Homesteading: What Does It Mean When UCC Authorized Ministers Don’t Move?

According to George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, Americans are not relocating from one part of the country to another, the way they used to. Increasingly, they are staying put (“The Unseen Threat to America: We Don’t Leave Our Hometowns,” Time.com, February 2017).

“Americans [imagine] themselves as great movers” and migrators, Cowen explains—and indeed, they were, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “People move[d] for better jobs, marriages, a different climate, new social networks, or just to shake things up.” But since the 1980s, “long-distance moves have declined for all groups: homeowners, renters, dual-income couples”—and the well-educated. Indeed, “interstate migration has fallen 51 percent below its 1948–1971 average. Moving within a state fell 31 percent. [And] moving within a [single] county fell 38 percent. Th[e]se are steep drops.”

Cowen attributes “the decline in residential moving [to] the growth of occupational licensure,” increasing cultural and economic homogeneity throughout the United States, and a reduction in “job-switching.” Many workers today are staying in jobs that are tolerable, even if they are not ideal, he notes. “Poverty and low incomes have flipped, from being reasons to move”—to becoming “reasons not to move. Those who most need to move are, on average, the least likely” to do so.

This trend is evident in the American Protestant Mainline Church. Historically, authorized ministry was a peripatetic vocation; parish ministers relocated often—and some still do. Barna Group research conducted in 2009 reveals that the average tenure of mainline pastors in their churches is only four years (“Report Examines the State of Mainline Protestant Churches,” Barna Group, December 7, 2009). Many of these pastors move hundreds of miles every time they rotate into or out of a church.

But there are indications that more and more authorized ministers are staying put. Indeed, there is an important clergy analogue to Cowen’s observation that workers are hanging on to jobs that are tolerable, even if they are not ideal: United Church of Christ (UCC) General Minister and President John Dorhauer writes that he “now advise[s] clergy not to even think about looking for another church if they are [currently] in one that is paying them a living wage with benefits” (Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World [Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015], p. 51).

Ministers are not moving—in large part, because their partners and spouses work outside the home today (they didn’t, at least not as much, a couple of generations back), and because pastors’ family members now have networks of friendship and community that they don’t want to give up. In addition, ministers are buying their own homes—most do not want to live in a parsonage, and they do not want to have to sell, move, and buy a new house every four years. Indeed, clergy are reacting negatively to the tumbleweed existence of their predecessors in ministry; they want to grow roots in a particular geographic location. Then too, “homesteading”—residential permanence—works for many ministers.

Clergy homesteading is supported by the search-and-call practices of many local UCC congregations. Small churches that cannot afford a full-time minister will likely avoid conducting a national search, and call a licensed or lay minister from within their Conference or Association. But increasingly, even larger and wealthier program- and corporate-sized congregations may call a local minister who is “a known commodity”—whose ministry and preaching style the church’s search committee members have observed firsthand, and with whom they are comfortable—to be their new senior or associate pastor.

In addition, UCC ministers who are looking for new ministry opportunities but do not want to move can expand their options by submitting their profile to a nearby “Formula of Agreement (Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.], Reformed Church in America, or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregation with which the UCC shares “full communion.”

What do we know about clergy relocation? A 2012 study of Episcopal clergy (The State of the Clergy 2012: A Report for the Episcopal Church, Church Pension Group Office of Research, cpg.org) reveals that “between 2001 and 2011, 3,320 ministers—around one third of all Episcopal clergy—changed parishes. Over three-quarters of [those] who move[d] during this time span changed parishes [once]. Another 18.5 percent moved twice, [and] less than 5 percent moved three times or more.”

Episcopal clergy in the United States are leaving “northern and Rust Belt dioceses” and heading “South and West, in response to demographic shifts and changing geographical patterns of religiosity.” Moreover, “clergy who find new positions in the South, Midwest, and West travel two to three times as far as those who get positions in the Northeast.”

“The number of years since ordination is negatively associated with salary gains when changing cures. Clergy experience greater financial benefits from moving earlier in their careers. There is also a clear financial benefit of over $4,100” annually when one is promoted “from an associate/assistant/curate position to a senior or solo rectorship. Further, the size of the [minister’s] new congregation is strongly associated” with salary increases; for each additional Sunday worshiper at her or his new parish, a cleric gains approximately $20” in additional annual remuneration.

“Similarly, there is a relationship between the compensation [a minister receives] in his or her new position and [the] distance moved; for every additional $1,000 earned, the distance traveled to earn that salary increases by 2 percent. Higher earners are more likely to be longer-distance movers. Clergy who changed parishes in a given year between 2001 and 2011 raised their total compensation an average of $7,688. Clergy who did not move [received a smaller] raise, averag[ing] $1,155.”

Except for this study, there does not seem to be much hard data on the relocation patterns of authorized ministers—at least not online. The publication of such research, by other Protestant Mainline denominations, would be revelatory. In the meantime, we may surmise (but do not know with any confidence) that the relocation data for ministers in other denominational traditions—including UCC authorized ministers—is not starkly divergent from the findings of the 2012 Episcopal clergy study.

A brief article, posted on the website of the Dakotas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2014, discusses clergy relocation anecdotally but does not cite much hard data or sociological research. The article is helpful in noting how expensive it is to move ministers; in the United Methodist Church’s “appointive system, about twenty Dakotas Conference clergy move to a new location each year. The average cost to move a [single] clergy person is $4,650.” The aggregate annual minister-relocation cost to the conference “is around $100,000” (“Clergy moves: Advice and facts,” June 30, 2014). As significant as this cost is, if we were to extrapolate this data to a bigger Conference—say the Texas Annual Conference, or the North Georgia Conference—or to the entire United Methodist Church, we would probably find the annual cost of moving Methodist ministers to be both eye-opening and disturbing. One wonders if the clergy-relocation practices of Christian (Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox) traditions and some non-Christian religious traditions in the United States–which may be likened to elaborate games of “religious musical chairs”—are sustainable.

Many of the professional and personal difficulties that ministers and their families experience are exacerbated by frequent moves. According to clinical psychologist Ryan C. Staley, “clergy and their spouses often struggle with a sense of loneliness and isolation” that accompanies “the unique demands and occupational hazards [of] full-time ministry. In a profession that requires nearly constant contact with people, it is a distressing paradox that clergy frequently feel disconnected and alone” (“An Investigation of the Strategies Employed by Clergy and their Spouses to Prevent and Cope with Interpersonal Isolation” [2012]. Doctor of Psychology [PsyD]. Paper 127, pp. iii, 1).

The “challenges faced by clergy and their spouses” are well-known, and include “boundary violations” and “a lack of privacy.” Such “intrusions [include] work-related phone calls, unexpected visits [by parishioners] to their home, and unanticipated encounters with church members in public settings.” These difficulties may be magnified if the clergy family moves frequently and lives in a parsonage, or near the church. “There [is] little opportunity to take off their clergy hats and step out of their professional roles. The pressure to [always] be ‘on’ is a major source of stress” (Staley, p. 3).

Are homesteading ministers good or bad for the United Church of Christ? I don’t know. While there are, as Staley notes, significant psychological downsides for authorized ministers and ministers’ families who relocate frequently, there is also, I fear, a certain clerical insularity and inbreeding that can seep into an Association or Conference when ministers take up permanent residence in one city or region, and rotate between a series of nearby churches.

Perhaps, in the end, none of these considerations will matter greatly, and a simple economic calculus—the realization that playing musical chairs every four years is economically wasteful and unsustainable—will motivate churches to hang on to their ministers a bit longer and/or to call local part-time ministers who won’t have to move. Reciprocally, economics may prompt clergy to stay put and perhaps even serve the church in a bi-vocational ministry role. Time will tell.

Chris XenakisRev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.

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4 thoughts on “Homesteading: What Does It Mean When UCC Authorized Ministers Don’t Move?

  1. As a clergy daughter and then spouse for 30 years, I understand the issues associated with relocation (although my father/husband had pastorates lasting a minimum of 7 years). I agree and have paid the penalty of being the trailing spouse that results from the UCC search and call polity. I also wholeheartedly believe that the church and individual churches will lose in a system of homesteading ministers. I hope the Dorhauer quote is woefully incomplete. To stay in a church for the pay and benefits will stunt the spiritual growth of both church and congregation. I’ve lived in two fairly insular conferences and each sorely need an expanded vision and an infusion of fresh leadership. Search and call provides churches and leadership the opportunity to discern God’s call that results in spiritual and literal growth.

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  2. Thank you for this article. While it talks a lot about money, and stresses on the clergy and their family, it does leave out the factor that has had me in this parish for many years: generational satisfaction. I have found that being a pastoral presence in a parish over multiple years and pastoring to numerous generations has given to a robust and vital ministry. Unfortunately, there is no data to associate with this, but I can tell you that if you are in this kind of situation and the congregation treats you well, and in partnership, you strive to have a vibrant and outward ministry, it is a win-win! I do realize that not everyone will end up in this type of situation and not every pastor wants to be that connected. For me, I give thanks for this congregation and my years here.

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  3. A thoughtful article, as always, Chris. When I attended a class Alban Institute did for long-term pastors, they did a good job covering the pluses and minuses. Trust is important in leading change and that comes in time. The downside can be minimized by taking sabbaticals.

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  4. Alban did a study of long term pastorates in the 80’s which suggested that the most productive years for pastor were in years 6-8 of his/her pastorate. Short tenure likely means little to no progress in addressing necessary changes to foster revitalization.

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