Your Gifts Are Of Real Value

Hi darlings,
PeaceBang has had nothing to say about clergy image for awhile, and has been blogging on other matters this month at

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I am thinking and talking a lot about the growing disparity between the high costs and expectations imposed on those who feel called to the ordained ministry vs the shrinking compensation packages and social status of clergy in the mainline Protestant church in America. I am talking about this with lay leaders and clergy of many denominations across the nation and I think it is a very important conversation.

How many times have I consulted with newbies fresh out of seminary who are earnestly trying to make a fabulous impression at a job interview for a position that pays maybe $25-34K a year (in the Boston area, this is a very low salary) and offers no health insurance, very little vacation and a the promise of exhausting work with a dysfunctional little religious community? Too often.

PeaceBang doesn’t want to depress you, darlings, but we’re losing perspective as a people of God. Remember: if you’re prepared to take on tremendous student debt to obtain an M.Div., spend your days and nights deeply tethered to a community of worshipers (and far beyond), and to make the necessary sacrifices with your family that parish ministry require,congregations should feel an equal obligation to make the work of ministry feel rich and fulfilling and worth your lifeblood.

Ministry is mutual. I’ve spoken with half a dozen pigeons in the past month who are accepting calls at congregations that are woefully under-compensating them. I understand the passion to do ministry: I feel it myself. But I urge all of you (especially newbies) to understand the unsustainability of trying to give of yourselves as generously as the ministry requires while living in poverty. Please, I urge you, do the math and work with a financial advisor to work out what you can actually live on. And negotiate with the congregation. If they cannot afford to pay a living wage for your geographic area, they should not be served by a full-time pastor. To do so creates a culture of exploitation and resentment and is bad for the church and the ministry.

This is the second finance-related post I’ve written recently, and for good reason: I’m concerned about the rising costs of graduate level education, food, gas, housing and cars vs. the struggling economic situation at the majority of mainline Protestant American churches. There is a serious gap there, and men and women of the cloth are laying their bodies over that gap and making themselves martyrs to the ministry.

As Miss Dolly Parton said in “Steel Magnolias,” “Get off the Cross, we need the wood!”

Of course I’m proud of you and excited when you get a job with the Little Church On The Hill in East Overshoe, Pennsylvania. But before we talk about your new professional wardrobe needs, I want you to get out that calculator and see if you can even begin to keep body and soul together on what they’re offering. Find out what a teacher in the area makes, or some other commensurate position that requires a graduate degree. If you have a spouse who makes good money, don’t let that be an excuse for a congregation to offer you poverty wages because they know that Mr. or Mrs. will carry most of the weight necessary to support your family. That sets up a church to get more minister than they can afford, and it’s unfair to the person who will be in the position after you.

For too long, ministers have jumped with joy at the very notion of getting a pulpit. It’s time to partner more respectfully and professionally with our churches, to negotiate ethical compensation packages and to nicely inform underpaying, over-demanding congregations that you’ll work X amount of hours or weeks for what they’re able to offer. Be clear about that hours, and keep them firm. Then get a second job at someplace local and interesting, tutoring or teaching or making coffee or selling books. The church won’t get into the cozy habit of exploiting clergy and you’ll get to hold a healthy boundary around your professional obligations to them, while staying in touch with non-parish sources of income.

Of course we all know that there’s no such thing as part-time ministry: we carry the community in our hearts, souls and minds 24 hours a day, every day of the year. But that doesn’t have to mean that you are on call all those hours. Not for the paltry compensation packages I’ve been seeing, my dears — it’s a justice issue.

10 Replies to “Your Gifts Are Of Real Value”

  1. Thank you.
    I left seminary a year ago with a mountain of debt and no possibilities for a call for months after graduation. I took a low-paying office job in the meantime to pay bills, and discovered (unexpectedly) that I enjoyed the work and had gifts in that area, too. A year later, I have a better job in that industry, a clearer sense of my gifts, occasional opportunities to do pulpit supply, and the constant question from family and people who supported me during seminary about when I’m going to pursue a call to full-time ministry again. I don’t know what to tell them. Being bi-vocational definitely seems like the most realistic option these days.

  2. I think being bi-vocational is a good thing. It gets you out in the world where the people are who really need a word from the Lord–and are willing to hear it. And as you pointed out, PB, it helps with boundaries.

  3. Thank you a thousand times over for this post. I’ve had several occasions lately to hear from my fellow new-ish, young-ish clergy about the compensation and vacation time that they’ve accepted, and it makes me want to SCREAM. This is absolutely a justice issue. Not only does the meek, groveling, grateful acceptance of poverty wages allow congregations to continue to live in denial about the true costs of professional ministry, it holds ALL ministers back because those are the wages that then become “standard” or expected. I’ve had conversations with fellow clergy in the past month about what they charge for officiating funerals, that left me feeling so despondent over their willingness to accept compensation that by their own admission is totally inadequate. UGH, UGH, UGH. We need to wake up, grow spines, and start demanding the compensation we deserve.

  4. SO TRUE. Let me suggest another way to look at this, which may more easily key into the ‘helper gene’ of so many pastors. Caveat: I am writing in generalities; there are exceptions. It has been my experience that the clients for whom I do free legal work, or very low cost legal work, (I went to seminary first, then to law school), consistently pay less attention to the advice I give, and work less diligently on their legal project, than those who are required to pay something commensurate with the value received. A similar dynamic holds true in church life. Those who invest time and money in the work of the church are more responsive to the transforming work of the gospel and more cognizant of the truth that discipleship costs, and that it’s okay to pay. We do our parishioners no favors by allowing them to get by without recognizing the value of what they are receiving. A corollary to allowing them to pay little (money or respect – you pick) is that anger (yours at injustice and at yourself for selling yourself, and the gospel, short (I am NOT talking prosperity gospel here, just respect for our bodily lives!) and theirs in embarrassment (known and unknown) at the disrespect, further impedes ministry together. EVerybody just gets cranky and resentful. Where ARE those fruits of the spirit?!

    Now, as to seminary, church work, and work in the world: Seminary will always be an invaluable resource for your life. Nothing is lost. Churches will be less and less able to maintain full-time pastors. This can be a really good thing, for the entire church, clergy and lay, although the transition is agonizingly painful. The costs of seminary are not unlike the costs of studying medieval English literature – clergy are not alone in finding that the costs of their education may not be adequately remunerative. However, education has worth in itself (especially seminary, if you ask me, but I’m prejudiced!) unrelated to any consequent career. Taking a part- or full-time job outside the institutional church does NOT mean seminary has gone to waste or that you are not doing utterly vital work in ministry. It may take some explaining, but that is a GREAT opportunity for ministry!

    Okay, I’m getting off my horse now. Blessings to you all as you live and minister.

  5. A very wise clergy friend told me what Lisa said about something that was free not being valued as it should be. Particularly with part time lay staff there is the perception that those folks don’t really need the money. In some cases that is true but not for everyone.

  6. I wonder how much of this has to do with the “feminization” of the clergy. There have been a few articles about how things are changing (not in a good way) in medicine and law because of it. While ministry has never been the best paid vocation, back in the day would the exploitation have been so readily apparent?

    And thanks for talking up the second job reality. My pastoral ministry prof. was bi-vocational and he always talked about how setting the boundaries with his meeting made things so much easier to do ministry with them. [Thanks, Kimba. Now why can’t I just walk down the street and have coffee with you and catch up, darn it? – PB]

  7. Alleluia! Hot dang! Preach it!

    I have never been paid the minimum salary for clergy of my experience level within my diocese because the churches where I have worked have claimed they cannot afford it. Apparently, it’s fairly common and I can’t survive without the salary. I have had varying opportunities to cut hours and explain that since I’m not getting paid a full-time salary, I cannot work full-time. Unfortunately, I am not in that position now and there are no job openings within a commutable area (must stay put because of spouse’s job which pays a lot more). Over the years, my resentment toward this situation and the ministry has grown to the point where I would give a lot to be able to transition into a secular job and pursue creative and probably unpaid ministry but ministry that feeds my soul and provides something new that one isn’t able to pursue when tethered to the responsibilities of propping up an institution that may be dying.

    My denomination has an institution within our institution that focuses on clergy health. I would love to see them offer bi-vocational counseling, education/preparation so that there is more flexibility among clergy and churches. For example, I would love to teach history in the public schools but cannot take the time apart from my job and young child to earn more history credits before applying for an alternative certification program. If parishes could start being flexible and supportive of their clergy (the ones they cannot support on a living wage) learning new ways to earn a living, we could possibly become a church that truly values lay ministry and has well-adjusted clergy who approach their time in sacramental and pastoral duties with renewed energy. [Great comment, girl. Thanks. – PB]

  8. As another one of those young, just-graduated-from-seminary types, I too have taken a low-paying office job. While it uses my gifts, they are not recognized by management. Several people on this thread have commented that being bi-vocational might not be a bad thing. But I don’t understand how that is even possible unless one’s second job is low-paying service work: retail, waiting tables, ect. If you have a 9-5 (or in the case of teaching, 7-3) job, you can’t be at the church office, doing visitations, ect. I’m working full-time as a customer service representative, and although I’m good at what I do, I don’t see myself doing this my entire life. Do I really want to go into a field in which I have to be working half-time in low-paying service jobs for the rest of my life? I feel as if that would actually be a waste of my time and potential, Why would I want to leave my job working with petty, dysfunctional congregants so that I can be used and sometimes abused by customers on the second shift? That kind of future doesn’t make me feel good about myself. Maybe by-the-hour data entry would be OK, but it’s not very meaningful. Besides the nature of the job, there’s a lot of hassle and frustration that comes with holding down two jobs, two commutes, & two bosses.

    Ideally, if I have to work half-time for a church, I’d rather get my denomination to hire me as a consultant for the other half. I’d like to travel the country and the globe educating churches on safe sanctuary policies, sexual ethics, and intimate partner violence. If I can’t do that, I would rather be a part-time stay-at-home-mom while my spouse makes the big bucks than to spend my time on menial, low-paying labor. I hear being a mom is great, and supposedly you get large emotional return for all the time and energy you pour into those little buggers. By contrast, the kind of work one can do part-time while working on ministry has low returns for your time and energy, both financially and emotionally.

    My denomination has a type of pastor position called the local pastor. Local pastors have full-time secular jobs and are paid a pittance to pastor teeny tiny churches in the middle of nowhere. They are often the happiest and most fulfilled pastors because their livelihood does not depend on the church, and they seem less burdened by church drama. They are not sharing their gifts out of desperation, they are doing it out of love. Perhaps “tentmaking” should look more like a local pastor position and less like a half-time pastor, half-time waitress position.

    All that said, thank you PB, for such a great post. Someone had to say it- all of it. You are absolutely right that this needs to be discussed in churches. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  9. Joy: Maybe the institution within the institution could help you have a conversation with your current church about your frustration and help you all think together about how to make things work better for you both. You and your church could be a practice ground for learning to do church differently. Sometimes we are able to do things for others that are hard to do ‘just’ for ourselves. The issues you face are all over, but very few are willing or able to name them, resulting in anger and isolation. PeaceBang is providing a terrific forum that may help us find new ways forward. Be an experiment! That takes a little of the pressure off, since no one expects the first try to work.

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