I don’t always agree with Tony Jones, but he’s spot on when it comes to the economic future of clergy in mainline churches:
At Pangea, Kurt makes good points about the massive debt that many seminarians graduate with. He’s right, they do. And they’re headed straight into a field that pays about $40,000 per year. That’s not enough to support a family in many cities, much less to repay student debt.
But here’s the bigger question, from my perspective: Why do seminary graduates expect to earn a full-time salary for ministry?
I get that’s the norm. But lots of mainline clergy are heading to congregations that have less than 100 parishioners. It’s completely unrealistic that a congregation of that size can support a full-time salary with benefits plus all of the upkeep that their buildings demand. Not to mention that a congregation that commits so many resources to sustaining itself will almost certainly preclude its ability to be missional.
This is definitely the situation at First Christian. The congregation has about 150 members and could never afford a full-time associate pastor. Since I work quarter-time, they can afford to have me on staff. The other two churches that we are moving in with are even smaller.
The future of mainline churches are that they will be smaller and probably won’t be able to afford a full-time pastor, which means that we are going to see more and more folks like me: tentmaking pastors who have a job outside of the church on top of their duties in the congregation.
A lot of folks, including people in seminary and current pastors, aren’t ready for this future. Mainline Protestants are used to having full-time pastors. Persons who are pastors or are going to be pastors, expect that they will have a nice full-time job. But let’s look at reality: churches are shrinking, which means budgets are shrinking. Do people really expect that a church should use a big percentage of its budget to sustain a full time pastor?
I’m not saying churches should stiff clergy. If a congregation can afford to pay someone full time then it damn well better. I’m also not saying clergy have to live at or near poverty. But the reality is, more and more churches can’t afford a full-time pastor. So, pastors have to have a little come-to-Jesus moment and decide what matters: discipleship or security. If we truly believe that we are called by God and that this whole Jesus thing is worth it, then we will find ways to make things work creatively, and learn to balance two jobs to make financial ends meet. If what we want is steady paycheck, then I would suggest finding another line of work. There are far better choices financially.
Being a part-time pastor is not a lesser call. It’s time for mainline clergy to understand that.