Bi-Vocational Trends and Part-Time Realities for Ministers Serving Congregations

This week’s post is written by Rev. Elizabeth Dilley and Rev. Malcolm Himschoot of the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team within the UCC’s national setting. 

The 2015 Statistical Profile indicates a slight increase in part-time pastoral positions in local churches of the United Church of Christ, compared to a slight decrease in full-time pastoral positions. Part-time pastoral positions have increased from 34%-35%, while full-time pastoral positions have decreased from 64% to 62.9%, over the past 5 years. Statistics vary from conference to conference: some have a majority of part-time church ministry positions currently open, while others have a majority of full-time openings.That said, the “norm” is changing in some parts of the U.S. – from moving from a majority of full-time pastoral positions to a majority of part-time pastoral positions.

The 2015 Statistical Profile also notes that for solo pastors, whether full-time or part-time, their salary package represents about 44% of a typical church’s total budget.

Source: Fall 2015 United Church of Christ Statistical Profile

When we consider that most congregants give about 2.0-2.5% of their income to the church, a congregation with about 100 members (what used to be called a “pastor-sized church”) of median U.S. income will find that a budget based on member giving is unable to sustain both a full-time pastor and the typical costs of a building. Recent examinations of the current Ministry Opportunities listings indicate that while there are currently more than 3 times as many full-time positions as part-time positions (315 full-time compared to 102 part-time), more than a third of all part-time positions are in churches with more than 100 members.

What are some financial alternatives to part-time ministry? First, what if we imagined a different giving pattern? With zeal for their church, and a true understanding of costs, members who are generously giving to many non-profits may wish to direct more of their annual giving, or their planned giving, to a religious institution for the sake of present and future ministry. Second, dare we imagine a different expense pattern? Where leadership by a minister will make more of a difference for present and future ministry than ownership of a building, and that building can be sold for a significant source of funds for future ministry, this re-allocation of resources can be a great investment. In the congregational life-cycle, many congregations historically move through multiple buildings or even locations.

These have, of course, not been the most common responses on the part of congregations. A current understanding of part-time ministry has been to conflate it with “bi-vocational” or “tent-maker” ministry: the congregation can afford a part-time salary and benefits, but they realize the minister’s availability will need to be modified by other professional paying work. (More information about bi-vocational clergy has been discussed previously.) Historically, however, “bi-vocational” or “tent-maker” ministry has referred to situations where the minister bears the challenge of livelihood entirely outside the church context, but may receive a small financial contribution from the church (such as a volunteer stipend or an occasional “love offering”). According to the Statistical Profile, 2.1% of UCC pastors are serving in such unpaid settings.

A few other adaptations include: churches sharing a minister, churches consolidating resources (including buildings) in order to be able to pay a full-time salary, using supply preachers to meet Sunday morning needs and bolstering the lay ministry of the church, or compensating a minister for part-time work but asking or expecting them to be available full-time. Obviously, the denomination’s Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team does not encourage the last option, and we would be thrilled to see churches finding ways to share ministry and ministers creatively and effectively. We would also be thrilled to see our ministers actively promoting such shared ministry. Here is one story where three churches merged to share in ministry, and here is an example of three congregations sharing the same space and growing in common ministry.

Certain workload assumptions implicit in a “pastor-size” church need to change to accommodate new research on ministerial effectiveness and church vitality. Because pastoral care and preaching are not by themselves correlated with church vitality, and leadership in engaging the community is correlated with church vitality, what are some ways that churches redefine their expectations on the pastor’s time? Some churches are modifying the minister’s scope of work to include a pastor-given sermon only half of the month. Some churches are modifying the minister’s scope of work to include more lay-led pastoral care. Others are sacrificing the pastor’s presence from numerous meetings. New creative possibilities for developing ministries, vision and resources can mean a pastor’s time and energy going in directions of greatest impact.

The new Call Agreement Workbook by MESA makes some of these expectations clear, so that trade-offs can be mutually explored between the minister and the congregation. Which tasks and functions go off a minister’s plate when a position is reduced from full-time to ¾ time? Which tasks and functions stay on a minister’s plate when a position is reduced to ½ time? The scope of work in this workbook help lay leaders in the church and the minister work together to identify priorities, imagine possibilities, and modify tasks and responsibilities according to goals and needs.



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