The End of the Full-Time Pastor?

When I started my current position at First Christian two years ago, I came on part-time….very part time.  The church couldn’t afford a full-time Associate Pastor and frankly, I didn’t want to give up my day job.  So, since that time I’ve worked part-time at First and full time at my job with the Presbytery.

I have to say when people find out that I’m a part time pastor, they look at me funny.  Some wonder how I do it (I sometimes wonder myself).  I’ve learned to try to not overdo it and try to manage time.  I’m not always good at that, but I do try.

Some people tend think that my ministry is not very real, since I’m not full time.  That always bugs me since I tend to do almost everything that a full-time pastor does- just not full time.

The funny thing is, full-time ministry is changing.  I’ve been around mainline churches enough to see that many of them don’t have the finances to fund a full time pastor like they used to.  Congregations aren’t as big as they used to be and the people in the pews don’t give like they used to.

Lutheran pastor Amy Thompson Simvili is watching how things are changing and sending a warning to young clergy to not expect that they will serving as a full-time pastor.

Young clergy like myself entered the ministry expecting to spend our working lives in some church capacity, never intending to amass a fortune, but planning to earn enough to pay the rent, put children through college, and save a little. That is, we hoped eventually to earn more than our denominations’ minimum-salary – which is enough to get started but little more. Given the messages I heard as a young adult discerning a call, never did I think this model was untenable.  “The church needs pastors,” I was told.  “Soon there will be a shortage.”

It looks as if that was only partly true.  It is true that pastors are needed in the mainline’s many small congregations, and that won’t change. But the number of full-time pastors (i.e. pastors earning enough to pay the rent and support a family) is dwindling.  Many judicatories around the mainline churches are looking for more part-time than full-time clergy. In my own financially-healthy synod, the number of part-time positions is growing faster than we would like. A lot faster. Some say that this will change when the economy rebounds. Maybe it will for a few.  But in most congregations, the issue is not money. It’s numbers.  Many congregations have become so small that any future economic growth will have no effect on their ability to pay a full-time pastor.

So what’s the answer? Pure honesty:

I think the simple answer is this: tell the truth. The model for ministry which we have long assumed is no longer the model of the future. In the same way that older clergy are facing the reality of decimated pensions and the prospect of working more years than they expected, so too are younger clergy facing a different future. In 10-20 years, some will still have full-time calls; many will not. So, for those of us already in the ministry, we will need to acquire a second set of skills and discern whether we can fulfill our calling through bi-vocational ministry. For those who are entering the ministry, they need to be told at the outset about the reality into which they enter. They, too, will probably have to acquire a second set of skills and to add to their discernment the question of whether or not God is calling them to bi-vocational ministry.

Most of all, the church and its mostly older leadership has to talk about this economic reality right now. They must do this without sounding unnecessary alarm bells but with realism about the future. They must also address the future of clergy education. They could even ask some younger people to help. I think we would be willing.

The future is not necessarily dire, but it will look different.

For me, I was lucky to find a job where I could use my the journalism skills I learned in college. The thing is, in the future, pastors might have to go back to what the apostle Paul did: having a ready skill to help pay the bills.

Of course, none of this is news to church musicians or those from the African American church tradition. As my partner Daniel, who is a church musician, can tell you, there are few full-time positions out there. Many musicians who have a passion for music have to work another job to make ends meet. It might not be perfect, but it allows them to fulfill their calling. I remember as a kid, that many a Black Baptist church was headed by a pastor who was a pastor on Sundays and worked in the auto plants during the week.

So, to those who are thinking about ministry I offer two pieces of advice. First, don’t be a religion major in college. Find another skill that will be useful. Or maybe even learn a trade and become a plumber or carpenter (I think there was a nice, young Jewish boy that tried that once). Second, really think about why you want to go into ministry. If you can be open to working two jobs, then you might be called to be a pastor. If not, you might want to do some more discernment.

At the end of the day, the church of the 1950s is dissapearing. But while we don’t know what’s coming down the pike, at least we know that God is with us.

Thanks be to God.

h/t: Michael Kruse

If you are wondering what’s up with the deerhead, read this post from 2006 where I talk about bivocational ministry while I was leading a new church start.

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One thought on “The End of the Full-Time Pastor?

  1. Great post Dennis!

    I know that for my folks’ small church in Missouri, and for Michael’s grandmohter’s church in Sandstone, MN – they have to share a pastor with a neighboring church – of another denomination. It can get complex when one church gets to pick and hire their minister, and the other church has to go through some regional hierarchy when it’s “their turn” to fund the pastor. And I really doubt that minister is getting a full time salary. Perhaps one of the churches has a house and car they let their pastor use while they are of service to the church, but in smaller towns, wages are tight for pastors of small congregations.

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