My first graduation season as a seminary administrator was a beautiful, happy celebration, yet the days surrounding commencement held the slight tinge of anxiety. Like the cigarette smoke in my high school bathroom, it was in the air even though no one owned up to it. I think it is anxiety about the future -- about jobs, about money, about the life of the church itself.

Our VP for Student Services and Vocation provided an anxiety-mitigating reality check: The vast majority of our graduates do find work in their chosen field within a year. Some take longer to get ordained. Some can afford to be choosy. Some decide to get more education.

This may be true, but it’s getting harder for anyone to find a good job in full time ministry.

Last month I met an old man (his self-description) who has retired twice from the itinerancy of the United Methodist Church. Yet the District Superintendent still asked him to serve a little bitty church in a little bitty community out in the country. “Just preach and serve communion the first Sunday of each month,” she said. “They’ll pay you $200 plus gas.” He said he would.

It wasn’t long before the people in the congregation asked him to come every Sunday and also to visit the sick, write the bulletin, take communion to the shut-ins, lead administrative council and so on. The old pastor told them to write down everything they wanted him to do. He took their list and put a dollar figure beside each item. I wasn’t sure whether he was making them an offer or trying to illustrate the value of the service they wanted. They settled on him coming two Sundays each month and staying after once for a meeting, with payment accordingly.

I wondered -- hypothetically -- how this would work as a model for a pastor who can’t find full-time employment.

Hungry young lawyers advertise $500 flat-rate for uncontested divorce; $750 with children. They are counting on high volume to pay the bills with some of these simple transactions blowing up into real fee-generating fights. I can imagine the ads on Craig’s List: “Funerals $250; with graveside $500.” But within what mile radius? Do you make a trip to the house to meet with grown children? Would this include dealing with the first and second wife of the deceased separately? When people’s lives get messy, flat-fee transactions aren’t enough -- in any profession. Even though the twice-retired old pastor may not make more than two trips out to the country each month, his involvement is not so limited. It was a Wednesday when he talked to me about praying for the people, planning how to get them inviting people to church, taking their calls, listening to their problems. He was off the clock when he was telling me their stories.

Ministry a la carte is probably not the answer for unemployed M.Div. grads, but we need to be very clear about why not. The changing demographic and financial realities of congregational life raise a big question: Is ministry a profession? It’s not a new question, but it is a newly salient question. How we answer it implicates the preparation for, practice of and right payment to all kinds of ministries.

Who do you know that is having robust, real conversations about it? I want to know what they are saying.

Melissa Wiginton is Vice President for Education Beyond the Walls at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.