Part Time Ministry – It’s a Tough Call

Paul’s tent making business represents one of the earliest examples of bi-vocational ministry.  Churches with limited resources will continue to opt for part time ministry. There are some significant implications for pastors which need to be tabled and pondered:

The Reality!

A congregation of fewer than around, say, 75 committed worshippers will find it difficult to fund a full time ministry and provide for some additional ministry projects. The financial viability of the congregation becomes increasingly marginal under this number.

The Challenges for the bi-vocational pastor

  • Those who aspire to pastoral ministry have no guarantee of a full time appointment at the conclusion of training. Ordination is not a passport to a life long occupation as a pastor.
  • Every pastor needs a second string to their bow. The pastor of the future may not have Paul’s skills with canvas but they will need a trade, profession or craft for sheer survival.
  • Another reality is that a congregation usually has expectations and demands which go well beyond the stated available time. “Part time” can so easily become “full time” in practice. In effect the church, sometimes unwittingly, wants the best of both worlds: a full time pastor at a bargain basement price.
  • This unsatisfactory arrangement often springs from the pastor and the church not having come to a clear understanding of how much time – usually measured in days – is available to the church.
  • In a pastoral emergency most pastors will ignore fixed arrangements and meet the situation. This can be hard for the pastor who has the demands of an employer to consider when working a second job.
  • A church which makes constant demands on its part time pastor will probably generate enormous frustration and stress. Clear communication between pastor and congregation is mandatory.

Sorting out the balance

  • The juggling of ministry and part time work has to be one of the toughest assignments around. If there is a clear set of agreed expectations of the pastor, life is much more manageable.
  • But if there is a lack of clarity, disaster is imminent. The pastor’s family will suffer. The pastor will (not may) come to resent ongoing and unreasonable demands being made while the level of ministry will deteriorate. Everyone will be unhappy.
  • Unregulated commitment to the congregation is a stress creator because the pastor has to meet the requirements of other employment to keep bread and butter on the table.

Some other inbuilt complications for the bi-vocational pastor

  • Part time pastors are disadvantaged when it comes to professional enrichment. Juggling at least two employers, they are often prevented from undertaking ongoing study, in-service training, conferences and denominational activities such as retreats and schools of ministry. A part timer in the country has geography against them too.
  • And it is not just time which will be in short supply. Finance is bound to be a thorny issue for most bi-vocational pastors.  Some churches act with as much financial generosity as they able.  But not all do sadly.  They will look for ways to trim their pastor’s remuneration, even to the point of varying the finances without consultation.
  • The absence of a clear letter of understanding at the commencement of a pastorate is a one-way ticket to chaos if the giving in the church declines for whatever reason. With all the other tensions of ministry, financial difficulties can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
  • Accommodation can be problematical too. If a church is able to provide a place to live, then this part of the equation is usually trouble free. But if not, the pastor must be careful. Who will pay the rent and what will be the impact on the pastor’s take home pay?
  • Another variation is that the pastor provides a home, in which case the church may breathe a sigh of relief but sees no need to make any provision for assisting with actual running costs.
  • It comes back to getting the right letter of understanding from the start. There is no point being pious and “leaving it to the Lord to work out.” Why should He? We are the ones with the calculators handy.

The Challenges for the Church

  • Churches with bi-vocational pastors can stumble into budget short falls and there will be no easy solution. Usually little thought is given to the reason for the downward trend in giving. Often the blame is placed at the pastor’s door.
  • But a shortage of money may not be the problem. It is a common plot to see overseas missionaries being supported by the congregation while the pastor’s stipend goes backwards. No one is going to argue against helping keep missionaries on the field.
  • What is curious is the tentative and distant connections which some churches seem to have with many of their far-flung mission projects and commitments. There is an absence of information and usually very little or no accountability at all. It may be that someone in the church is related to the missionary or that there was some amazing mission presentation that moved everybody with compassion or guilt a few years ago.
  • But what about the missionary task in Jerusalem in these situations, the challenge right at the church’s front door? Strangely, that seems to be secondary and not seen as part of the Gospel. So the pastor’s stipend is actually reduced while money flows generously out of the church. This can do an awful mischief to a pastor’s self esteem and bring great hardship as well.
  • In tough financial times the pastor is the only one who is called upon to make the sacrifice. When the church is forced to reduce the pastor’s stipend, there are few others in the church who will be making the same financial sacrifice.
  • In rural situations the pastor may be seen to be on a good wicket but there is a huge difference between cash flow and assets. Farmers do go through hard seasons but the pastor can only dream about the asset base of his farmers. It is not that the pastor begrudges these, but there can be an insensitivity to the needs of the pastor in times of cash shortages.
  • A church with a part time ministry can have a part time mentality too. While it is true that some churches will only ever be part time because of their location in sparsely populated areas, the simple fact remains that many part time churches should not be part time at all. They are surrounded by people on all sides.
  • The problem is that the ministries being exercised are no longer relevant to the community. But the church has been part time for so long that members have   stopped thinking about ever working towards a full-time ministry.
  • The changes required to render the church effective in its outreach come with great difficulty. There is an old guard who have a fixed idea of what the ministry should look like. The innovative pastor will go into melt down as suggestion after suggestion is put to one side. There is a crushing absence of vision with bland excuses being offered for non growth: multiculturalism, or a blue-collar environment, or a “hardness to the Gospel,” and so on. These do not wash well, nor should they.
  • When times do improve the needs of the pastor often come last There are congregations where the giving has improved because the pastor has worked like a trojan. Numbers are up. Confidence has increased. There is a better spirit. But no one has connected these advances with the pastor’s own commitment and sacrificial service.
  • There is no one to bat for the pastor in moving to increase support to full stipend and other allowances. Instead there can come a supposedly divine revelation which leads the church to build up the general fund against another “rainy day.” Members may settle for limited giving but fail to recognise that the fortunes of the church would increase dramatically if the pastor were able to give full attention to the ministry.

Some Suggestions for Pastors and Churches:

  1. Start off each pastorate with a clear written understanding to include:
  • Ministry expectations: what ministry priorities has the church identified and does the pastor understand these and have they been mutually agreed upon?
  • The time commitment: how many days per week have been set and does this number include Sundays?
  • Financial arrangements: are these clear and, again, have these been agreed upon? And what provision has been made regarding accommodation?
  1. Do not alter arrangements mid stream without mutual agreement:
  • If the tough times come: it’s time to have a conversation between the pastor and the leadership as soon as difficulties (of whatever kind) begin to surface
  • Work hard and with respect to reach a new arrangement: it may be possible to reach a fresh arrangement which adjusts the time commitment to match what may be reducing finances. But it must be taken on board that, if the church is unable to provide adequate financial support, the pastor has the freedom to reconsider the appointment and move on without any lack of grace or understanding.
  1. Ensure that there is a clear plan for growth:
  • No pastor or church should settle for a non-growth outlook. Even if the possibility of a full time appointment may seem remote to begin with, this is no reason for being without a vision for increasing the impact and outreach of the church.
  • This vision needs to be set out as the priority. Wisdom demands that a church present a vision to prospective pastor about how it perceives its future. If there is no vision and no evidence of a willingness to make the changes needed to an increasing contribution to the surrounding community, then the pastor has no reason to continue I conversation.
  1. Is there room for rationalising resources and ministries?
  • There is always scope co-operative effort. Smaller churches need the courage to explore collaboration in the future with other churches if they are not too far distant.  There is little point in trying to keep two churches functioning if they are in close proximity to each other. It will require courage and a willingness to change.
  • Combined property assets may open a brand new door. There is no point maintaining two facilities if one can be sold with the income being applied to shared ministry. There could open a whole new door of opportunity if the congregations can see the possibility. The   need to release resources rather than protecting them for very restricted purposes is not imaginative and responsible stewardship.

So, just in case anybody is still wondering, part time ministry is a tough call!

Rev John Simpson