It makes perfect sense that vicars are ranked as the happiest people

RevSo the Rev. Adam Smallbone returned last night to BBC2 for what looks to be his final series as the long-suffering vicar of St Saviour-in-the-Marshes. Like so many others who have experienced the day-to-day life of living in a vicarage, I have come to love the sharply observed writing of Rev. As is the case with this programme and other great comedies they take the genuineness of real life situations and draw them out with a certain amount of exaggeration to great comic effect. We find ourselves sympathising with Adam as he deals with the variety of oddballs and hangers-on that his church attracts.

If Adam Smallbone was a real person, we might be asking why he bothers putting up with all the stress and frustration when the moments of joy are so few and far between. Adam might have a particularly challenging parish to work in, but there are plenty of real life clergy who find themselves living and working in positions that are far from easy. Having grown up with a Rev for a father, I’ve seen what it takes to give your life to your calling. Sometimes it is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, but it can also be emotionally exhausting and stretch you to the point of breaking.

I was therefore a little surprised to see last week that vicars and priests are ranked on average as the happiest in their jobs compared to those in 273 other professions. The Cabinet Office has carried out research looking at how different professions and levels of life satisfaction compare. The idea is that people should have access to information on the relationship between the salary and the satisfaction associated with a career . It is part of David Cameron’s desire to find policies that boost the wellbeing of the nation. I doubt these findings will generate a surge in demand for theological training across the country, but what they do show though is that income is no guarantee of satisfaction with life. A vicar’s average salary of £20,568 is below the vast majority of other professions listed, yet they topped the table by a considerable margin.

This apparent contentment only gives a snapshot and masks the complexities and difficulties of all that being a vicar or minister encompasses. It did get me thinking why such a position that sucks up your free time and puts you on call most hours of the day is so attractive. Here are some thoughts:

  •  You can’t just go for an interview and get a job as a church leader. Training for ordination is a terribly drawn out and time-consuming process. You won’t even get selected unless you are fully committed to the role and are sure it is your calling.
  • Most Chirstians would love to have more time to worship, pray and study the Bible. Doing it for a living gives you that space.
  • Investing your life into God’s Kingdom in such a full time way allows you to meet the calling to serve God in a very obvious and practical way.
  • The benefits of investing in your relationship with God, learning more and growing in your faith are tied to the role.

Perhaps the two most important aspects that are may also be the most rewarding are investing heavily in communities and seeing lives changed through the work of the Holy Spirit. Despite the challenges, few jobs allow you to spend significant time building community with a common purpose and getting a know individual lives so closely, especially in times of hardship and joy. There is great satisfaction to be derived from knowing God and sharing His love with others and then encouraging them to do the same. Life becomes more valuable and happiness grows through our relationships – and this works on a spiritual level as well as a physical one.

A fairly recent poll conducted in the US by Gallup found that those who attend a place of worship at least once a week frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all.

average number of daily positive and negative emotions, by church attendance

This difference is most pronounced on a Sunday, which suggests that the act of coming together with others in community is crucial to wellbeing. According to Gallup, additional research found that friendship in church is more strongly correlated with life satisfaction than friendships in other contexts such as the workplace or a book club. It is not only the act of socialising that boosts churchgoers moods, but also worshipping together with those who share the same faith.

Although polling may find it difficult to prove, it’s entirely reasonable to expect that a living faith which includes regular commitment to a church family will impact our lives for the better. We are promised that when we choose to become followers of Jesus and accept that he died for us and was raised to life, we are gifted with God’s Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit we are transformed bit by bit, being filled with love, joy and peace along with a whole range of other good things.

Christians really ought to be happy people who want to share that happiness with others. It makes sense that this is manifested in different ways such as Livability’s Happiness Course for example. We’re not talking about happiness as a superficial feeling or a strategy that comes from reading a self-help book, but something that goes much deeper and permeates our entire being remaining secure throughout the highest highs and the lowest lows of life and all that falls in between.

Jesus understood this and set it out in the beatitudes during his Sermon on the Mount. In the original Greek, the word Jesus used that we translate as ‘blessed’ (makarios) also means ‘happy’. So we can paraphrase The Message’s paraphrase and read it as follows:

“You’re happy when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re happy when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re happy when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re happy when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re happy when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re happy when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re happy when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re happy when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves happy every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” (Matthew 5:3-12)

Would vicars still be ranked at the top of the happiness table if they had no faith? Obviously it’s a hypothetical question, but it’s hard to see how a comparable job without the faith element could have the same effect.

We’re constantly being fed a lie in our culture that we can gain happiness through spending more and owning more, by having bigger and better, by looking more beautiful or having better sex, by being more popular or even becoming famous. Too often we see people who on the surface have everything, but still haven’t found what they are looking for because they’ve been looking in the wrong places. And most of the rest of us have bought into the same beliefs too with the same inevitable results. There is something better to be grasped if only we realised it.

On reflection I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Cabinet Office has discovered that those who have given their lives to work for God appear to have found the keys to happiness. When those keys belong to God it all makes perfect sense.

Categories: Bible, Church, Faith in society

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