When I returned from a vacation last August, I found waiting for me a recommendation request for a recently graduated seminary student. When he went to his first pastoral assignment, he discovered the congregation's finances were not as strong as he had been led to believe. Since it was necessary for the congregation to cut almost one-third of his cash compensation, he needed to find additional employment to meet the financial needs of his family, even with his wife employed fulltime.
I'm hearing more stories like this one from clergy in different parts of the country. I know of associate pastors who have been released because the congregation can no longer pay them. I have clergy friends who care for their preschool children because cutbacks at the church make it impossible to pay for childcare while the spouse works to provide most of the household income. One friend recently took a 69 percent reduction in cash compensation from his congregation. Fortunately, he had professional skills that helped him rise to the top in a tight job market.
In an effort to better understand the current landscape for pastors, and with a special interest in those who also are employed beyond the congregation, Nazarene Theological Seminary sent an invitation to Nazarene ministers in the United States and Canada to participate in a survey. Of those invited, almost 21 percent finished the survey—a total of 1,242 completions. Every region in North America was represented.
The ages of the respondents and the distribution between men and women match clergy data available from the Global Ministry Center. Fifty-one percent reported they lived in a town and country context, 29 percent in suburban and 20 percent in urban contexts. Answers to the questions were consistent across these three settings.
Three out of five (61%) respondents were 51 years or older. Three out of four (73%) of the spouses were employed, a majority (56%) out of necessity. One out of two (51%) reported their families experienced higher than average stress. A similar number (52%) indicated feeling financial stress. Seven out of ten (71%) expressed a concern about struggling to have adequate time to meet the expectations of pastoral ministry.
As I step back from these pieces of data and try to see the emerging picture, I become a little anxious. What happens when the large cohort of current older pastors retire? Will there be enough following in their footsteps to guide the congregations? Will some congregations scatter if they can't find appropriate pastoral leadership? Will lay persons assume pastoral tasks without adequate ministerial education?
The financial responsibility for parsonage families seems to be shifting toward the employed spouse, and that may be a source of increased stress. What impact might there be on a congregation if the pastor's spouse cannot find appropriate employment? Should a congregation's expectations for the pastor's spouse be adjusted to take into account the necessary employment?
Some bivocational pastors reported feeling like they were seen by others as "half-a-pastor" since they had to divide their time between pastoral ministry and secular employment. Will this adversely affect their motivation to continue? What denominational expectations and practices might be adjusted or eliminated for the health of the pastors?
Almost 27 percent of all pastors reported being employed beyond the congregation. The central regions of the United States reported a higher percentage of bivocational pastors than other regions. One in three (34%) of those currently working outside the congregation expect to be employed in ministry only within five years. Of those employed solely by a congregation, almost one in ten (7%) expect to be bivocational within five years.
All types of non-pastoral occupations were represented. The top three responses were: education, legal, community service, arts, and media (27%); service (15%); and management, business, and financial (12%).
Ninety-four percent reported working more than 40 hours per week when pastoral and non-pastoral employment are combined. Forty-two percent indicated they worked 60 hours or more weekly. One out of two (51%) said they have two or less weeks of vacation per year from their non-pastoral employment.
Healthcare coverage for almost two out of three (63%) bivocational pastors was provided by an entity other than the congregation. This was consistent across all age groups. The bivocational pastor in an urban setting was more likely to have health insurance provided by someone other than the congregation than those working in suburban or town and country contexts. Fourteen percent of bivocational pastors did not have health care coverage.
Half of the bivocational pastors received a portion or all of their retirement savings from a source other than the congregation. Again, bivocational pastors in urban settings were more likely to have retirement savings provided by a non-congregational employer than those from suburbs or towns. Almost one-third (31%) of the bivocational pastors do not have retirement savings. For those in the 31 to 50 age range, the percentage of those without retirement savings from any source goes up to 37 percent. These are prime years for creating a secure retirement, and yet almost two out of five were doing nothing.
Of the respondents to this survey who indicated they currently served as a bivocational pastor, more than two out of three (69%) did so out of financial necessity. Two out of five (40%) had been bivocational for five or fewer years. Of those who were intentional rather than acting out of necessity, two-thirds (67%) worked in a town and country context. Bivocational pastors felt less valued by pastoral colleagues and denominational leaders than those pastors employed only by the church. Although the percentages were still low, the intentional bivocational pastor tended to feel more valued by clergy peers and denominational leaders than those who are bivocational by necessity. The intentional bivocational pastor also tended to feel less stress.
More questions come to mind. Can we afford to continue seeing full-time ministry as the standard, or do we need to begin to envision pastoral service in a way that honors the bivocational pastor? What types of employment beyond the congregation might provide the flexibility a pastor needs to respond quickly at critical moments? How does a person go about gaining the education and training necessary for two professions? Is the heavy workload of bivocational ministry sustainable by the pastor, the pastor's family, and/or the congregation? Will pastors have adequate financial resources in retirement?
The outer, brittle parts of the Earth push together until the pressure, which may have been building for hundreds of years, is released in rumbles and rolls and shakes. Similarly, a seismic event may be in the making as the contour of pastoral ministry shifts.
Keith Schwanz serves as the assistant dean at Nazarene Theological Seminary.
Editor's Note: Here are some suggestions from a bivocational minister.