The New Reality of Ministry

Before I begin, I have to give credit to some people concerning this post. Carol Howard Merritt and many others have been writing on subjects such as this before, so many of my thoughts have been birthed out of their writings, so h/t to them.

Seated around long tables in a Hogwarts like cafeteria are first year seminarians eager to discuss their call story and hopes for their future in ministry.  While at another long table in that same cafeteria, senior seminary students are telling different stories. At this point, they have probably grown tired of reciting their call story and can  probably recite the call story of the person sitting across from them. Instead, they are expressing their lament as their future in ministry seems bleaker and bleaker. The lack of open pastorates that provide full time work with proper salaries and health benefits is on the rise.

The very thing that unites and divides these two groups is the fact that the institution in which they attend very rarely speaks of this new reality.  The few times that this issues would be given recognition would be around the same time the annual job fair would be held and even then, only those students looking for a placement would be informed.  That is a problem.

I feel like I and many of my fellow seminarians have been lied to about our future in ministry.  I grew up with a call to ministry fairly young and as I grew into that I saw examples of ministers with full-time calls, fair salaries, health benefits, and a way to sustain their families.  This was the image of ministry I grew up with and a notion that was never challenged throughout my undergraduate work or even into my graduate studies.  Until recently, I hadn’t heard that the chances for my picturesque career were growing slimmer and slimmer each year and to think differently was to be simply naive.  I know that I, and many others, are hurt and are unsure of how to feel or what to do next. Is a full-time call with benefits just a pipe dream?

When I talk to people about this paradigm shift, I almost always hear “well you can always be a tent-maker.” (a tent-maker is a person who does ministry part time and also works another job as well.) What if I don’t want to be a tent-maker, what if I just can’t do that?  People have then informed me that Jesus’ disciples weren’t full time employees with benefits.  True, but they also didn’t have a high cost of living or a family to provide for or student loans to pay off, did they.  If you can’t already tell, I am frustrated. And I am not the only one.

The fear for many is that at some point in the very near future, full time ministry will no longer be a sustainable vocation.  Some have applauded this as a return to the Biblical way of doing ministry while others mourn the loss of the safety and security that full time work brings. No matter which camp one may stand in, it is imperative that we see this shift and be able to adapt.  The place that it may be best to start is at those long Hogwarts tables where hopeful seminarians sit and begin to gently reframe their expectations.

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5 thoughts on “The New Reality of Ministry

  1. Andrew Hoeksema says:

    James,

    I am with you there. It wasn’t talked about adequately at SFTS (MDiv 2010). Most grads I know with jobs are chaplains or working in non-church non-profits, not in church positions. I am working at an environmental non-profit and don’t anticipate a church hire anytime in coming years if I choose to stay in Santa Cruz, CA where my wife feels at home and loves her job. That’s my reality of ministry. I do it on weeknights when I host a men’s small group and a monthly gathering of seminary grads (most not working in churches) of theology book group and discussion. I won’t sugar coat it for you. Andrew

    • Thanks Andrew,
      Ministries like small groups and discussion groups seem to the way more and more “trained” people are finding ways to do their vocations. I think a way to move forward may be to validate new ministries such as the ones you named and compensate them as such.

  2. Dave says:

    I share the frustration. It has only been in the last 3 months that I began F/T Xian ministry in a parish setting. And that after having completed my Mdiv nearly a decade ago (2002). I was told there were plenty of churches out there looking for and needing ministers. But I wasn’t looking for “tent making”. And the ones looking F/T were not a good fit for me theologically. My wife loved her job and so I spent 5 years in the local school system and the next five in a P/T (such a misnomer) youth and children ministry position. Now the changing economic world sees pastors in bigger churches staying longer because they can’t afford to retire so there are fewer openings.

    One caveat is that I also hear of ministers turning down good FT gigs because they were not in the “right” part of town or they were too rural or too urban or what not.

    Thanks for posting.

    Dave

  3. Wendy says:

    Hi. When you described those tables, I knew exactly the place you’re sitting. I was there four years ago…
    And now I’m one of those tent-makers, serving across the street from your school and working in your library. It is not what I started out looking for. It is not what I imagined. I don’t always like working 6-7 days a week. It’s often exhausting, and you’re right – its not a reality that I was trained for.
    But I find some comfort in this: I am living the same kind of reality that many of those I am ministering to are living. They are working jobs they don’t want/never imagined/weren’t prepared for because they have been downsized in middle age, have moved to another country under persecution, or have had to start life over after unexpected family upheaval. If our job prospects were plentiful right now, our futures secure, we would be rarified clerics,seemingly untouched by the ever-present uncertainty of our world. Not a great basis for incarnational ministry.
    That said, it’s not easy. And there isn’t a lot of truth-telling going on about it. So keep the discussion going, be active in questioning the status quo, and be open to God moving in new ways in your life. Because that’s what we have to hang on to in the chaos and frustration- God is faithful.
    I’m going to do my third job now- fix dinner for my children.

  4. Claudia Aguilar says:

    Mmmm… Maybe my opinion is based on my background, but I will disagree with my dear blogger friend. I lived all my life in Mexico jumping in between Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. My last pastor made $400 a month. He was one of the fortunate ones.
    I know that the financial situation of most people who graduate from seminary nowadays is not the most helpful, but that tells us more about the American ethos than the Church. While in seminary, I lived on a $700 dollar budget that covered rent, food, and entertainment. That meant: no shopping, eating out once or twice a week, no travels, and a bike as transportation. I graduated with a $0 debt. Most of my peers chose the path of loans, which meant a more comfortable life in that moment, but also financial stress once they graduated. Our choices as students have repercussions in the long run that we rarely think about.
    Indeed, the Church as we know is not generating the amount of profitable jobs that are required. But the Early church taught us that profit, comfort, or even sustainanility are not our goals. The Church that was built upon giving up everything, selling all possessions and sharing them with the others offers us a model for our churches today. Maybe we should reconsider why we are jumping into such a nonsensical call because perhaps, as ministers, we will never be able to buy a house, our kids won’t have their own bedroom, and our pensions will be small.
    And I think that our “shrinking” church means that we have a whole world to share the Good News with: the possibilities for ministry (our as some would call them, “jobs”) are innumerable if we are willing to serve God’s people joyfully and trust God’s provision (of maybe small meals and humble clothing) in our lives.
    We shall not fear, for God is truly with us.

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