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Part Time Ministry - It's a Tough Call

Rev. John Simpson, General Superintendent,
Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia

Number 39

Paul's tent making business represents one of the earliest examples of bi-vocational ministry. Part time pastorates have been a crucial dimension of our church life here in Victoria throughout our history. With the number of churches opting for part time leadership increasing, this will remain so. There are some serious implications for pastors which need to be tabled and pondered.

The Reality!

While precise forecasts are impossible, it would appear that about 40 per cent of our churches could be part time by 2000. Approximately one third are now. In a denomination with nearly half our churches having fewer than fifty members, this is hardy surprising. 

A thoughtful rule of thumb suggests that a church requires about 75 committed members and adherents to fund a full time ministry and provide for some additional ministry projects. The financial viability of the congregation becomes increasingly marginal under this number.

The Challenges for the Pastor

* Aspiring ministerial candidates need to keep in mind that there is no guarantee of a full time pastorate at the conclusion of training. In fact, given a long term over supply of pastors, a pastoral appointment is not certain either. Ordination is not a passport to a life long occupation as a pastor. This increases the desirability of every pastor having a second string to their bow. The pastor of the future may not have Paul's skills with canvas but they will need some trade, profession or craft for sheer survival. We are unwise to bless the move toward ordination without this being very plain.

* The part time pastor is often expected to be available full time. In effect the church, sometimes unwittingly, wants the best of both worlds: a full time pastor at a bargain basement price. This unlimited access often springs from the pastor and the church not having come to an understanding as to the days given to the church and the days earmarked for the pastor. In a pastoral emergency most pastors will ignore fixed arrangements and meet the situation. This can be hard for the pastor who has the demands of an employer to consider when working a second job. A church which makes constant demands on its part time pastor will probably generate enormous frustration and stress. Clear communication between pastor and congregation is mandatory.

* The juggling of ministry and part time work has to be one of the toughest assignments around. If there is a clear set of agreed expectations of the pastor, life is much more manageable. But if there are not, disaster is imminent. The manse family will suffer; the pastor will (not may) come to resent the demands being made; the level of ministry will deteriorate and all players will be unhappy. It is the classic no win for anybody. Over commitment in two directions at once leads to poor ministry and minimal work performance.

* Part time pastors are disadvantaged when it comes to professional enrichment. They are often prevented from undertaking ongoing study, in-service training, conferences and denominational activities such as retreats and schools of ministry. It is not only the lack of time but tight finances as well. A part timer in the country has geography against them too.

* Finance is a thorny issue. Part timers are in an awkward position with difficulties arising where church leaders and members do not see why their pastor should be receiving part allowances in addition to a proportion of the stipend. Add to this a blissful lack of awareness of the best way to package the arrangement for tax purposes and it is no wonder that pastors get close to pulling their hair out. Too many churches have not made the effort to do their home work and have been known to vary their financial agreements without reference to the pastor.

The absence of a clear letter of understanding at the commencement of a pastorate is a one way ticket to chaos if the giving in the church declines for whatever reason. Super-annuation payments (now required by law) have often gone by the board without the pastor waking up until the ministry concludes. Trying to sort that one out is a nightmare, usually for the Union's accountant. With all the other tensions of ministry, financial difficulties can be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

* Accommodation can be painful. If a church has a manse, then this part of the equation is usually trouble free. But if not, the pastor had best beware. Who will pay the rent and what will be the impact on the pastor's take home pay? It does happen that the pastor has been left to rent a home drawing on meager remuneration to do so. 

Another variation is that the pastor provides a home, in which case the church breathes a sigh of relief - and then fails to see the need to offer any housing allowance. It comes back to getting the right letter of understanding from the start. There is no point being pious and "leaving it to the Lord to work out." Why should He? We are the ones with the calculators handy.

The Challenges for the Church

1) Budget Shortfalls

Every year at least one or two churches stumble into budget short falls. It becomes very apparent that there will be no easy solution. Usually little thought is given to the reason for the downward trend in giving. Often the blame is placed at the pastor's door.

But a shortage of money may not be the problem. It is a common plot to see overseas missionaries supported while the pastor's stipend goes backwards. No one is going to argue against helping keep missionaries on the field.

2) Lack Of Accountability

What is curious is the tentative and distant connections which churches seem to have with many of their far flung projects. There is an absence of information and usually very little or no accountability at all. It may be that someone in the church is related to the missionary or that there was some amazing deputation slide night that moved everybody with compassion or guilt a few years ago.

But what about the missionary task in Jerusalem? That seems to be secondary and not seen as part of the Gospel. So the pastor's stipend is actually reduced while money flows generously out of the church. This can do an awful mischief to a pastor's self esteem and bring great hardship as well.

3) The Pastor Sacrifices...Alone

In tough times the pastor is the only one who is called upon to make the sacrifice. When the church meeting agrees to reduce the stipend, there are few others in the church who will be making the same financial sacrifice. In country situations the pastor may be seen to be on a good wicket but there is a huge difference between cash flow and assets.

Farmers do go through hard seasons but the pastor can only dream about the asset base of his farmer members. It is not that the pastor begrudges these, but there can be an insensitivity to the needs of the manse in times of cash shortages.

4) Part-Time Mentality

A church with a part time ministry can have a part time mentality too. While it is true that some churches will only ever be part time because of their location in sparsely populated areas, the simple fact remains that many part time churches should not be part time at all. They are surrounded by people on all sides.

The problem is that the ministries being exercised are no longer relevant to the community. But the church has been part time for so long that members have stopped thinking about ever working towards a full time ministry.

5) Resistance To Change

Change comes with great difficulty. There is an old guard who have a fixed idea of what the ministry should look like. The innovative pastor will go into melt down as suggestion after suggestion is put to one side. There is a crushing absence of vision with bland excuses being offered for non growth: multiculturalism, or a blue collar environment, or a "hardness to the Gospel," and so on. These do not wash well, nor should they.

6) Pastor's Needs Neglected

When times do improve the needs of the pastor often come last. There are congregations where the giving has improved because the pastor has worked like a trojan. Numbers are up; confidence has increased; there is a better spirit.

But no one has connected these advances with the pastor's own commitment and sacrificial service. There is no one to bat for the pastor in moving to increase support to full stipend and allowances. Instead there can come a supposedly divine revelation which leads the church to build up the general fund against another "rainy day."

Members may settle for limited giving but fail to recognise that the fortunes of the church would increase dramatically if the pastor were able to give full attention to the ministry.

Some Suggestions for Pastors and Churches:

1. Start off each pastorate with a clear letter of understanding to include:

- ministry expectations and the number of days per week for service
- financial arrangements based on the latest information from the Union
- accommodation if there is no manse

2. Do not alter arrangements mid-stream without mutual agreement:

If tough times come seek help before altering the provisions of the letter of understanding. The judicatory or denomination cannot bail out difficult situations but can offer ways forward if sufficient time is available.

3. Ensure that there is a clear plan for growth:

No pastor or church should settle for a non growth environment. Even if the possibility of full time may seem remote now, this is no reason for being without a vision for moving ahead. Provision should be made for establishing a specific vision and mission at the time of the interview. If the church does not really want to change, then the pastor should be told this before responding to a call.

4. Is there room for rationalising resources and ministries?

There is scope for smaller churches to examine closer collaboration and co-operation in the future. There is little point in trying to keep two churches functioning if they are in near proximity to each other. It will require courage and a willingness to change.

The assets in property, if combined, may open a whole new door of opportunity if only the congregations could see the possibility. The need to release resources rather than protecting them for very restricted purposes is not imaginative and responsible stewardship.

Just in case anybody is still wondering, 
part time ministry is a tough call!

Rev. John Simpson

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:18 PM