Over the weekend I ran across a number of articles and blogs about bi-vocational ministry, especially as it relates to a rural, small church and its declining (or non existing) budgets. Since I am a bi-vocational pastor in a rural, small church that doesn’t have or need a budget, I thought I would weigh in.
The challenges affecting the traditional* job descriptions and salaries of professional clergy are many. There is the declining church membership and declining percentage of giving per church member (source). There is also the upcoming (or all ready here) clergy shortage (source). Then there are greater theological and ethical concerns which my friend Marissa brings to bear here. Outside the church there is the decline of the middle class and the vast changes in the 21st century work force, which you can read a little about here. There is also the crisis of higher education (source). Lastly there is the reemerging factor of the working mother (or put more politically correct, the double income family).
To try to tackle all of these issues in one blog or article would be a weary task and one for which I don’t have time. However, all these issues and more certainly come to bear in my own biography. So my goal today and tomorrow is to throw my narrative into the mix and use the hard date of my life to offer clarity, advice, predictions but most of all compassion.
As my unnecessarily clunky title suggests, I am a 30 year old bi-vocational pastor and father. I pastor a church of about 90 people where only about 45 show up on any given Sunday. My church is in a rural small town in Eastern Oregon. It is a fairly impoverished town with 10 percent of teenagers homeless at any given time. My wife works full time for a university in a town 20 miles away and we can only afford daycare once a week. Our families live nowhere near us so my 6 month old son and 2 year old daughter accompany me everywhere. The church lets me live in a rather large parsonage that nevertheless is aged and has many structural problems. They also throw in a cash salary and a modest spending account. I receive no benefits because my wife gets them through her job. In addition to being a pastor I am also paid a fairly decent salary for coaching the local High School’s Cross Country and Track teams.
My wife and I came out of college and seminary okay with just $30,000 in student loans. We pay $500 a month on them and hope to have them paid off by 2020.
With that basic biographical information in mind, I want to say that I love my life. I am doing what God called me to do and I am doing it where God called me to do it. I am doing what I spent 8 years in higher education to do and I have felt nothing but confirmed in my calling since I got here.
There are some great blessings in my current life. There are also severe limitations and unique challenges that I will tackle tomorrow. But today I want to count off some of the blessings.
1) My local congregation is incredibly understanding. I have friends who are pasturing other churches and they are not so lucky. One congregation told their pastor that if he took another job in order to pay the bills they would reduce his all ready meager salary, which ironically would mean he would have to take a full time job over a part time one and give the church even fewer hours. My church couldn’t be more different. They arranged for me to be a coach before I got to town. They helped my wife find a job. They have never once complained about me missing ministry work because I have been tied up in family or coaching duties. They are an incredible blessing.
2) My wife’s job doesn’t just pay the bills but helps her keep her sanity. My wife grew up in a suburban town and has had a bit of trouble adjusting to such a rural setting. However, she is one of those wonderful women who is called to be a working mom. Not only does her job save the church $1000/mo (which is a fifth of the annual budget), but her job gives her friends, a sense of purpose, professional development and that coveted sanity.
3) I love coaching. Being a coach is an extension of my calling. In fact, whenever bi-vocational ministry came up in seminary I fretted because I thought I didn’t have another vocation. So it was quite miraculous when God opened up the opportunity to use my distance running knowledge in town. When I get to teach teenagers how to train hard, eat right and treat their bodies well, I am not just doing a second job. I am shepherding them into a better way of life. Also, the connections with kids and parents in the community have been invaluable and helped me pastor my own church flock a bit better.
4) I would be a pastor for free. When my church board hired me they guaranteed me I wouldn’t starve to death. And that was really all I needed. In fact I didn’t really take the financial package into account. I was more worried about whether God wanted me here and I figured if God wanted me here the rest would fall into place. And it has. God hasn’t let us starve and we have more than we need.
5) The ladies who babysit my kids have become surrogate grandparents. I can’t say enough about the women who have stepped up to watch our children while I coach and pastor. The conversations with them and the ability to speak godly peace and truth into their lives would not happen without my kids. To be sure, they also speak a fair amount of godly peace and truth into my life as well.
So my life is choatic but not overwhelming, challenging but not impossible, difficult but quite enjoyable and I thank God for such a high calling and the means to carry it out. However, I do think the church needs to rethink the professional clergy model and tomorrow I aim to do just that. Click on back then!
*Note: I use the word traditional here very loosely. What we understand to be the traditional salary and description of a professional clergy is only about 50 years old. In a 2,000 year old tradition that isn't long.