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Bivocational ministry can’t become an excuse to underpay our ministers

Dana Cassell is looking for a full-time job. I met Dana a decade ago, in her first year as part-time pastor of the Church of the Brethren congregation in our city. Ten years on, she has found that cobbling together full-time pay out of multiple part-time jobs is no longer financially sustainable. Dana, who is single, has also struggled to find a part-time role that will cover her health insurance.

I think of Dana each time I see an emerging consensus among church professionals that bivocational ministry is “the future.” As congregations and their budgets dwindle, I understand why ministry is moving in the direction of a clergyperson with one or more jobs beyond the pulpit. For some pastors, that’s a welcome revision of a role that can be isolating and insular. Ministry “beyond the walls” can offer possibility and hope.

But the turn to bivocational ministry as an answer to clergy shortage and budget woes is often shortsighted. Dana, as a bivocational pastor who directed a program to support people in bivocational roles, saw this firsthand.

In her denomination, many pastors classified as bivocational have supplemented their income with retirement benefits and savings. Others have served churches in a limited capacity while holding full-time jobs outside the church. But what about people with families? And can bivocational ministry support single people sustainably?

Responsible models of bivocational ministry require churches and denominations to consider factors of age, race, family size, location and marital status in policies for salary and health care benefits.

For unmarried people who receive no health care benefits from a spouse’s job, paying full or partial premiums cuts deep into a paycheck. Unlike married bivocational clergy, whose family units often have a second income, single bivocational pastors are on their own to negotiate the shortfalls of their lower salaries. Even in connectional polities, the decision to provide health care benefits to pastors working up to 20 hours a week remains voluntary on the part of the congregation.

And then there’s the issue of debt. The majority of clergy incur graduate school debt from a seminary or divinity school, but for Black pastors, the economics are even more stark.

Black seminary graduates are burdened with significantly more debt than their white colleagues. In congregational polities, Black pastors are less likely than their white peers to receive retirement benefits or health insurance through their congregational roles. For many pastors of color, bivocational ministry isn’t an option but a requirement to make ends meet. That can mean managing a 40-hour work week and a solo pastorate simultaneously.

Another friend, Heidi, reminds me that this scenario of bivocational is different from a call to two vocations. “I would not choose to work in multiple settings,” she tells me, “but I have done it out of necessity.”

This distinction — between bivocational ministry and multiple jobs — is often left out when I hear bivocational ministry lifted up as a model. How can congregations and denominations support clergy in finding meaningful and mission-driven work? If that work requires returning to school for further training, are institutions and churches prepared to offer financial support?

I know the struggles of part-time pastoring firsthand. I once served in a part-time ministry role, cobbling together a full-time salary from other jobs. I received a stipend toward half of my health insurance premiums but nothing for my spouse and children.

My contract included no retirement benefits or dental insurance. During those years, one of my cavities rotted so badly that I eventually had to receive a crown. The cost was astronomical, and the pain was constant. I relied on public dental clinics and dental schools for my care, often waiting months for treatment.

Part-time roles meant absorbing not only financial precarity but also the psychological burden of risk. This reality affected my relationship to the church. If we could not care for the health of our clergy, what did this mean about our commitment to laborers outside the church? How could we proclaim good news for workers when our church workers barely got by?

My denomination, Mennonite Church USA, has recognized the health care inequity for part-time pastors and pastors of color. In response, the Mennonite Church in 2010 launched The Corinthian Plan. Congregations, area conferences and agencies that choose to enroll in The Corinthian Plan contribute to a Fair Balance Fund.

Wealthier congregations and constituents pay more into the fund to support congregations that struggle to pay the full premium. This form of economic redistribution addresses the needs of small churches and of bivocational pastors.

That plan was lifesaving for Pastor Tomas Ramírez of Luz y Vida Mennonite Church in Orlando, Florida. In 2017, he was diagnosed with leukemia. The Fair Balance Fund provided additional financial support for his expensive and extensive cancer care, including a bone marrow transplant. Because the costs were shared across The Corinthian Plan holders, he also did not see a spike in his premiums.

Other denominations are looking for new and innovative ways to provide their part-time pastors secure and healthy futures. My friend Dana’s denomination, the Church of the Brethren, recently announced new guidelines for pastoral compensation. These include a minimum salary suggestion that takes into account inflation. They also look at housing costs with respect to ZIP code as well as calculating hours per week in a contract only after housing and pension costs are covered.

The church can’t turn to bivocational language as an excuse to underpay or underinsure employees. If we aren’t intentional about setting structures to support bivocational ministers, we can anticipate exploitation, exhaustion and failure.

The future of ministry may be bivocational, but it will be healthy, just and whole only if congregations and institutions work creatively and intentionally to redistribute funds, offer robust benefits and attend to the long-term stability of these roles.

It’s hard to believe that just over a week ago, our congregation was negotiating whether or not we should meet in person. Within days, we went from elbow bumps and singsong hand washing to social isolation.

That Sunday, most churches worshipped online or were canceled. Predictions swelled from weeks to months to a year and a half for our lives to begin to recover from the effects of the pandemic. For those of us who center our lives as pastors on embodied rituals of eating, drinking, washing and gathering, it was easy to feel as though we were lost in a fog.

But soon I noticed a curious change. If there was going to be a gap in our corporate worship, churches were going to fill it. By the end of the day, I’d been invited to participate in Facebook Live theology reading groups, an online small group and no less than four different formats for Zoom session prayer.

My colleagues began setting up home recording studios. They produced new small groups, buddy systems and home liturgies. They offered ideas such as tracking down pictures of our church members and taping them to pews as we prayed. They told stories of hundreds more people logging on for worship; they shared new book studies and Bible studies.

Clergy friends began sending out daily recorded messages and prayers. I received four invitations to gather digitally with other clergy to process and plan strategies for the times ahead.

What’s more, from the arts and education community, there were offerings of online doodling sessions with a famous children’s book artist, free operas broadcast by the Met, concerts streamed online and a worldwide catalog of university courses opened up to the public.

I did none of this. Instead, on Sunday night, after meeting with a small group to livestream our worship service, I got sick.

Within a few hours of developing a headache and sore throat, I was in bed, coughing continuously through the night with aches and soreness. As directed by the CDC, I called my primary care practice and scheduled an appointment. After a flu test came back negative, I quarantined with my four other family members, waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test, which came back negative a week later.

Being sick and carrying the mental weight of a potential diagnosis has given me a different window into the massive outpouring of new opportunities in this time of physical distancing. My friends in pastoral ministry are creative, wonderful and beloved people who want nothing more than to care for those who are scared, tired and anxious about the world.

And they are overproducing and overfunctioning.

Overproducing is not unusual in the church. It’s easy to get sucked into busyness, to lose sight of the boundaries of time and energy. A crisis, especially one that physically distances us when our first impulse is to gather, makes us especially prone to overfunctioning. How can we fill the gap? How can we help people feel connected? What resources are available? How can we be present?

But the truth is that there is no substitute for sharing materially in the rituals and community of our lives. If this weren’t the case, we’d conduct all our pastoral care by Zoom and all our visitation through FaceTime. Those technologies have been available for years.

I hope that we as clergy can create spaces to acknowledge the grief of disconnection instead of trying to fill the hole with simulacra. Such attempts may bridge the gap, provide a temporary fix, but they don’t acknowledge the disorienting realities of disconnection we are all facing right now. How are we making space to mourn instead of injecting more distractions and busyness into the lives of our churches?

It looks as though we might be in this for a while, and I’ve wondered — how long can clergy keep it up? The amount of output I’m seeing is staggering.

The reality that many of us, especially those who continue to serve on the front lines of food and housing insecurity, will get sick over the coming months needs to be a part of our calculus, as does the reality that many of our beloved church members may also find themselves ill, some gravely. How are we preparing a long-term strategy for these possible futures?

But I’ve also wondered — are clergy trying to make ourselves indispensable because of fears that we might be dispensed with? We live off the generosity of others. Many of my friends serve churches that are only one or two months’ offering away from closure, churches that live on the financial edge.

Seeing the numbers projected for joblessness, the possibility of a wrecked economy — this has taken my breath away. Is our own sense of insecurity driving our ministry at this moment?

For the past week, I’ve mustered the energy for a couple of hours of work each day before collapsing into bed again. In between, I’ve helped my spouse guide our children through learning at home. I’ve helped my kids figure out how to navigate the emotions of being separated from friends and beloved family members. We’ve mourned together lost plans, including the likely loss of a summer sabbatical we’d been planning for over a year. The grief is palpable, the task immense.

And I’ve felt behind. I’ve felt a creeping guilt, as I watch the output around me, that I’m not doing enough.

One night, my youngest child and I took to our empty backyard and collected each kind of flower we saw. We gathered bougainvillea and weedy wild violet. We watched bees on our roses and saw green tips emerging from an apple tree. Somehow, it seems, earth is coming into spring, regardless of the mess human beings have made of our world.

For a few brief moments, I felt calm.

There is much ahead of us, a great sea of unknown. But we know that more will be required of us; more will be needed. There will be more adaptations to make and even more heartbreaking scenarios to navigate.

Instead of more output, more content, more forms of interaction, perhaps what we need are ways to slow down, to resist filling the grief of loss and isolation with busyness.