The Catholic Church is welcoming the development of a special priest's visa, saying current immigration laws discriminate against religious workers for responding to a "calling", not a job advertisement.
The Labour Department is about to announce new visa policies for religious workers, with changes aiming to streamline the current rules and eliminate opportunities for fraud.
It also plans to allow priests and other religious workers to apply for residency, which is now not an option.
Although they can apply under other categories, many of these require evidence of paid employment.
This had proved a hurdle for the Catholic Church, which did not pay priests for their services and had been struggling with immigration laws that were increasingly centred on "market-based principles", Catholic archdiocese of Wellington general manager Paul Bayliss said.
It was almost impossible for priests to gain residency because the church does not technically employ the priest. Priests who dedicate their time to a parish are responding to a calling, not a job advertisement.
They don't sign a contract, with the expectation that they will be looked after by the parish.
The Labour Department has received more than 71 submissions on the proposed visa changes from representatives of Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Hare Krishna faiths.
Immigration head Nigel Bickle said the policy review arose after religious groups expressed concerns that the system was not working as well as it could be.
The review was continuing, and new policies were likely to be announced within the next few months.
Although the proposed visa changes were backed by the Catholic Church, it disagreed with plans to place an age limit – suggested at either 45, 50 or 55 years of age – on residency applications.
"You have active priests in their 80s ... an age figure is arbitrary," Mr Bayliss said.
There were fears that a requirement to provide evidence that efforts had been made to secure a Kiwi priest would be difficult to meet. It went against the principles that priests, after years of commitment, including theological training and celibacy, were "called" into their communities, Mr Bayliss said.
A priest's dedication to the church was for life, with resignation only considered past the age of 75.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense ... we know how many [priests] we have, how many are trained locally and we need in the future. It's not a market, you don't advertise for a priest. You're not a disposable employee, we don't make redundancies."
Anglican Archbishop David Moxon said he agreed with the legislation in principle, but hoped religious workers would not be shouldered aside when it came to residency applications.
"We have a few concerns – we don't want to see people who are doing great work cut short and have to leave.
"Religious workers enhance the social capital and add to the common good of the community, and that has as much value as the economic contribution of a businessman."
PERKS OF THE PRIESTHOOD
Catholic: About a quarter of Catholic priests in New Zealand are estimated to hail from overseas, mostly from Ireland, other English-speaking countries and the Pacific Islands.
"The church is a global organisation, and priests move around the world," Catholic archdiocese of Wellington general manager Paul Bayliss said.
There is a shortage of Kiwi priests, with a "worrying" number due to retire in the next 10 years. There is typically one priest to a church, with 47 churches in the Wellington diocese and 62 in Auckland.
Priests have their living costs covered and are provided with food, housing and a car.
Anglican: The main school is St John's College in Auckland, and each diocese has its own theological programme.
Although there is not a local shortage, with about an estimated 90 per cent of priests from New Zealand, overseas priests are prized for their cultural contributions and special skills.
Priests receive a modest stipend of $40,000 to $50,000, a vicarage and church car for pastoral duties.
Presbyterian: The main school is at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in Dunedin. Assembly executive secretary Martin Baker said there were about 14 graduates a year, which was enough. About 10 per cent of ministers came from overseas, which helped the church connect with ethnic communities in New Zealand. Ministers were supported with a small stipend, considered a living allowance to help them fulfil their calling, Mr Baker said.
- The Dominion Post