Clergy

The Dangers of Bi-Vocational Ministry

Overworked illustration, Honza Hruby / Shutterstock.com
Overworked illustration, Honza Hruby / Shutterstock.com

I eat, sleep, and breathe faith and politics; it is my passion and calling. From 9-5 each weekday, I direct communications and advocacy for Sojourners, moving around Washington, D.C. for various meetings, engaging with reporters and the media, and planning advocacy strategies around pressing justice issues. Then I turn off my computer and walk out the door. But instead of going home, I’m usually off to another meeting that has little to do with politics and everything to do with faith.

I’m a bi-vocational pastor, and I spend 15-20 additional hours working in a local congregation alongside several clergy colleagues, who themselves are a mix of full-time and part-time ministers. Serving in a church keeps me rooted. It provides perspective when the dysfunctions of Washington threaten to consume me. Helping people discover faith and integrate it into their lives renews and enlivens my soul.

Part of me pretends that I’d be spending this much time worshiping on Sunday morning and hanging out with my fellow young adults anyway, so I might as well be polishing my ministerial skills. But when I’m honest, I know it isn’t close to the same thing. I am way more invested in people’s lives – their joys and concerns – and the life of a particular community than I otherwise would be as “just a member of the congregation.” It is a demanding role that can be emotional, mentally and spiritually draining at times, but I love every minute of it. This is what I was made to do. Being a pastor is my identity. This calling is fundamental to who I am and how I understand myself in the world.

The number of bi-vocational ministers is increasing rapidly. Many pastors who work full-time jobs and serve in congregations part-time receive little or no pay for their church service. This trend has been described as “the future of the church” and extolled because the model is a return to “the original church” that will “enliven congregations.”

Holy Poverty and The Seminary

Seminary sign, Vladislav Gurfinkel / Shutterstock.com
Seminary sign, Vladislav Gurfinkel / Shutterstock.com

Paul said, "the foolishness of the cross" not "the stable middle-class lifestyle," if you want my opinion on seminary education, the changing economy, and baptismal identity in general. We bear a responsibility to care for one another as Christians (and beyond) that we have abdicated to the persnickety "marketplace." It's time to talk about holy poverty again, I think.

I can hear my free church friends and colleagues now, "But we don't take a vow of poverty!" It's true. We don't. We remember this historical movement away from the monasteries and the cathedrals, the parish system and the state church. This is an issue of ecclesiology, no question. What I wonder, however, is if in our attempts to not fall into the traps of the past, we simply have settled on the marketplace as our model for ecclesiology. I assume we have.

My degree is a "professional degree," yet within its conceptual framework the notion that I am "professed" is easily lost. I am not called to earn, but to labor, to serve. My work is "worth" nothing. Instead, it is a response to a vocation that in many ways we all share. The wealth of the community affords me the opportunity to respond to that shared call in a particular way. I am not your employee. I am your pastor. I am poor. Any wealth I may posses comes directly from the pockets of others.

Low Wages, Student Debt, and 'The Call:' Financing Seminary Education

Jon Bilous / Shutterstock.com
Seminary at Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., Jon Bilous / Shutterstock.com

The contemporary fast-paced, capitalistic, U.S. free market society has lost the traditional commitments to and comprehension of ‘church.’ Our parents and grandparents understood church as a community to which they belonged. Church was a place where many aspects of social life happened. The pastor was hired by the church people to care for and nurture the community, both individually and collectively. People looked to the pastor for spiritual inspiration, ethical guidance, sound counsel, and pastoral care. The pastor was an extended member of the family and people were happy to make a personal financial contribution to pay the pastor's salary and to keep the church building in repair. Somewhere along the line our society ‘outgrew’ this version of church.

A recent article in The Atlantic titled "Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy" laments the shift away from the traditional model of financing church and clergy as well as the increased costs for training clergy. The average Master of Divinity student (the degree for pastoral training) graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans — sometimes entering into the six-digit category. According to the U.S. department of labor, the median wage for a pastor is $43,800 — not a salary that lends itself to paying off high-end loans.

At Angelina Jolie-Chaired Summit, Faith Leaders Work to End Sexual Violence

Attendees of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Creative Commons image courtesy Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Religious leaders from across Africa and England came together Wednesday to discuss the role clergy should play in preventing and responding to sexual violence.

The panel was part of the three-day Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict co-chaired by Angelina Jolie, the special envoy for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. Jolie made an unannounced appearance before the event, causing attendance to surge and preventing several dozen participants from entering the crowded conference room.

In a pre-recorded video message, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby started the session by describing some of the positive developments he observed firsthand on a recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Historically there has been a culture of impunity,” he said. “Faith leaders are challenging that culture fiercely and saying that rape and sexual violence in war is absolutely unacceptable and will result in consequences.”

Pope Francis Asks Forgiveness for Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal

Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service
A Swiss Guard salutes as Pope Francis. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

In his strongest personal remarks yet on the clergy sex abuse scandal, Pope Francis on Friday asked forgiveness “for the damage” that abusive priests have inflicted on children and pledged that the Catholic Church “will not take one step backward” in efforts to address the crisis.

“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil that some priests — quite a few in number, though not compared to the total number — and to ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done by sexually abusing children,” Francis said.

“The church is aware of this damage,” he said. “It is personal and moral damage, but carried out by men of the church. And we do not want to take one step backward in dealing with this problem and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, I believe that we have to be very firm. Because you cannot take chances with children!”

NC Pastor to Kick Off Second Year of Demonstrations

The Rev. William J. Barber II consults with church member Shyrl Hinnant Uzzell. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

North Carolina’s weekly protests against Republican-backed legislative initiatives last year brought thousands of people to the state Capitol in Raleigh each Monday chanting, “Forward together, not one step back.”

Now the movement is ready to reprise its demonstrations, which recall the tactics of the civil rights era.

The Rev. William J. Barber II and his Moral Mondays team are making final preparations for the kickoff event, dubbed the Moral March, scheduled for Saturday. Barber hopes it will be bigger than the Selma march for voting rights in 1965 that drew 25,000 people.

Swept Under the Rug

Alexander Motrenko/Shutterstock
Sexual harassment and abuse to clergy, specifically clergywomen, is often swept under the rug. Alexander Motrenko/Shutterstock

Today churches are often rocked with sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated by priests and clergy. Yet, sexual harassment and abuse to clergy, specifically clergywomen, is often swept under the rug.

A 2007 study by the United Methodist Church on sexual harassment and abuse found that nearly 75 percent of Methodist clergy women have experienced sexual harassment and abuse. The common settings for such harassment are church meetings and offices where perpetrators are mostly men and increasingly laity. “Sexual harassment destroys community. This alienating sinful behavior causes brokenness in relationships,” the study states.

Despite the prevalence of increased boundary training and education, the 2007 study found that only 34 percent of small churches and 86 percent of large churches have policies to handle such situations.

In 30 years of ministry, diaconal and ordained, I have seen that church politics, ignorance of or lack of policies and procedures, tolerance for inappropriate behavior, status of perpetrator, and money are obstacles to dealing with sexual harassment and abuse to clergy in a healthy way.

Respect for Clergy Drops, But Among Republicans, Not So Much

A clergy member next to a cross looking out a window. Photo courtesy Berents via Shutterstock. Via RNS.

Clergy used to rank near the top in polls asking Americans to rate the honesty and ethics of people in various professions. This year, for the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 1977, fewer than half of those polled said clergy have “high” or “very high” moral standards.

But opinions on clergy differed markedly by party, with Republicans viewing them far more favorably than Democrats.

Overall, 47 percent of respondents to the survey gave clergy “high” or “very high” ratings, a sharp drop in confidence from the 67 percent of Americans who viewed them this way in 1985.

The Revolving Door of Church 'CEOs'

Clergy, Monika Wisniewska / Shutterstock.com
Clergy, Monika Wisniewska / Shutterstock.com

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s surprise decision to retire does more than throw the technology industry into a frenzy of speculation. It raises the problem of succession.

From major corporations to startups led by visionary leaders, from universities to churches, the departure of the top leader can stop momentum and usher in months, perhaps years, of uncertainty.

Even though dealing with succession is a primary task for a board of directors — some say it’s their preeminent task — relatively few boards take the assignment seriously. They focus instead on the easier work of jousting with the top leader and shilling for institutional investors.

What should be an orderly process of preparing for leadership transition instead becomes a lurching from one standalone regime to the next.

Many board members want the rush of being co-managers of the institution. This is especially true in churches, where boards enjoy making day-to-day decisions about operations. Since a strong central leader would get in their way, many church councils discourage strong clergy and reward compliant permission seekers.

Feds Offer Atheists a Clergy Tax Break That They Don’t Want

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion F
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation. Photo via RNS.

The federal government wants to give Annie Laurie Gaylor a tax break for leading the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

But Gaylor, an outspoken atheist from Madison, Wisc., wants to stop them — and she’s asking a federal judge for help.

The standoff is the latest twist in a court battle over the parsonage exemption for clergy, a tax break that allows “ministers of the gospel” to claim part of their salary as a tax-free housing allowance.

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