Honoring those who speak truth to power
When Robert Shetterly taught himself to draw and paint, he became fascinated by the themes of nature, animals and religious forces. He began making a living by creating art from his home in Maine. But eventually, that wasn’t enough for Shetterly, who’d been an activist for civil rights and against the Vietnam War during his high school and college years.
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the United States’ subsequent invasion of Iraq to destroy “weapons of mass destruction,” Shetterly found himself in a rage over what some have since called flawed intelligence and others have called lies.
“All I could do was rant. And I was really making myself sick,” Shetterly said. He wondered whether he should leave the country or stay and use his talents to have a voice.
The desire to speak out won, and Shetterly started painting portraits of people from the 19th century who were courageous in standing up for what they believed in, such as Harriet Tubman, who had helped lead hundreds of enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
“I thought, OK well, ‘How can I use this enormous energy that I’ve got right now, because of how I feel, and do something positive? Something that’s about love rather than hate?’”
Since then, Shetterly’s “Americans Who Tell the Truth” project has grown to more than 260 portraits of those living and dead.
“[T]he more I did it, I realized this was not just about my own personal relationship with the country or my own therapy. It was really about education,” Shetterly said.
Today, he continues to connect to communities through painting and through exhibitions and other events. His work travels to settings like museums, schools and faith communities. The documentary “Truth Tellers,” directed by Richard Kane, shares the story of the artist’s work and journey, and encourages people to connect and discuss themes of truth, justice and equality.
Values of faith and honesty
It’s no coincidence that many of Shetterly’s subjects are people of faith and that faith communities have exhibited his work.
“We are encouraged often to think about finding our ethics in our economy, in how many jobs have we got, are people being paid a fair wage, what kind of innovation can we do,” Shetterly said.
But in faith communities, he said, fundamental values like compassion, dignity, truth telling and courage are the ones that must first align.
Shetterly said his faith-focused subjects are people who believe in these values and understand that they can’t live with themselves if they don’t act on those values. When his work is exhibited in faith communities, it can spark conversation and introspection.
What are your faith community’s stated values, and how do they align with your action?
In 2022, Shetterly was a guest speaker for chapel at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, focusing on themes of truth and justice. Speaking to an audience of 650, including 500 students at the residential school, Shetterly shared the story of one of his portrait subjects, Claudette Colvin, who as a Black teenager in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, refused to cede her seat to white passengers months before Rosa Parks would famously do the same.
St. Paul’s students attend chapel four days per week. There, they grapple with big spiritual questions like, “Who am I?” “Who are we?” “What does it mean to be a good and ethical person?” said the Rev. Charles Wynder Jr., the school’s dean of chapel and spiritual life.
Shetterly’s visit, including his discussion with art students later in the day, brought to life the work, sacrifice, vision and life’s journey of people who have sacrificed for the common good, Wynder said.
For Bethany Dickerson Wynder, the school’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice initiatives, Shetterly’s artwork complemented the school’s efforts to lift up “unsung heroes” in the Black community and supported the school’s focus on education in the arts.
Shetterly’s portrait of the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, the president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus and an elder in the Church of God in Christ, features the subject wearing a dark-colored blazer and a matching hat that reads “Resist.”
“Often, the greatest leaders come out of that tradition — that prophetic tradition in the churches,” said Shetterly, who explained that he didn’t want to paint his subjects as icons or people on pedestals.
“This isn’t the work of a few heroes and giants — this is the work of people,” he said.
The Rev. Dan Smith, the senior minister of First Church in Cambridge (Massachusetts), Congregational, United Church of Christ, has helped share Shetterly’s art in a faith-based setting. Smith engages with the church’s collaborative staff on social justice tasks as well as deep spiritual formation work.
Before the pandemic began, Smith’s church had reached out to Shetterly’s team after seeing the artist’s work in Maine. The church had been doing a deep dive into its own legacy of slavery — finding that there had been more than 30 enslaved people in its historic membership and doing the spiritual work of repair by visiting sites like Selma, Alabama. But the timing wasn’t yet right to connect with Shetterly.
Who are the prophets without pedestals in your faith community making change right now? How can you learn from them?
In 2022, the church reached out again, looking ahead to the theme of “Truth that sets us free” for the season of Lent. First Church went on to offer an exhibit that ran from February to June 2023.
The staff chose portraits that connected with the church’s story, whether by geographic proximity or because their words inspired the community. For example, there was a special local connection with the unveiling of Shetterly’s portrait of Harriet Jacobs, an abolitionist and author who had freed herself from slavery and run a boarding house near the church grounds after her escape, Smith said.
“The congregation loved having the portraits. They were immediately inspired when they walked into the building,” he said, noting that staff had scattered the art inside and created a ritual of standing before two images at a time and having a short prayer along with time to hear the subjects’ biographies.
He said the hope is that the exhibit will return, noting that there is a connection between the branches of social justice and the spiritual roots of worship.
How can your faith community use art to more fully and accurately represent itself? To challenge itself?
“When a congregation gets too focused on prayer life without looking out beyond itself to what’s going on with its neighbors, that’s problematic. I think when a congregation is all about social justice and doesn’t tend to its prayer or worship life, that’s also a problem,” Smith said. “I think the sweet spot is when there’s a real sense of balance and integration and alignment.”
One example from Shetterly’s work would be the portrait of the Rev. Jim Lewis, who has focused on issues like health care and criminal justice as an Episcopal clergyperson and author. It depicts Lewis looking out stoically from a blue-green background, with his quote reading, in part, “Turning the other cheek is a revolutionary idea.”
A documented legacy
If the unveiling and display of Shetterly’s portraits is an experience, so too is the act of painting them. The process is so inspiring, in fact, that it spurred director Richard Kane to document it.
“‘Truth Tellers’ is the most important and most difficult film I have made in my long journey of producing almost 100 films,” Kane wrote via email.
“I began following Rob around 2003 in his process of selecting his subjects, interviewing them about their beliefs in the ‘American experiment,’ selecting a quote from their writings, and painting their portraits,” Kane wrote.
“It soon became a series about his belief in returning to the founding ideals of our country — liberty, equality and justice for all. It became a series of discovering one’s moral courage. And it was courageous of Rob to select many lesser known but significant Americans who symbolized our fight for justice — racial, indigenous and moral justice.”
Kane noted Shetterly’s deep belief in democracy is what drove the desire to create the film.
“At a time when there is a pattern of states denying the right of students to study slavery, inequality, diversity, critical race theory, preventing students from learning about our true history, ‘Truth Tellers’ is here to tell the truth and give teachers a tool to have students understand our real history,” Kane wrote.
For his part, Shetterly remains committed to sharing his message and his craft.
“The first thing I do with each painting is I paint the eyes,” he said. “As soon as you paint the eyes on a wooden panel, [it] actually seems like there’s a life there.”
Instead of relying on brushes, Shetterly said, he paints a lot with his fingers, building up thin layers of paint using a technique called glazing. Eventually, the light comes through the paint, and the emotions of his subjects begin to surface, allowing Shetterly to then scratch their words onto each wooden panel, using a dental tool, to bring the elements together.
Early on, for historic subjects, Shetterly painted from existing images. But for subjects still living, he has also traveled to those who are willing to meet in order to understand their stories and capture their images in real time. Today, he has a list of hundreds of people he can paint, including names suggested by others.
Does your faith community ever engage explicitly in the discussion of values like truth, honesty and integrity?
Shetterly’s meetings with the subjects might require less than an hour of guided conversation that he hopes will shape their facial expressions, and he then may take just 20 to 30 photographs that capture their emotions in the moment. These days, he can even carry out the initial meeting via FaceTime instead of an in-person visit.
When it comes to the actual painting, Shetterly can finish in about a week to 10 days, but he often spends more time traveling and researching each portrait.
Some of those he approached were wary to participate at first, he said. But after the publication of his first book and the launch of his website, subjects could see the company they were going to be in, he said, and would rarely refuse to sit.
And even though many of the people he’s painted were first unknown to him, many — like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and public health advocate who revealed the truth of the inhumane conditions in Flint, Michigan — have become friends and even guests for related events. Regardless of whether subjects follow up with program events, the experience can be meaningful.
Kathy Kelly, who was co-founder of the grassroots campaign Voices in the Wilderness and now is president of the board of World BEYOND War, remembers sitting for Shetterly in the early 2000s. At the time, she’d returned from overseas travels where she’d seen children, who couldn’t get pain medication or antibiotics due to economic sanctions, withering away in hospitals.
“It was at a point in time where I felt a little fragile. I think in the painting maybe I look a little fragile,” she said, recalling that it seemed clear that the economic war would become a bombing war.
“Our group really wanted to raise the voices for people who had no voice in the United States,” Kelly said.
In contrast to the difficult scenes she’d witnessed overseas, Kelly’s portrait session was set in a welcoming space by the water, she said.
“Rob Shetterly exposed many, many truths through his amazing portrait artistry that would never have seen the light of day,” she said of his body of work. “And I love it that he does it with [paint] and a few words.”
Portrait subject Louis Clark had a similar positive experience, coming from his work representing and protecting government and corporate whistleblowers via the Government Accountability Project (GAP).
After helping Black voters register and get to the polls in 1960s Mississippi, he had earned his master of divinity degree from Pacific School of Religion before obtaining his law degree from American University in 1977 and becoming director of GAP in 1978, just after its launch. With Clark at the helm, the organization assisted whistleblowers.
Today, Clark calls out the role of faith in the work his portrait highlights.
“A pretty significant percent of the people that come forward are coming forward because they have ethical concerns and convictions, very often religiously based, about what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “Because, essentially, what we’re doing is helping people in the workplace to realize their ethics and their morality. And to me, that’s exactly what it’s all about in terms of religion. That is the narrow path — the narrow path of righteousness is truth itself.”
This kind of work — and the willingness to go beyond accepted norms — has historical significance in the church.
“What we know about the history of Jesus is that he was a radical,” added Clark, who is ordained in the United Methodist Church.
“For example, he ate with unclean people. His ministry included — in leadership roles — women, which was pretty unheard-of in the day,” Clark said. “[Jesus] recognized the humanity of all people.”
It’s this kind of action that Shetterly’s project continues to recognize and share for discussion and contemplation. The portraits, and the related documentary, can help inspire and encourage others to tell their own truths, explore their own stories and look out into their own communities.
“What Robert Shetterly does is he tells narratives of truth so that those who look at his images, his paintings, and hear his story … will live into a truth that is loving, life-giving and liberating,” said Charles Wynder, of St. Paul’s School, noting that the essence of truth allows us to liberate ourselves.
“Developing global leaders who pursue truth — seek to live it, strive to tell it, work to protect it — is foundational to not only our faith journey but the aims of religion and faith: to see the divine in others, to find ourselves together [in a way that] recognizes our connectivity and our particularity,” Wynder said.
What radical parts of Jesus’ ministry does your faith community embrace, and what parts does it ignore? Why?
Questions to consider
- What are your faith community’s stated values, and how do they align with your action?
- Who are the prophets without pedestals in your faith community making change right now? How can you learn from them?
- How can your faith community use art to more fully and accurately represent itself? To challenge itself?
- Does your faith community ever engage explicitly in the discussion of values like truth, honesty and integrity?
- What radical parts of Jesus’ ministry does your faith community embrace, and what parts does it ignore? Why?
Teresa Mateus got the call from Charlottesville, Virginia, on the August 2017 day when a white supremacist drove his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others.
Organizers there asked, “Can you come?”
“They were inundated with all of this trauma,” Mateus said. “And even the providers in the community that had treated trauma for years didn’t know how to treat this kind of trauma, because it was unique and new and specific to social movements.”
Mateus, based in Louisville, Kentucky, is a licensed clinical social worker and trauma therapist by training who teaches spiritual care. And she offers such care for those involved in social movements. The work has history, and world events in recent years have given it renewed urgency.
“The lineage of healing justice going back to at least the ’80s is really the genesis for the kind of work that we’re talking about when we’re talking about doing healing work — spiritual care and social movements,” Mateus said.
Issues like racial justice, women’s rights and the environment have pushed people into the streets and their concerns onto computer screens, televisions and newspaper pages, reaching beyond those actively engaged in protests. Between Jan. 20, 2017, and Jan. 31, 2021, the Count Love project (which tracks public protests through local media coverage) reported 27,270 U.S. protests, with more than 13.6 million attendees.
These protests, and the ongoing activism that happens in less public settings, can be emotional for participants as well as those observing them or living in affected communities. Movement chaplains can help address the distress, sadness and exhaustion that may accompany activism.
“We believe the field of chaplaincy has expanded tremendously. We believe that the way we are called to provide spiritual care is different in 2023; therefore, we believe that movement chaplaincy is the most cutting-edge way of doing chaplaincy in 2023,” said the Rev. Dr. Danielle J. Buhuro, the director of movement chaplaincy for Faith Matters Network. The Nashville-based nonprofit offers resources for connection, spiritual sustainability and accompaniment for community organizers, faith leaders and activists.
“People who are involved in movement chaplaincy take seriously this notion that we are called to care not only for the spiritual, religious or faith needs of a person, but we are called to care also for the social and emotional mental health of patients,” said Buhuro, who is also the executive director of Sankofa CPE Center.
The evolution of movement chaplaincy
How is your faith community present or absent in movements for justice? Why is that?
The Rev. Jen Bailey, the founder and executive director of Faith Matters Network, wrote in an email interview that movement chaplaincy is only one manifestation of work in social movement spaces that centers healing and care.
Movement chaplains offer spiritual, emotional and relational support to people engaged in social justice movements, wherever these people may be. Their work “has its antecedents in the lineage of the Southern Freedom Movement and more contemporary efforts through the healing justice movement,” Bailey wrote.
Mateus also pointed to the “heavy history” of healing justice in the Detroit area. “It’s very important work; it was happening very grassroots,” she said, noting that although the work wasn’t situated in what are considered epicenters of power, “luckily, it’s beginning to rise to the top.”
There is breadth in how the efforts are framed. For instance, the person offering the chaplaincy can be grounded in movement culture and understand activist life and what it’s like to be an organizer, said Hilary Allen, who previously consulted on the movement chaplaincy project at FMN.
Under this definition, the approach that chaplains take is intended to be anti-oppressive, to fit within movement culture, and the person or organization receiving the care also is “grounded in movement,” she said. In this way, the presence of chaplains allows there to be spiritual care in secular spaces.
At the height of 2020’s protests — in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the brutal slayings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others — images showed seas of people demonstrating in cities across the country. Related images showed law enforcement officers dressed in riot gear, using tear gas, brandishing batons and pushing back against the crowds — even as almost 95% of U.S. demonstrations during that time connected to the Black Lives Matter movement were peaceful.
Activists continue their work amid the seemingly infinite unfolding of more tragedy, such as the January 2023 killing of Tyre Nichols by police officers in Memphis, and the subsequent release of deeply disturbing videos.
The Rev. Vahisha Hasan, who is based in Memphis as a part of the activist community, is dedicated to providing this kind of pastoral care. After Nichols was killed, his community of fellow skateboarders organized a vigil at a local skateboarding park. There, standing under the night sky surrounded by a crowd, Hasan offered the opening prayer.
What justice issues are people concerned with in your area, and how are faith communities part of the concern? How might they be part of the solution?
She has attended meetings with the district attorney and the Department of Justice, she said, and attended Nichols’ nationally streamed funeral.
Hasan has focused on faith, social justice and mental health as program director at Historic Clayborn Temple in Memphis (the site where activists organized for the 1968 sanitation workers strike) and as executive director for Movement in Faith, a project of the Transform Network that works, in part, to connect people and faith communities with broader justice efforts to practice transformational church and social change.
“In order to do sustainable movement work, we need to have integrated wellness. How do we do this — how do we live and not die? We don’t want the state to take our life. But we don’t want this work to take our life either,” Hasan said. “The overarching framework of my theory of change, if you will, is that we need well people who are doing well work to create well systems.”
In many ways, Hasan is typical of those carrying this work forward.
“Many of the folks who seem most drawn to movement chaplaincy,” wrote FMN’s Bailey, “are those who feel a particular call to accompany those on the frontlines of social justice issues and/or who have some training in pastoral care, mental health, etc., and are looking for ways to deploy their skills in a way that can be nourishing to movement spaces.”
Movement chaplaincy also seems to be growing more common. “We believe that the tide is turning,” said Buhuro, the chaplaincy director. “We see more people working in various forms of social justice chaplaincy than we do folks working in the hospital. … We believe the hospital chaplaincy is no longer the traditional model.”
Training for this demanding vocation is offered by groups such as Faith Matters Network and PeoplesHub. At FMN, students are offered “the opportunity to dig deep into their own traditions of healing and accompaniment while also learning practical skills for de-escalation and mental health first aid that can be of assistance to organizers and activists,” wrote executive director Bailey.
“Students who took the 2022 course were involved in multiple capacities with local, national, and international movements for justice as well as serving as leaders in social justice work in their congregations. The course equipped students to draw from their particular denomination’s spiritual practices as a source for their approach to movement chaplaincy,” she wrote.
Participants have gone on to engage with everything from discipleship groups to social justice committees to anti-racism teams in churches from California to Maryland. Some have also continued to work independently of churches.
“Especially with the training course, we found that a lot of people were interested in movement chaplaincy as a sort of additional skill set or tool set that they’d be able to rely on,” said Allen, the former network consultant. That broad subset of trainees could include people such as social workers, emergency medical workers, attorneys and even teachers, she said.
Mateus, the social worker and teacher, said there are many stages of social movements and many stages of trauma within them.
“I believe there’s a place for chaplaincy and spiritual care at every layer,” she said.
At the time she received the call to Charlottesville, the city already had some resources and infrastructure, Mateus said. When she got to the scene about a day and a half later with a small team, she connected with Unitarian Universalist organizers who had been previous contacts, along with Black Lives Matter leadership, to find a location and hold space for people who needed support. Through word of mouth, Signal chats and other community communications, they opened the space for drop-in hours to allow people to visit.
For her work providing spiritual care, Mateus said, she has integrated creative arts, contemplative practices such as yoga or meditation, and indigenous practices from her own Latinx orientation. She said this kind of care is especially important in communities of color, because there can be a lack of therapists who understand complex identities and the nuances of social movements.
Hasan incorporated breathwork into her prayer at the Memphis vigil. “Breathwork as a form of grounding has been really pivotal for me. And I include it in prayer; I include it as practice,” she said, noting that she also integrates as much communal healing as possible.
What is one creative way that you have offered or could offer support to justice advocates in your area?
When professionals are trained in movement chaplaincy, they can provide more well-rounded care in general. Kenji Kuramitsu, who is based in Chicago, is employed full time as a clinical social worker at an LGBTQ health care center, and part time as a chaplain to a nonprofit. Though his training in chaplaincy is more traditional (he formerly served in a hospital setting), he recognizes the benefits that movement chaplaincy can provide.
During the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, he volunteered as a chaplain to support front-line workers.
“Folks who were themselves ministry, spiritual care, congregational leaders or other kind of providers were feeling as exhausted, as terrified, as uncertain as the communities of people they were serving,” Kuramitsu said.
“Movement chaplaincy has the potential to provide access to spiritual care to populations that haven’t traditionally been served by chaplains,” he said.
Sustaining the work and connecting with communities
Movement chaplaincy can be a way to both reach people beyond church walls and offer those who would not ordinarily attend divinity school a way to care spiritually for others.
“As we know, some people, for whatever reason, it’s their life circumstance, are never going to quite get close enough to those faith communities to be able to access those resources,” Allen said. “Movement chaplaincy may be something that a person could get from a pastor, but they may never step foot inside a church.”
For faith leaders who want to participate in this chaplaincy or help sustain it, Mateus said, understanding the fluidity of these practices can be helpful. Many of those in movements may not come from the Abrahamic traditions, she said.
To help bridge the gap, Mateus said, clergy could go beyond the old model of staying within their own houses of worship.
“You have to be where people are,” she said. “Particularly with social movements, if people aren’t seeing you at meetings, if you’re not at least showing up and saying, ‘I care about what you’re invested in,’ you can’t show up in the moment of crisis and people believe that it’s authentic or that they can trust you. There’s a lot of necessary mistrust in social movements,” Mateus said.
Building relationships with community organizers, asking what kinds of resources they need and being present in necessary ways can build trust, so that when help is needed, organizers can reach out, Mateus said.
Faith leaders also should consider being open to other points of view. “Listen to the organizers and let yourself be led by those who are most proximate to the challenges because they often have the best insight into the solutions that are needed,” Bailey wrote, noting that faith leaders can look for these contacts by searching online for local organizations doing “movement chaplaincy” or “healing justice” work.
Buhuro, who works as a chaplain to chaplains, said she offers support via one-on-one talks, meetups, monthly and quarterly events, and even physical care packages, with items like gift cards, T-shirts and candy. She also spoke to the importance of doing creative, on-the-ground work, pointing to chaplains who spearhead food banks and serve in funeral homes.
“Our movement chaplains work hand in hand with community members to address unemployment, poverty, violence and other forms of oppression in that community. We’re not just wanting to show up when it’s time to provide care to activists on the front line during a rally, a march or a demonstration, but we want to provide long-term, systemic change by journeying with people in the community over a period of time,” Buhuro said, noting that chaplains also can carry out this work by advocating for resources with legislators and clergy.
When chaplains learn to offer these more creative kinds of care, the results can be powerful.
“Movement chaplaincy can serve the spiritual and holistic needs of social justice organizations and their leaders not only in peak movement moments — such as the climax of a campaign, election, or major actions and street demonstrations — but in the in-between times,” the Rev. Margaret Ernst, the director of learning and integration at FMN, wrote in an email.
How can you build relationships and foster trust with secular activists and advocates?
“Movement chaplains can help meet those needs through supporting groups and organizers to celebrate victories, grieve losses, work through conflict, attend to trauma, and facilitate nourishing community care,” Ernst wrote. “Movement chaplaincy should help those who are [on] the front lines of justice struggles to know that they do not have to carry their burdens alone.”
As individuals, faith leaders also can consider stepping out in other ways. “God is bigger than our individual safe communities, our individual churches, our individual institutions. So if God has placed a purposing in you, … then go find the place to be rooted. Do not wither and die where you are,” Hasan said, noting that this growth does not require severing relationships with the people who have been spiritually formative.
“For the collective, for faith communities, I say we need to wrestle more,” she said. “The same wrestle that Black churches had during the civil rights [movement] is not a dissimilar wrestle as today. It is a lie that all Black churches were excited about what MLK was doing and how he was showing up. There were people who absolutely were like, ‘Be quieter; don’t do this; don’t make waves.’ Because what he was doing was dangerous.”
But the stakes remain high. “There needs to be some transformational work that’s happening, and the church needs to see itself in movement,” Hasan said. “And, God bless, the movement absolutely needs to see the church. What it will require is some vulnerability and some deference.”
How are you present in the day-to-day activities of your community beyond church walls?
Questions to consider
- How is your faith community present or absent in movements for justice? Why is that?
- What justice issues are people concerned with in your area, and how are faith communities part of the concern? How might they be part of the solution?
- What is one creative way that you have offered or could offer support to justice advocates in your area?
- How can you build relationships and foster trust with secular activists and advocates?
- How are you present in the day-to-day activities of your community beyond church walls?
By late September 2022, as the senior pastor of Great Hope Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, the Rev. Melvin F. Shearin II had worked every Sunday since the beginning of the year.
Although he was hired as a full-time pastor seven years ago, and he views this work as a calling, he has found that his compensation does not fully cover health care and other essentials.
So in addition to his standing duties as senior pastor, Shearin has taken on additional employment. Over the years, he has worked as a call center manager and at a local gym and has even started his own travel business, to ensure that he can meet his financial obligations.
Bivocationalism is not a modern phenomenon, especially for pastors in historically Black churches and those that serve Latino and immigrant populations. According to the 2021 report of the National Congregations Study, one in three congregational leaders (35%) is bivocational, and one in five (18%) serves multiple congregations. And the number is growing as congregations shrink.
“Seeing pastors doing part-time ministry is nothing new. It goes back, of course, to biblical times and the apostle Paul being a tent-making pastor,” said the Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, the author of “Part-Time Is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy.”
MacDonald, who himself works as a reporter, consultant and United Church of Christ pastor, pointed also to Peter and other disciples — fishermen who left their nets to follow Jesus but still continued to fish.
In fact, even in more affluent countries, it’s only been during the last couple of centuries that it became more common to have one pastor full time in one local setting, MacDonald said. It wasn’t affordable until congregations started to have more wealth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
These days, pastors may choose bivocationalism for personal reasons, such as pursuing a second calling or career by choice, but also for economic reasons, out of necessity. That can be difficult for pastors and congregations that regard bivocationalism as a sign of failure.
“An unstated concern is often stigma. North American churches are shaped by a full-time bias, supported by the beliefs that money equals success and bigger is better,” noted the Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. He is the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Ministry, an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church and the editor of the book “Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry.”
“Even in traditions in which bivocational pastorates are the norm,” he said, “people often measure themselves and their churches against a full-time ideal.”
Bivocationalism as an economic necessity
The context for decisions to be bivocational can vary, but economic pressure is part of the picture.
In the United States, the mean annual wage for clergy is $57,230, and the mean hourly wage, $27.51, according to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Some mainline denominations set salaries for their clergy, while others do not.)
Pastors’ salaries have remained stagnant or declined compared with those of other helping professionals like social workers and teachers, said Elise Erikson Barrett, the coordination program director for the National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders, an initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc., hosted by the Center for Congregations.
Church membership has continued to slip, and the pandemic has many church leaders feeling uncertain about the economic picture. At the same time, inflation has skyrocketed, with consumer prices seeing their largest increase in 40 years in June 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Some churches have adjusted their budgets, and more pastors may find that a second or even third job is needed. But context for these decisions varies.
Do you think of bivocational ministry as “less than” full-time ministry? If so, what might change your mindset?
For instance, in a setting where divinity school is required for ordination, seminary debt can be the pressing economic issue, Barrett said. While concerted efforts are being made to reduce the cost of a theological education, the U.S. student debt crisis can affect pastors in the same ways it affects the rest of the population, she said.
In a setting where a master’s degree isn’t required but a church’s budget doesn’t offer a benefits program, “it may be medical debt or health care that’s the presenting economic issue,” she said.
And pastors who are female, as well as pastors of color, are more likely to be in low-income, small or rural congregational settings, Barrett said.
How might having a bivocational pastor benefit both the clergyperson and the congregation? What might be the losses?
The Rev. Rochelle S. Andrews is the senior pastor at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Ijamsville, Maryland, as well as the associate director of the Center for Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary.
She said she appreciates both of her jobs, because they appeal to her passions, but acknowledged the economic side of bivocationalism for many Black pastors. Andrews, who is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, noted that redlining and other systemic racism is a reason many Black churches still don’t have the same resources as some of their white counterparts.
Given this history, white churches would do well to look outside themselves for guidance in considering bivocational ministry, MacDonald said. “This is an extremely rich area for predominantly white churches to learn from churches that have a different racial and ethnic mix, because the experience and know-how is largely vested in the Black, Asian and predominantly immigrant churches.”
Many long-term bivocational pastors do consistently manage and balance their roles. But for pastors accustomed to being fully funded through singular positions, bivocationalism can feel like a shock.
These pastors’ challenges can be emotional and psychological when they move from only serving at church to having to clock in elsewhere, said the Rev. Dr. Ira E. Antoine Jr., who works as both an ordained Baptist minister and the director of the Bivocational Pastors Ministry for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Still, people considering bivocationalism should look at what they are gaining, Stephens said, and not regard it as a loss.
“In some ways, [bivocationalism] is liberating. Freeing. I get to set my own schedule in many ways. In other ways, I’m constantly running up against that full-time bias in my own mentality,” Stephens said.
“I have to remind myself that I’m good at what I do, that I’m called to teach — in my case, my ministry is teaching, research and writing — and that I’m not defined by my paycheck. And I have to keep reminding myself of the advantages of being bivocational, the flexibility and things like that.”
And though pastors may sometimes feel “less than” if they are bivocational, or that a congregation is somehow “less than” because its pastor has to have two jobs, “we’re trying to change that course and that mindset,” Antoine said.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America has begun offering one of many experiments in bivocational ministry, in this case providing a yearlong Bivocational Growth Fellowship to folks considering a change. It provides financial support, resources and a peer group to help with the discernment process. The fellowship is part of a larger CRCNA project called Financial Shalom, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.
The first cohort convened in 2021. Thirty-five pastors have taken part so far. Monthly gatherings on Zoom, hosted by a longtime bivocational pastor, offered participants a chance to talk with entrepreneurs, people pursuing a “side hustle” and financial planners, among other guests.
Some participants were already working and planting a church, some were right out of seminary, and others were considering a switch from full-time ministry.
“[Bivocationalism] doesn’t work for everybody, but for those who did it, having the group of peers together was the big win,” said Zach Olson, ministry vocational consultant at the CRCNA.
Who in your life could advise you about managing a transition to bivocational ministry? Are there people within or outside your denomination or tradition who could share their wisdom?
Advice for pastors considering bivocational ministry
For pastors considering bivocationalism, whether it’s by necessity or because they feel called to it, there are key steps to take, experts and practitioners say.
Secure a flexible second vocation. In today’s digital world, where so much work can be done remotely, there is room for bivocationalism for pastors, said MacDonald, the pastor and journalist.
Pastors should understand that carving out a second vocation is possible, but they should also ensure that it fits into their lives. For instance, if a pastor prizes being physically present at church on a regular basis, a second job with a long daily commute may not be a good fit.
In addition, if pastors are seeking an outside job where they would report to a supervisor — as opposed to setting their own tasks or hours by working as an entrepreneur, consultant or freelancer — they should ask questions about expectations, duties and the work schedule during the interview process.
Shearin, the pastor of Great Hope Baptist Church, said this is an important step because there may be tasks that aren’t included in the general job description. Shearin also advises asking whether the job will provide “wiggle room” to do funerals, weddings or other church events.
He said the crucial question for pastors is, “Can you find a job that’s willing to work with you?”
Communicate with the congregation. Oversight of second jobs can vary, with hierarchical churches potentially requiring approval of the bishop if the pastor or priest is to work outside the parish, MacDonald said. But whether or not pastors need this approval, communicating with the congregation about the situation — and getting buy-in — is a good idea.
“So much of this going well relies on a healthy, mutually respectful and mutually caring relationship between a pastor and the congregation, where economic issues can be discussed honestly and openly and without blame and shame,” said Barrett, the coordination program director for the National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders.
There are many ways that bivocationalism can work, but adaptation can be hard, she said. “The thing that can make it life-giving is that healthy relationship and a shared vision for why we’re even doing this in the first place.”
Acceptance from the congregation can be essential to a good experience.
“The success of bivocational pastorates hinges, in large part, on the ability of the congregation to embrace an understanding of ministry that differs from what they may have been taught to expect, at least in predominantly White, mainline Protestant traditions in North America,” Stephens wrote in “Bivocational and Beyond.”
Setting clear boundaries is also a good idea, MacDonald said, noting that churches can confirm expectations by drafting a new contract to describe the responsibilities of both the pastor and the congregation.
“In a church where they really understand that you are their part-time pastor,” Andrews said, “they recognize that you have a life outside, other than them, and you just find a balance.”
How might you approach your congregation about discerning whether to move to bivocational or part-time ministry? Would they embrace an understanding of ministry that differs from what they might have expected?
Plan ahead and practice good time management. When pastors have two (or more) sets of professional obligations, planning and time management are essential — especially since a second job can be exhausting.
To help with organization, Antoine, who has two full-time jobs, said pastors should plan their calendars as much as a year in advance, blocking out key professional and personal events such as vacations, holidays, scheduled commitments (when known) and more.
They should also determine how much time, on average, they need to dedicate to each job to do each one successfully, then plan their days accordingly. And though unexpected events do happen, it can be helpful to talk with church staff and members about their desired schedules, said Antoine, who is with the Baptist General Convention of Texas as well as serving as a pastor.
Embrace remote work, self-care and help from others. All can be important to avoid burnout.
Andrews said a difference for bivocational pastors is that they may not physically be at the church office every weekday. But there are other ways these leaders can show care for their congregations.
For instance, Andrews said her church members can call her cell anytime (she texts back if she can’t answer). She does Bible study Tuesday nights via Zoom, and she continues to preach in person on Sundays.
“As a part-time pastor, find the ways you can be present for them, so that when there may be times you can’t because something comes up, they don’t feel it,” Andrews said. “Hearing them, listening to them, really, really goes a long way.”
Pastors also can do tasks like planning sermons and the order of worship (as Andrews does weekly) while off-site.
Pastors don’t have to be all things to all people, Antoine said, noting that it’s OK to delegate some tasks. After working 40-plus hours per week at his staff job and 32-40 hours per week on the church side, he planned a sabbatical from church this July and synced it with two weeks of leave from his second job.
“Self-care must be intentional, and you have to overcome the guilt,” he said.
Depending on the activity, laypeople, elders or other church staff can pitch in. Perhaps a layperson can do certain outreach activities, or a church elder can select hymns. Some theological or sacramental duties are those of pastors alone, MacDonald said, but clergy certainly don’t have to do everything themselves.
Be open to the joys and benefits of bivocationalism. Of course, this orientation may be easier if the pursuit of bivocationalism is a choice as opposed to a necessity. But either way, benefits can be more than economic. They also can include being in a position to help more people, widening a professional knowledge base and living out a calling — or callings.
For example, MacDonald, who has worked as a pastor and journalist for more than two decades, has been able to both research bivocationalism and practice it, he said. When he learned he could serve a church and continue his prior profession, it was exciting, he said.
“I learn stuff in journalism all the time that I will refer to in a sermon, and it’s a blessing. It’s a benefit to the congregation,” he said. “I’m a more interesting pastor because I move around and interview interesting people.”
Andrews also said that her job offers new chances to connect with community members and leaders. And seeing a pastor with a second job can help community members better relate to these faith leaders, she said.
“This is a real opportunity that’s opening up,” MacDonald said. Instead of limping along, he said, bivocationalism can be a liberating way for laypeople to spread their wings in ministry and for the church to establish community partnerships.
And, he said, it can allow pastors to become “more stable, more stimulated, more creative, have more to offer to your church and really find that this may be a great blessing to the pastor as well as to the congregation.”
Burnout is an issue for pastors, whether they have one job or more. How might you manage bivocational ministry so that you don’t burn out?
Questions to consider
- Do you think of bivocational ministry as “less than” full-time ministry? If so, what might change your mindset?
- How might having a bivocational pastor benefit both the clergyperson and the congregation? What might be the losses?
- Who in your life could advise you about managing a transition to bivocational ministry? Are there people within or outside your denomination or tradition who could share their wisdom?
- How might you approach your congregation about discerning whether to move to bivocational or part-time ministry? Would they embrace an understanding of ministry that differs from what they might have expected?
- Burnout is an issue for pastors, whether they have one job or more. How might you manage bivocational ministry so that you don’t burn out?
At an airy school site in southeast Washington, D.C., several children gather around an outdoor planter filled with espresso-colored dirt. It’s about 3:30 on a bright summer afternoon, and the students have been there since morning.
They began the day with harambee, a high-energy ritual that lets students pull together and celebrate themselves, before going into a sewing exercise and then a nutrition lesson. Now comes the gardening, where they learn a handy fact — how lavender can repel mosquitos — and start to grow their own plants.
As these students — known here as scholars — congregate, a college-age instructor (also known as a servant leader) watches over them while parents and other site staff linger outside and inside the school.
All of this is part of a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools six-week summer session. And since CDF’s mission is “to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities,” this program is key.
In fact, CDF Freedom Schools, also offered as after-school programs, are the “heart and soul” of what the Children’s Defense Fund is doing for children and their well-being, said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, CDF’s president and chief executive officer. Through CDF’s partnerships and work with children, families and communities, Wilson said, the program “helps us to prioritize what we’re speaking about, what we’re advocating around, and the policies we believe families need to create the conditions for their children to thrive.”
A program with history
CDF has a record of helping communities. Civil rights pioneer Marian Wright Edelman, credited as the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, founded the nonprofit in 1973 after dedicating her early career to defending the civil liberties of people who faced poverty and discrimination.
Today, the CDF Freedom Schools program is offered to students in kindergarten through 12th grade around the country in community centers, schools, juvenile justice centers, churches and other settings. In 2021, more than 7,200 scholars participated in programs in 26 states and 75 cities.
Freedom Schools have their origin in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, which gathered college students to work for justice and voting rights for Black citizens. Back then, these college students volunteered to teach younger students traditional subjects like reading, math and science, along with Black history, constitutional rights and other topics not covered in Mississippi public schools, said Kristal Moore Clemons, the national director of CDF Freedom Schools.
How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?
The early Freedom Schools were established to build the next generation of voters, Clemons said, noting that leaders thought that if they could “crack” Mississippi, they could do the same with other Southern states.
“Our faith-based partners have always played a role in the movement,” she said, explaining that most of the original Freedom Schools operated in churches or community centers.
CDF started its Freedom Schools program in 1995 to help children who lacked access to high-quality literacy programs. Each year, many students — especially those from historically disadvantaged groups — experience summer learning loss. Recent literature on this loss has been mixed, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution report, but one theory cited in the report suggests that lower-income students might learn less over the summer because “the flow of resources slows for students from disadvantaged backgrounds but not for students from advantaged backgrounds.”
To support students, the CDF model has five components: high-quality academic and character-building enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.
How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?
Since its start, more than 169,000 children have experienced Freedom Schools, and more than 19,000 young adults and child advocates have been trained on the model, which offers a research-based and multicultural curriculum. The majority of students in 2021 identified as Black/African American (68.4%), with the second-most represented group identifying as Hispanic/Latino (13%).
Because the schools are free to families, parents and guardians don’t incur the expenses they might otherwise have for child care, camps or academic programs. This can be especially helpful in low-income communities.
A vital part of a big mission
School systems vary state to state, and there can be battles over what is offered in the classroom. For instance, some schools now are dealing with banned books and debates about critical race theory, among other issues, Clemons said.
Children also continue to face changes within the system, such as periods of distance learning and isolation, because of the COVID pandemic. Some students are dealing with news of school shootings and racial injustice as well.
“Every year, we choose a different issue that scholars across the country will organize around and take action on,” said Wilson, the CEO. “This year, we’ve chosen climate justice, because we recognize that the planet is a place that our young people will inherit and that climate justice is racial justice.”
How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?
Scholars come together, discuss the issue and share their ideas for solutions on coordinated National Days of Social Action — and they’re allowed to dream, said Joy Masha, program director for the Washington, D.C., CDF Freedom Schools. Scholars might propose a rally, a call to action to a state council member or the creation of more programs for children in their community, among other means of advocacy.
Because educators may not be able to deviate from state curriculum requirements tied to testing, Freedom Schools historically have supplemented content that traditional teachers could not offer, Clemons said. That includes books featuring people of color — important since fewer than 27% of children’s books published in the United States feature nonwhite children, according to CDF — and educating scholars about figures in history.
How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?
“We don’t want to be controversial. Freedom Schools are not here to break down the status quo. We’re here to be in community with people,” Clemons said.
“We’re here to show children that [if] you want to be a scientist, great. If you want to be a yoga instructor, great. If you want to be the next vice president — because we have books on Kamala Harris — you can do that.”
Some parents say they appreciate the programming and the ability to participate via weekly meetings. Rochelle Gibbons has two children enrolled in the D.C. summer program. If she were to send them to camp instead, they’d simply play, she said. But here they read and build relationships as scholars.
Another D.C. parent, Ashley Jones, said she also appreciates the model. Freedom Schools staff care about the children and the environment that families live in, she said, and teach children that they’re not too young to make a difference.
That lesson is big. Because children are listening. Processing current events. And sharing their thoughts.
Gibbons’ daughter, Dyllon-Rose Gaskin, did just that after her mother spoke at a recent parent meeting in the classroom. The 10-year-old scholar said the program allows her to read books every day and discover new words.
“I learn a lot,” she said, explaining that she’s finding out “interesting stuff” in a fun way.
“Miss Joy has a strong voice, and it helps me speak up sometimes,” she said of Masha’s work at the site.
So what exactly would she speak up about? Dyllon-Rose simply said, “I would speak up about, like, gun violence and different things around the world, like homeless[ness].”
How does it feel to know about these issues as a child?
“People are getting killed … every day, and that’s sad, because people are losing their lives for no reason,” Dyllon-Rose said.
Looking toward a happier future, she shared her desire to be a teacher, a hand model, the vice president, a mayor and “a lot more.”
This kind of exchange, where scholars discuss a range of subjects, is not unusual.
After years of working in the space, Masha said she understands that age does not necessarily determine a child’s experience. Gun violence was the scholars’ issue for 2021.
“As we see more gun violence here in D.C., we know that we can have these conversations with our young people, because our model allows us to do that,” she said. “So if gun violence is a topic that young people want to not only talk about but address, then we explore that solution with them and help them put it into action.”
Within integrated reading curriculum lessons, Freedom Schools use books to explore particular issues and allow scholars to analyze each plot and connect it to the community. Schools also offer parents resources for talking with children about these issues.
The faith connection
To make an impact, CDF partners with various institutions and organizations. To run a program, would-be executive directors apply on CDF’s website and learn about the training, fiduciary and programmatic requirements that accepted sponsor organizations must maintain.
CDF recommends that, at a minimum, facilities be licensed to serve children. Programs then do their own fundraising to bring Freedom Schools sites to fruition, with CDF recommending that programs cover costs for at least 30 scholars.
Since faith communities have a long history of social action and advocacy work, this connection continues to resonate.
Wilson, who also serves on the Duke Divinity School board of visitors, references Jesus’ words with respect to CDF’s work and notes that defending children is “a religious commitment that is resonant with the call of the Christ.”
“For an audience of clergy, I say, ‘If Jesus did not walk among us, then Jesus has less capacity to connect with us,’” he said. “The God that I serve is one who took up flesh and walked with humanity.”
It is this walk that others also highlight.
The Rev. Dr. Van H. Moody II, founding pastor of The Worship Center Christian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, said his church has offered Freedom Schools for several years. He said children in communities of color may not have access to early childhood education, which can put them “behind the eight ball” when they start school. Added to this, summer learning loss can have cumulative effects. But Freedom Schools can help.
“It’s a beautiful program that really checks a lot of boxes that we’re passionate about,” Moody said, noting that it helps kids grow academically, helps them become more well-rounded because they gain a historical foundation, and helps empower them to become conscious changemakers.
His church began supporting the program through funds dedicated to missions, and in recent years has funded it via an endowment, along with public and private partnerships.
“Our faith informs us about how important it is for us to make sure that the next generation not only knows God but that they are prepared to continue to really stand on the shoulders of the preceding generation and to carry the mantle forward,” Moody said.
Birmingham has both a high murder rate and a high violence rate, and many kids are coming from communities where they haven’t seen themselves in a positive light. With these schools, the pastor said, scholars can see the possibilities of what they can be.
“In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is often taught to talk about the goodness of God and their faith principles with their children and their children’s children,” Moody said. “For us, pouring into the next generation, making sure that the next generation is educated … and prepared to live their best life and affect society in a positive way is an extension of what we believe God has called us to do.”
What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?
Questions to consider
- How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?
- How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?
- How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?
- How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?
- What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?