicago, can be downloaded at: www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/07/pdf/070417.jobs.pdf.
"Service to others not just a job / Clergy happiest in U.S. work
force, survey indicates," by Kristina Herrndobler and Barbara Karkabi
(Houston Chronicle, April 20, 2007), can be read online, after
registering, at: http://www.chron.com/CDA/archives/archive.mpl?id=2007_4329501.
"Money Really Can't Buy Happiness, Study Finds," by Barbara Rose (Chicago Tribune, April 17, 2007), can be read at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-0704160387apr17,1,259544.story?coll=chi-news-hed.
Courtney Wilder is a PhD candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "Secularism: Religious, Irreligious, and Areligious" by W. Clark Gilpin. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
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