While much has been written on vocation and the laity, very little addresses the work of people in support staff positions at theological schools. To remedy this lack, in early 2014 I conducted a survey among the 13 members of the Council of Southwestern Theological Schools (COSTS), asking support staff members about their work and calling. The survey was completed by 22 people — too few to provide conclusive data, but suggestive of trends that might be explored further in more rigorous research.
Describe your work. When asked to choose five words that described their work, the top responses were (in descending order): “member of a team,” “community,” “appreciated,” “committed,” “satisfying,” “expression of my gifts,” and “calling.” Very few chose negative words such as “taken for granted,” “discouraging,” or “exhausting.”
Respondents indicated passion about their jobs and said that they were participating in something larger than themselves. Most felt appreciated for what they do. When asked whether their faith informs their work, the majority said yes. All respondents believed that their work contributes to the mission of their institution.
Open-ended answers. The survey provided an opportunity to share free-text comments. Several respondents said that they were affirmed and acknowledged in their work. When asked if they could see themselves doing this work 10 years from now, almost all who were not close to retirement said yes. One comment: “I have an enviable work/life balance, am paid well for my work, and am offered excellent benefits.” A few mentioned lack of growth options in their positions as a possible reason to change jobs.
Spiritual gifts. When asked what spiritual gifts they expressed through their work, responses included: hospitality, discernment, prayer, vision, service, leadership, administration, patience, peacemaking, presence, listening, compassion, wisdom, counsel, acceptance, encouragement, pastoral care, and inspiration.
Joys and challenges. Respondents indicated what they enjoyed most about their work: the team, flexible schedules, helping, the people/community, that the work they do is “important and valued and leads to carrying out a Christian witness and purpose in the world,” interaction with staff and students, “working with fellow Christians in a Christian environment,” “the ability to help others reach their goals,” theological conversations, and that “this job utilizes all of my strengths and is always challenging/evolving so it never gets dull.” Almost 70 percent of respondents said they were fairly compensated.
Respondents mentioned challenges as well: “being an office of one,” the work being “more than a full-time job,” managing limited time and resources, disconnect between departments, working part-time but being held to full-time standards, and constant interruptions. Some said that staff members seem “undervalued” at their institution and that benefits are inequitably distributed between faculty and staff. Some said that they work more than 40 hours per week.
Demographics. The majority of respondents worked at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, with the second-highest percentage working at Church of Christ institutions. Other institutions represented included Baptist, Catholic, United Methodist, and nondenominational.
Respondents were well-distributed among age groups. Respondents were 74% female and 26% male. The majority of respondents worked in clerical/administrative roles, and three respondents worked in libraries.
Fifteen had worked five years or fewer at their institutions, and seven had worked eleven years or more. The majority of respondents worked full-time and received health and retirement benefits.
Conclusion. I am privileged to work with dedicated people who see their work as a ministry, and I conducted this survey to see if my experience is matched at other institutions. Although the number of responses was small, it seems clear that those who did respond see their work as significant to the community and the church at large. I hope that this research might be a first step in hearing more from the chorus of voices that make possible the daily work of theological education.