Full-Time Ministry Drains Too Many Clergy and Church Budgets. Part-Time Pastors Can Help. - Word&Way

Full-Time Ministry Drains Too Many Clergy and Church Budgets. Part-Time Pastors Can Help.

(RNS) — Mainline Protestant denominations have a clergy problem so severe that it’s threatening their existence. They also have a solution at their fingertips. They’re just not using it enough.

First, the problem. Congregations are selling off assets, from endowment stock funds to parsonages and other church properties, to plug their budget gaps and keep paying full-time clergy who’re tired and often seeking a career change. In a survey of 1,700 pastors conducted last fall by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 53% of clergy had seriously considered leaving ministry at least once since 2020.

(Photo by Mitchell Leach/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

The solution for many churches has been to switch to part-time clergy, lowering their overhead and allowing them to hold on to their assets.

But there is a bigger advantage to part-time ministry, as Hartford’s data show. Part-timers are happier, healthier, and more committed to professional ministry than are their more expensive, and often more burned-out, full-time counterparts.

Consider new findings discussed in a recent HIRR webinar on clergy wellness. Only 62% of full-time clergy describe their overall health and wellness as good or great. Among part-timers, it’s 80%. Part-timers give themselves high marks when asked about their physical, mental, spiritual, relational, and financial health. They tend to report feeling happy most of the time and satisfied with both their relationships and with life as a whole.

These findings follow HIRR’s report on clergy discontentment, released in January, which found that of the part-time pastors the institute surveyed, 58% had never considered leaving ministry even once since 2020. Only 43% of the full-timers said the same. Fifteen percent of full-time clergy consider leaving ministry fairly or very often, but the same is true for only 8% of part-timers.

Full-time pastors enjoy rewards that part-timers generally don’t: The latter are paid less and don’t garner the prestige of being well-known figures in their denominations. But consider part-time pastors’ daily experience. They feel appreciated by congregants, who show gratitude in part by sharing the ministry load, according to Hartford’s analysis. They are by dint of their free time given room to lead fulfilling, remunerative lives both within and beyond their roles in church.

Not that the benefits of part-time pastoring are automatic. Congregations and pastors must be open to change and not get hung up on historic norms. But the shifts are worth the effort because thousands of congregations and ministry careers can be saved.

Part-time ministry is a time-honored tradition, favored by the church across centuries and across global cultures. Today’s mainline congregations have been increasingly making use of it. In the United Church of Christ, for instance, 45% of congregations now have no full-time clergy at all, up from 35% in 2017. In the Episcopal Church, 56% of clergy do not serve full time in one ministry setting. They instead serve part time in one or multiple settings.

A defining feature is that part-time pastors, much like the tent-making Apostle Paul and fish-catching Apostle Peter, rely on income streams from outside the church. Some collect passive income from pensions or investments, rely on a spouse’s income, run a business, or work a full-time secular job. Still others might freelance both in ministry and in fields from writing to bookkeeping, coding, and graphic design.

In these arrangements, pastors gain the mental health benefits of having friendships and responsibilities — in other words, a life — outside the church. Ministry becomes something they want to do as a vocational outlet. It also comes with a steady stipend, which can help pay several if not all their bills. With today’s strong job market, Affordable Care Act options for health insurance, and remote work opportunities, serving a church part time is becoming more doable all the time.

Having the support of the congregation matters, too. Part-time doesn’t work if a congregation expects to get full-time ministry on the cheap. Pastors and boards need to structure job descriptions realistically so that work can be done in the allotted time. Lay responsibilities should be codified in pastor-parish covenants as well.

It’s worth noting that full-time pastors often feel a support deficit too. I’ve interviewed dozens of pastors who’ve held part-time and full-time roles. They say full-timers are expected to do it all: grow worship attendance, boost charitable giving, create programs, and more. Their parishioners can be entitled and demanding, particularly when it comes to closing chronic budget deficits.

In settings with part-time clergy, lower overhead means less red ink in the budget, which in turn means less-stressed parishioners. Members of the church expect to share pastoral duties such as visiting the sick, running a meeting or taking a turn in the pulpit. Pastors feel supported while parishioners feel empowered for good works in Christ’s name.

When parishioners exercise their spiritual gifts, which are needed as much as the part-time cleric’s, spiritual maturity grows across the body of believers, as everyone feels valued and contributes as they’re able. Consumeristic dependency on a religious professional to do all the heavy lifting on the congregation’s behalf is no longer an option.

With good boundaries and communication, the part-time pastor’s work can and should be truly part time, which keeps pastors healthy and congregants engaged. This approach can bring joyful sustainability to mainline ministry and the congregations that support it — before it’s too late for both.


G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a religion reporter, UCC pastor, and church educator, is the author of “Part-Time Is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy.” His website is gjeffreymacdonald.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.