G. Jeffrey MacDonald on How a Part-time Pastor Can Keep a Financially Strapped Church Alive

Image by Jeff Jacobs/Pixabay/Creative Commons

As COVID-19 has resulted in bans on religious gatherings in many houses of worship, donations have collapsed. Many churches will be forced to reduce overhead, and some will close. Congregations that are rethinking their finances right now need to know that it’s possible to have a bright future with a part-time pastor.

I’m not suggesting that churches regard the pastor’s salary as the first place to make a cut; other, less consequential economies may be enough to keep most churches in business. But if salary cuts are needed to keep the doors open, I am here to give churches hope.

Some will resist, fearing that part-time clergy portends less effective ministry and only more decline. But my research for my new book on part-time ministry shows that a pastor whom a small church can afford — coupled with laity who go from being religious consumers to well-coached practitioners — can mean more vitality, not less.

Take, for example, Christ Episcopal Church in Bethel, Vermont. In the 1990s, Christ Church had a full-time priest, but its members knew they faced some tough choices. With just a couple dozen attending worship most Sundays, the congregation struggled to muster a full-time compensation package. Further, Christ Church maintains not one but two houses of worship — one in downtown Bethel and a predecessor, six miles away, that dates to the 19th century. Though the congregation only meets at “Old Christ Church” in the summer, parting with this historic legacy was more than members could stomach.

Christ Church found revival, both financially and spiritually, by switching to part-time ministry. After first sharing a priest with another congregation, Christ Church moved to unpaid part-time clergy when a parishioner got ordained while keeping her day job as an insurance agent. Freed from the strain of funding salary, insurance premiums and retirement benefits, the church has been able to do much-needed building renovations while kicking in about $1,000 annually to the Bethel Food Shelf, an anti-hunger ministry the church couldn’t afford to participate in before, according to the church’s senior warden, Nancy Wuttke.

Christ Episcopal Church in Bethel, Vermont, maintains
two houses of worship, meeting in “Old Christ Church”
during the summer. Photo via EpiscopalChurch.org

Every congregant has taken on at least one area of ministry responsibility, meaning everyone is more engaged than ever.

“It’s up to us to keep the church alive,” says Katie Runde, an artist and musician in her 30s who joined the church a few years ago and is now in training to become another unpaid priest at Christ Church. “In some ways, it’s more alive because every member is active.”

What happened in Bethel points to what’s possible for a giant, growing and underappreciated swath of the American religious landscape. A whopping 43% of U.S. mainline Protestant congregations have no full-time clergy to call their own, according to preliminary data from the not-yet-released 2018-19 National Congregations Study. That’s more than 26,000 local churches.

Christ Church Bethel was helped by Episcopal tradition, which allows for empowering laypeople from a church’s own ranks for effective ministry. Its first unpaid part-time priest, the Rev. Shelie Richardson, traveled a custom education path with guidance from the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont’s Commission on Ministry.

In 2017, the congregation raised up another laywoman, Kathy Hartman, to help carry the load, but even before Hartman was ordained, the congregation mobilized to share pastoral duties to make sure no one got burned out. For example, rather than require the clergy to prepare a sermon every week, half the congregation comprises a de facto preaching corps and members take turns in the pulpit.

Other work is also shared. Members have put their talents to work rebuilding stairs and doing other construction projects. Those with a flair for decorating gave the parish hall a makeover, adorning walls with spirited, uplifting art in formerly sterile spaces. Most say they would have been too shy to show such initiative with the presence of a full-time priest.

Now, at meetings of the church’s governing board, or vestry in Episcopal parlance, the atmosphere is joyful. Meaningful decisions and open discussion are led by a positive, high energy lay leader. Laypeople have taken a large measure of control and are not looking back.

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Source: Religion News Service