Earlier this year, I taught an introductory parish leadership class to 40 part-time local church pastors. Most of them were bivocational, balancing the demands of ministry with their obligations as police officers, truck drivers, school teachers, nurses and social workers. Many were serving congregations at considerable distances from their homes (one had a 100-mile roundtrip journey on winding North Carolina back roads every Sunday morning). All of them were in congregations that would be without a ministerial presence if not for their service.
Those 40 are part of a steadily increasing number of American clergy who are part-time, bivocational or unpaid. Hartford Seminary’s 2010 Faith Communities Today survey indicated that about 30 percent of American congregations are served by paid, part-time clergy (2 percent are served by unpaid clergy). A thought-provoking essay by the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt in the August 2013 issue of the The Christian Century offers a slightly starker picture, saying that roughly half -- though it could be as high as 70 percent -- of American congregations are finding themselves unable to afford a full-time clergyperson today.
This trend toward part-time, bivocational and unpaid clergy raises a whole host of questions for denominations and congregations that have based their expectations for clergy on a model of full-time, paid ministry.
Some of these questions are seemingly small and insignificant. What to do, for example, about a monthly, weekday clergy meeting when such a gathering might necessitate a person’s absence from her other job? Should a part-time pastor be excused from the meeting, recognizing that a two-hour meeting might represent as much as 20 percent of her compensated hours that week? Should the meeting be held on a Saturday to accommodate bivocational folks, even if that takes full-time and part-time clergy away from family and other obligations? All of these choices have pitfalls. Few have upsides.
Other questions are more vexing still, in some cases pitting long-held convictions against each other.
Some denominations are finding their commitment to a “learned clergy” in conflict with a missional need to serve smaller congregations and underserved communities. The question becomes how much training can a denomination reasonably expect a part-time or unpaid clergyperson to have? If not a three (or four) year master’s degree, then what? What are the non-negotiable elements of that training, and what are the elements that would be nice but are not essential? Must training precede ministerial service, or could people be trained concurrently with their service? There are no easy answers. In many denominations, no one is happy with a compromise.
Likewise, congregations have difficult decisions to make.
Imagine that a church can only afford compensation equal to quarter-time employment (which, in most cases, means that the clergyperson has to find additional paid employment to balance his personal budget). What can that congregation reasonably expect of that clergyperson, and what is the work of ministry must laity assume? This will require renewed education about the calling and ministry of the laity (a clear good in all of this!), and it will mean -- and in some places, already does mean -- that some ministries will no longer happen. Prioritizing the pastoral workload will be a new practice required of vestries, sessions and personnel committees.
In many settings, denominations and congregations have relied on the goodwill of part-time, bivocational and unpaid clergy and have not recalibrated their expectations about ministerial role and work. That is an unsustainable solution. Now is the time for creativity, innovation and experimentation to adjust to what is increasingly the new normal for congregations around the country.