Bivocational ministry can’t become an excuse to underpay our ministers

Dana Cassell is looking for a full-time job. I met Dana a decade ago, in her first year as part-time pastor of the Church of the Brethren congregation in our city. Ten years on, she has found that cobbling together full-time pay out of multiple part-time jobs is no longer financially sustainable. Dana, who is single, has also struggled to find a part-time role that will cover her health insurance.

I think of Dana each time I see an emerging consensus among church professionals that bivocational ministry is “the future.” As congregations and their budgets dwindle, I understand why ministry is moving in the direction of a clergyperson with one or more jobs beyond the pulpit. For some pastors, that’s a welcome revision of a role that can be isolating and insular. Ministry “beyond the walls” can offer possibility and hope.

But the turn to bivocational ministry as an answer to clergy shortage and budget woes is often shortsighted. Dana, as a bivocational pastor who directed a program to support people in bivocational roles, saw this firsthand.

In her denomination, many pastors classified as bivocational have supplemented their income with retirement benefits and savings. Others have served churches in a limited capacity while holding full-time jobs outside the church. But what about people with families? And can bivocational ministry support single people sustainably?

Responsible models of bivocational ministry require churches and denominations to consider factors of age, race, family size, location and marital status in policies for salary and health care benefits.

For unmarried people who receive no health care benefits from a spouse’s job, paying full or partial premiums cuts deep into a paycheck. Unlike married bivocational clergy, whose family units often have a second income, single bivocational pastors are on their own to negotiate the shortfalls of their lower salaries. Even in connectional polities, the decision to provide health care benefits to pastors working up to 20 hours a week remains voluntary on the part of the congregation.

And then there’s the issue of debt. The majority of clergy incur graduate school debt from a seminary or divinity school, but for Black pastors, the economics are even more stark.

Black seminary graduates are burdened with significantly more debt than their white colleagues. In congregational polities, Black pastors are less likely than their white peers to receive retirement benefits or health insurance through their congregational roles. For many pastors of color, bivocational ministry isn’t an option but a requirement to make ends meet. That can mean managing a 40-hour work week and a solo pastorate simultaneously.

Another friend, Heidi, reminds me that this scenario of bivocational is different from a call to two vocations. “I would not choose to work in multiple settings,” she tells me, “but I have done it out of necessity.”

This distinction — between bivocational ministry and multiple jobs — is often left out when I hear bivocational ministry lifted up as a model. How can congregations and denominations support clergy in finding meaningful and mission-driven work? If that work requires returning to school for further training, are institutions and churches prepared to offer financial support?

I know the struggles of part-time pastoring firsthand. I once served in a part-time ministry role, cobbling together a full-time salary from other jobs. I received a stipend toward half of my health insurance premiums but nothing for my spouse and children.

My contract included no retirement benefits or dental insurance. During those years, one of my cavities rotted so badly that I eventually had to receive a crown. The cost was astronomical, and the pain was constant. I relied on public dental clinics and dental schools for my care, often waiting months for treatment.

Part-time roles meant absorbing not only financial precarity but also the psychological burden of risk. This reality affected my relationship to the church. If we could not care for the health of our clergy, what did this mean about our commitment to laborers outside the church? How could we proclaim good news for workers when our church workers barely got by?

My denomination, Mennonite Church USA, has recognized the health care inequity for part-time pastors and pastors of color. In response, the Mennonite Church in 2010 launched The Corinthian Plan. Congregations, area conferences and agencies that choose to enroll in The Corinthian Plan contribute to a Fair Balance Fund.

Wealthier congregations and constituents pay more into the fund to support congregations that struggle to pay the full premium. This form of economic redistribution addresses the needs of small churches and of bivocational pastors.

That plan was lifesaving for Pastor Tomas Ramírez of Luz y Vida Mennonite Church in Orlando, Florida. In 2017, he was diagnosed with leukemia. The Fair Balance Fund provided additional financial support for his expensive and extensive cancer care, including a bone marrow transplant. Because the costs were shared across The Corinthian Plan holders, he also did not see a spike in his premiums.

Other denominations are looking for new and innovative ways to provide their part-time pastors secure and healthy futures. My friend Dana’s denomination, the Church of the Brethren, recently announced new guidelines for pastoral compensation. These include a minimum salary suggestion that takes into account inflation. They also look at housing costs with respect to ZIP code as well as calculating hours per week in a contract only after housing and pension costs are covered.

The church can’t turn to bivocational language as an excuse to underpay or underinsure employees. If we aren’t intentional about setting structures to support bivocational ministers, we can anticipate exploitation, exhaustion and failure.

The future of ministry may be bivocational, but it will be healthy, just and whole only if congregations and institutions work creatively and intentionally to redistribute funds, offer robust benefits and attend to the long-term stability of these roles.

In the pandemic struggles for financial footing, church leaders have watched congregations and budgets shrink and felt a new urgency to address our financial futures. As a result, churches have been gradually sliding toward nonprofit management and economics for decades.

Today we have books about how the church can learn from companies like Starbucks and Southwest Airlines how to brand itself. I’ve been in church-giving seminars where I was told that I need to start thinking about Gen Z givers. These givers want to see tangible and productive results and to hear what they’re getting for their money. When there are so many ways to give and so many needs, I have to learn to compete for the dollars.

One book suggests hosting a dinner for major donors of the congregation, a thank-you for their investment in the ministries of the church. People like the attention, the book said; it will increase their giving and let them know they are appreciated.

I see churches publish on their websites the amount of money they give back to the community. I’ve been told we should set targets, perhaps 25% of our budget, to flow to specific charities in our community.

This advice leaves me scratching my head.

My church — Raleigh Mennonite — isn’t a nonprofit, not in the formal sense of targeting issues that impact the most vulnerable in our community and formulating and funding specific solutions to them.

I am grateful for nonprofits. I’m on the board of one, and I give to this organization and many like it. I know that others in my church also give substantially to such efforts.

And I’m glad they do, but my church isn’t a siphon that gathers monies to redistribute them. People can give directly to these organizations without my church’s name being attached. The church’s work is different. We’re a worshipping community, people who have been drawn together in following Jesus and creating a particular form of life.

What we do will look like a waste of time and money to the broader order of utilitarianism. We sing together, we share bread, we tell stories. We form people in the church to be very bad at capitalism.

But I am aware that the people who come to worship at my church are inundated with the message that their worth is tied to production — that we are what we make, what we make of ourselves, how we use our potential for the good of the world. On Sunday mornings, they could be working, they’re told; indeed, on Sunday mornings, they should be working.

But instead, at my church, we take time — we take time — to worship. We recall that the world is held in the care of God’s love and that we are called to that love. There is nothing we have to do or say or be that will make us more beloved, more worthy of love. We are simply creatures, frail and vulnerable, whose being flows from a God who is love. We are grateful.

Rather than an exercise in navel-gazing, worship that invokes this love is a lesson in paying attention. We’ve learned to give our attention to places that fall beyond what nonprofit management is often required to cast as goals and objectives.

I doubt we could make a good case to wealthy donors for the reason for our existence.

My church gives money away — but often to lost causes, to places where there aren’t receipts, to people who don’t register as productive and good citizens.

We gather our money to throw birthday parties at a women’s prison, a token of care in a system of profound dehumanization. My church bails people out of ICE detention, with no word about their status after release. We buy laptops for Colombian farmers. We pay the tuition for the children of a Salvadoran friend of our congregation.

We pay attention to the places where people are abandoned to “get what they deserve.” Raleigh Mennonite provides loans for people in my church who’ve made bad financial decisions that haunt them for decades. We pay people’s rent. And we love each other — so, for example, when a couple in my church took a bare-bones honeymoon, camping for two weeks with money they had scraped together, we all put in a few extra dollars to offer them a bit of comfort and care.

But by far the most expensive part of my church is me, the pastor. My salary comes from the collective decision of a group of people to hire someone like me to lead the church. Often, that leadership means saying difficult things, making space for conflict and calling us back to the life of Jesus. If I give people exactly what they want or what conforms to the logic that dominates the other aspects of their lives, I’m not doing my job very well.

I’m a good preacher, but so are others in my congregation, and I work to cultivate their gifts for public worship. We have loving and thoughtful church people who offer one another pastoral care, show up in times of struggle and hold one another through the messiest times of life.

In other words, anyone could do what I do. My individual activities, were they to be assessed by an HR manager, would surely be considered redundant.

And yet my church has chosen to hire me to help them pay attention to themselves, their gifts, our worship and the world. I often call myself a “freelancer for Jesus,” and my congregation can send me to join a task force on reparations for slavery, lead an action around affordable housing, or speak at a protest for the dignity and rights of LGBTQ youth in our state.

My church hired me because they wanted someone who shows up. They also wanted someone who could give attention to the collective life we lead that flows from worship. Because they take seriously their commitments to laborers, my church pays me a living wage, plus benefits, including health insurance for me and my family. If we cannot model this among ourselves, we cannot expect it of others.

Most of the press for Christianity these days goes to those churches with opulent spending and absurd theatrics. My church doesn’t have a fog machine, and we’ve never produced fake rain during one of our sermons. Instead, we are permanent renters, vulnerable to the hospitality of other churches and schools who make space for us.

We don’t have programs; there are plenty of those offered at the YMCA, our public library and our community centers. If people want to pay for those services, they can get them there, just as I do.

I don’t imagine that my church is a place for re-creating the structures of philanthropy and enrichment around us. Those have their role, and we have ours. We are not committed to physical permanence.

As it is, my church may not produce results that work well for an end-of-year board report. We certainly won’t make people better citizens or more productive workers. I don’t know that I can say we’re giving people “bang for their buck” or branding ourselves in a way that makes us essential for meaning-making.

But I do hope that we are carving out space to rest our lives in the care of the living God. I hope that meeting this God forges the way into the forgotten places among the forgotten people where God is already at work. I hope that I can be a pastor who helps us set down our lives here, among God’s good news to the poor.