Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Even in Drought

Nojoqui Falls, California. A 3 year drought
and the hills are dry as a bone.
But in this canyon, there still is a trickle of water.
Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ Luke 9:1-6

The sky is falling! The middle class is dying! And clergy are getting shafted! I've been seeing this in my newsfeed a lot lately.  I'm troubled by the idea that the church owes us pastor types a middle class living. If it was ever true that congregations could promise that, it was only true for some pastors--mostly white, mostly male, mostly married. But even then, my great-grandfather was a pastor, and his wife made the children's clothes out of empty flour sacks. I bet he
got paid in chickens sometimes. I think we're basing our fury on an illusion, a delusion of white, middle-class privilege that conveniently distracts us from the hard work of ministry.

Lately there's been quite the conversation around the dreaded Bi-Vocational Ministry that many of us pastors are either already engaged in or expect to be in the next few years. (And let’s be clear that communities of color and less privileged/wealthy communities have been engaging bi-vocational ministers for quite some time. Centuries, even.) A sampling of recent essays on this subject:

Pastors in Poverty by Carol Howard Merritt

Also recently: How To Snap Pastors Like Breadsticks by Charles Redfern. He writes bleakly: 
It's a verified fact: Anyone signing up for the professional ministry is nuts. Don't waste time on those psychological tests. If they want the job, they're cracked. 
That would be me. I've been throwing myself into the kind of work that lands us on the operating table for 25 years. It's American Anxiety Employment on steroids. I'm loopy. 
And it's all sliding downhill from there.
That's just a sampling from the last week or so. Last year about this time, David Fitch wrote out his suggestions: Create a New 'Order' of Clergy: A Recommendation to Denominations, in which he suggested we need "missional" pastors. We love the term "missional", eh? His proposal is basically groups of bi-vocational pastors living in community. My colleague, Wayne Meisel, has suggested we need a protestant order of Jesuits to get out there in the world (and by the way, if you are interested in seminary, talk to him--he's got ideas).

The television series Rev. probably sums up our pastoral despair best in a little exchange in episode 6 of the first season. The Rev. Adam Smallbone is an episcopal priest in an urban church with a tiny, remnant congregation that barely makes ends meet. On a particularly bad day, Adam meets up with a congregant named Colin--a scruffy, alcoholic, sometimes homeless man with a lengthy police record:

Colin:  Got a face on you today, vicar.
Adam: Yes, I'm experiencing a large amount of ontological despair.
Colin:  Yeah? Are yeh?
Adam: Sometimes, I stand outside church here on a Sunday, saying good bye to 10 or 12 people, and do you know what I feel like?
Colin:  No...
Adam: A remnant.
Colin:  A remnant of what?
Adam: Of an illusion that people used to believe in.

Is this what we are called to? To be the remnant of an illusion that people used to believe in?

My first call was to a Tiny Church in south Jersey. They were very good to me, but they were also oh so tiny. They were one of the churches who could only afford a Bi-Vocational pastor--someone who could support themselves some other way, because they could only afford a 1/3 time pastor. And for a while I managed that. And then I left the tiny church, because I knew the finances. And I knew they couldn't sustain my salary. And I couldn't sustain my family on that salary anyway. And I wasn't going to be the pastor that drained them dry of cash and closed the doors.

I found myself out of work and out of options in January 2012. Ordained 2 years and 3 months. 15 years of youth ministry experience of one kind or another. 2 kids to feed. 3 cats. A leaky roof and a failed PhD experiment. No money to pay the rent. And no pulpits. Geographically Bound. I hadn't been an installed pastor--I was just a temporary supply pastor with temporary part-time contracts--no installation service where anyone promised to take care of me and my family. And anyway, Tiny Church couldn't have made that promise.

That January I wrote this post "Called To This Leaky Apartment" in which I talked about failure and running out of options and finding a call in the middle of all that, even though nobody thought there was a call to be had.

2 years later I've pieced together several small pieces of youth and young adult programs to make a collaborative ministry, supported by and supporting several churches. It's an unsettled business, constantly shifting, with multiple pastors and congregations pulling toward multiple visions. I share 5 offices, not counting my house or my car.

Thank you, Jesus, for ObamaCare. 

There is nothing particularly sustainable about the work I am doing, and I believe pretty strongly there is nothing particularly sustainable about my colleagues' full time calls either. None of our jobs are going to look the same in 10 years--there are a lot of churches who aren't going to make it that long. We've been in decline for a long time.

Many of the articles I linked suggest that we need to hold the church accountable to provide better for our pastors--to provide a "middle-class" lifestyle, whatever that means. And there is a strong sense among clergy that this is what churches used to do for their pastors and what many of us were promised/enticed/convinced with when we went to seminary. Go to seminary, jump through all the hoops, and on the other side (after you've gone into debt to do it), there'll be a Perfect Church who will promise to take care of you. You might have to move to another part of the country. But don't worry (pat on the back), it's smooth sailing once you pass the psych eval.

And it's no joke paying for seminary. There's financial aid in different ways, so it's hard to work out exactly what it costs for a three-year M.Div. (required by my denomination), between tuition, housing, food, transportation, exams, books, internship costs (yes, they cost), psychiatric eval (and going to therapy because nobody gets through the psych eval unscathed), childcare, marital counseling, spiritual direction, and the coffee required to get through the program. My ordination process took 5 years. You can fast track it in 3. It's not cheap in terms of money or time, and it is HARD on families. Several of the articles I linked discuss student loan debt extensively. Many new pastors are leaving seminary heavy in debt.

So yeah. It'd sure be nice to have dental on the other side.

I hear a lot of conversation about how we need to be supported as pastors to a standard of living that comes close to our parishioners. But I think what most of us mean by that is a standard of living that comes close to our wealthier parishioners. (And yes, I know. we don't have parishes. You may contact the grammar police here.)

As I've been working with these disparate congregations and balancing my salary with whatever  I can do to make ends meet, including food stamps, free lunch, medicaid, thrift stores, and the church food pantry (these days a lot less of that), I'm coming to a few conclusions about being in community and in solidarity with folks who have less.

1. Never say no to free food. Like, don't do it. If someone offers to get the check, you say "thank you." If the church lady sends home jello salad with celery, sauerkraut, and pinto beans, you say "thank you." Just say yes to generosity and hospitality in whatever form it comes.

2. There are times when the church provides financially for us as pastors--and sometimes quite generously. Some people will be fortunate enough to find the Perfect Church with dental. But a whole lot of us will be called to pieces of jobs that barely make the rent. We will be called to minister with people who THEMSELVES cannot make the rent. Do they deserve a pastor less? Are we less called? And aren't there a lot more church folk who are barely making it than church folk who have it made? Especially these days when wealth disparity has reach new proportions of absurdity?

3. Our temptation will be to advocate for ourselves as a clergy class. Our presbyteries function as unions, ensuring minimum salaries and benefits for certain kinds of pastoral positions. We saw this two years ago when the Board of Pensions announced changes to the benefit plans that would require pastors to pay a portion of the insurance costs for their families. Presbyterian pastors were UP. IN. ARMS. over this. At the same time, all around us, were parishioners who had no insurance. None whatsoever. Entire communities using broken down emergency rooms as primary care, and our first instinct was to protect our private plan rather than push hard for a single payer, universal health care system that would serve us all. Resist that temptation. Let us pour our energy for advocacy into structural changes that benefit our entire communities.

4. We behave as if our clergy profession is the only one experiencing such a profound crisis. But Ryan Anderson posted this the other day: Academia and the People Without Jobs, which he begins with "The 1960s are over. When are we going to wake up and realize that it’s 2014 and our academic paradise is a smoldering ash heap, a sad leftover from thirty something years of complete and utter demolition?" Sound familiar? There are very few professions left that aren't in decline. Even the engineers pine for the good old days.

5. Seminaries function as professional training schools for pastors, but that is not the only reason to go. And so for those of us who have asked the question, "Why did I spend so much money to get a degree that doesn't get me a job?" well, keep asking the question. I hope you find it was more than getting your ticket punched. I hope you find profound satisfaction in the three years of work to struggle with our texts, our faith, our people, our hopes, our racism/sexism/heterosexism and our traditions. That time to study and reflect, however stressful and life-altering it is, is also a profound privilege. And one we paid (are still paying) dearly for. Value it, even if it never opens a well-paid door for you again.

6. This isn't just a job. It's a call. It's risky. It's unsustainable. It's outside of most people's comfort zones. We have the professional ethics of a therapist, and yet we are hip deep in the muck of people's lives. We're supposed to set boundaries, but at 2am you might find yourself saying a prayer over somebody who died. This is wild, unbelievable, challenging work. It is lonely as hell too. I think maybe there will be seasons I set it aside. But as long as you are in it, the call is to fall madly in love with the people, to know them deeply, to be in community with them, and to allow them to care for you, however imperfectly, however unsustainably.

7. The financial crisis of our profession (and let's be honest that it's about finances), is a wake up call, a warning signal, a red flag, that our people are in crisis. We've been preaching those stewardship sermons until we're blue in the face. If our people had the money, they'd have coughed it up by now. But the people who need us don't got it. And the people who got it, don't need us. And that's the way of it.

8. And finally, I've listened to a lot of (mostly white) pastors with the Perfect Church job and dental who are afraid to speak their minds or take risks, for fear of losing that job. If you find yourself in bi-vocational ministry, temporary supply, or any other form of less-stable call, enjoy the privilege you have to take more risks, to preach the gospel as it comes to you in the night, to not be afraid of losing that job. It will make you a better pastor.

Nojoqui Falls, California
At the bottom of the falls, water drips, drips, drips.
Faithfully, even in the driest years.
May it be so for us.
Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ 

Luke 9:1-6


  1. Very well thought out and written. I really appreciate you getting all this down, to help me think this through.

  2. Thanks.

    The road that you walk is a road that terrifies me. It is also a road that I believe I am headed for. I am grateful for you and folks like you who are walking it and setting up way stations for us whiny, shivering, overwhelmed followers.

    1. You'll find your way, Greg. It's less terrifying as you go along.

  3. As my church is in a pastor search right now, I pray that someone like you will be our next senior pastor. As the business administrator of a medium sized PCUSA church, I have used many of your words with my current interim and associate...and am thought less than generous and loving to pastoral staff.

    1. Blessings on your search process. May you find the right pastor. And may your church embrace them with all the love and care you can muster. May you pay them fairly, send them home with jello salad. And don't forget to invite them for every holiday, even if you think they have another place to be. A person can never have too many invitations.


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