By Rev. Dr. Sara E. Day, CFP®
More and more churches are asking themselves if they can truly afford a pastor.
As a result, discussions on clergy compensation, burdensome seminary debt, and alternative pastoral models are taking place in seminaries and denominational bodies across the country — and ultimately, this question (or a similar one) is at the core of those conversations.
Data released by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life affirms what has been known anecdotally for some time: The number of Americans who identify as Christian is decreasing. Since 2007, it has dropped by 7.8 percent, with the biggest drop being among mainline Protestants (4.8 percent) and Catholics (3.1 percent). For Evangelicals, the decrease is much less: .9 percent.
These numbers tell us that American congregations are becoming smaller, which often leads to reduced financial resources. Add to this the burgeoning debt of many seminary graduates, and we have a growing number of available pastorates that are unable to offer pastors a living wage when faced with the financial realities of paying off large school loans.
Though stories of wealthy pastors living lavishly abound in the media, in actuality, the number of pastors that fall into this category is very small. On the contrary, the vast majority of pastors and lay church workers are underpaid — especially when you consider their training and wide-ranging responsibilities.
All these realities have led to a growing number of clergypersons who are serving in non-traditional pastorates. Along with the fundamental question of affordability, congregations might need to shift gears to discover alternatives that exist beyond the full-time pastor who is paid by a single source of income. As their circumstances change, churches that can open themselves to other possibilities and discern with God how best to use their resources can attract competent pastoral leaders while being good stewards of their financial assets.
3 patterns of pastoral ministry
Three patterns of pastoral ministry which have emerged over the course of the last 10 to 15 years are the bi-vocational, bi-ministerial and bi-congregational pastorates. These are not necessarily new arrangements; they are, however, becoming the “new normal” for many more congregations as church membership fluctuates and decreases.
Bi-vocational. By recent estimates, approximately 25 percent to 50 percent of all clergy serving congregations in the U.S. are bi-vocational. Typically, they serve in a local congregation while receiving another income that is often from the secular world. In some cases, they are employed full-time in a position that provides them with health insurance and retirement benefits and work at their church 15 to 20 hours a week. Others might work 30 hours in their congregation and have a part-time position outside of the church.
One blend of this model that pastors have enjoyed for many years is combining pastoring with teaching in a college or seminary as an adjunct instructor or professor. For many clergypersons, teaching in seminary is a natural extension of their pastoral role. It allows the seminary to offer students the benefits of studying with clergy who are actively pastoring and bring first-hand insights into the classroom.
Bi-ministerial. A similar model gaining in popularity is the pastor who is bi-ministerial and works in another ministry, such as a chaplaincy or a faith-based not-for-profit. Many seminaries are encouraging this avenue of ministry service for graduates because tremendous synergy can exist between the ministries, and they afford the pastor the opportunity to cultivate and exercise different gifts. Churches with a bi-ministerial pastor might find they have access to increased community based mission activities because of their pastor’s connections in the not-for-profit world. Clergy might also experience greater flexibility between a pastoral position and one at a faith-based community organization during those times when they are called to preside at a funeral or be present for a member with a medical emergency.
Bi-congregational. Itinerant preaching is how preachers made their living for many years in the U.S., often alternating between neighboring churches from Sunday to Sunday or preaching at two different churches each Sunday. The bi-congregational pastor is a variation on the full-time pastorate that is shared by two congregations in the same community. In this arrangement, the two churches share the expenses for the cost of their “full-time pastor.”
In some ways, this is a more complex arrangement because, inevitably, the two congregations have very different needs, practices and cultures. One group might develop a stronger connection with the pastor. One way to address this is to make sure the two churches are affiliated with the same denominational body. This can mitigate potential preferences and conflicts. Another solution is to appoint a joint board or joint search committee consisting of leaders from each congregation. This group can conduct the pastoral search together and / or function as a pastoral relations committee to address any issues as they arise.
As churches review alternative pastoral scenarios, it can be beneficial to consider creative payment arrangements that supplement what is likely to be reduced compensation. Churches can increase the amount of tax-advantaged compensation through retirement plan contributions, a housing allowance or an increased expense allowance. Other forms of compensation include a paid sabbatical or payment for continuing education.
With each of these arrangements, clergy need to carefully work through the details of their compensation and establish clear boundaries and responsibilities, or they can find themselves functioning too much like a full-time pastor. Congregations have to be prepared to take on additional responsibilities that would have been handled by a full-time pastor and seek training to increase their leadership skills. Churches that view these changes as an opportunity to grow are most likely to successfully embrace these emerging choices to the traditional pastorate.
Rev. Dr. Sara E. Day, CFP® brings extensive experience in serving churches to her role as Director of Employer Relationship Management for MMBB Financial Services. In addition to fulfilling the service needs of MMBB employers and their staff in the Midwest for eight years, she served as senior pastor and director of campus ministry at the University Baptist Church in Columbus, OH.