Considering a Career in the Clergy? What You Need to Know

Clergymembers say it's a calling, not a career.

July 2, 2010 — -- A friend's daughter who's about to graduate from high school was recently asking for career suggestions on Facebook.

"Get your liberal arts degree, take a little bit of everything and wait to declare your major until you have a better idea of where your interests lie," offered one 40-something.

"Get yourself into a solid business or engineering program. You want to make money, don't you?" chimed in another."Go to seminary school!" suggested the youth pastor in the online crowd.

Amid the thunderous silence that befell the digital room, I couldn't help but wonder: Is a career in the clergy even a viable vocation these days? Didn't training to be a reverend or rabbi or monk or imam go out with eight-track tapes and rotary phones?

Admittedly, one of the last times I set foot in a temple was for my bat mitzvah nearly 30 years ago. You might say I'm the poster child for religious indifference.

But it's not just me. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 26 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are not affiliated with any particular religion. In comparison, when my Generation X peers were that same age, 20 percent of us were unaffiliated. And when our boomer parents were under 30, only 13 percent of them were unaffiliated.

Enrollment in theological schools is down too. The Association of Theological Schools, a collective of more than 250 North American graduate institutions, reports that overall enrollment has waned since 2005.

Still, the association reports that roughly 75,000 students are currently enrolled in theological graduate programs and that each year more than 14,000 complete their degrees. Ask them why they chose to follow this particular path, and you'll often hear that working as a spiritual adviser was an undeniable calling.

If you, too, are contemplating life in the clergy, here's what you should know before you head down that holy road.

If You're Not Passionate About It, Don't Bother

I have a friend whose father and grandfather were both ministers. As a college student, he contemplated following in their footsteps.

"Dad and grandpa always said, 'It has to be a calling, it has to be a calling," my friend told me.

It wasn't. So instead he became a special ed teacher at a public school.

If ever there was a career path that required some serious soul-searching before diving in, this is it.

The hours can be long, the pay can be low, the needs of the congregants or churchgoers you serve can be demanding. You may have to move to another state for the job. You may wonder if you'll ever be able to pay off your student loans. If you want to share your life with someone, you will have to find a romantic partner who understands and supports the commitment you've made to your profession.

That's not to say working in the clergy is all slavish servitude. Countless religious leaders don't see it that way at all.

"I've always wanted to be a rabbi, and I truly feel blessed to be able to be one," said Rabbi Allison Flash of Temple Beth Am in Seattle. "It's not like, 'Oh, I have to go to work today.'"

Instead, she said, "You get to be part of people's lives at the most genuine, raw moments. I think being clergy is one of the most spectacular jobs that you can have."

If You Don't Know How to Set Boundaries, Learn

If you want a job you can clock out of at 5 p.m., serving in the clergy probably isn't for you. Between the services you lead, your office hours and the unexpected after-hours needs of your flock, this isn't a nine-to-five job.

"You're on call 24/7," Flash said. "Because if somebody has a loss in the family or has an accident, you're there."

"It really takes time management skills and a kind of personal discipline to do this job well," said ordained minister Trace Haythorn, who's president of the Fund for Theological Education. "Otherwise, it's a 365-day-a-year job."

"Text [message] and Facebook and e-mail are really the quickest way for anybody to get in touch with me," said Matt King, a minister at Pritchard Memorial Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., who confesses that today's technology makes finding that elusive work-life balance more difficult for a person of the cloth.

That's not to say clergy get less sleep than emergency room residents. There's such a thing as a taking some much-needed "me" or family time, even for spiritual leaders.

"It's not like there's no way to balance your personal life," King explained. "I definitely have office hours, and I have my day when I'm not in the office. And you do have some flexibility that a lot of other jobs don't. If you're at the hospital till 3 a.m., people will understand when you come into work late the next day."

If You Want to Make Six Figures, Look Elsewhere

According to the Occupational Information Network, or O*NET, the median annual salary for a person working in the clergy was $42,950 in 2009. Like a career in public education or social work, the reward is not in the paycheck but the fulfillment gained from the work itself.

"There are some professions where you can be considered successful even if you aren't passionate about it," King said.

"But this is a lifestyle, and it's a calling. You don't get into this field because of the money. And you don't get into it for respect or prestige. You have to have a passion not only for God but also for people, and for trying to help guide them through life when they're sick or struggling. That's the only way you're going to be successful."

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube." Follow her at @anti9to5guide.