From Faith and Leadership
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Editor’s note: Research for this story was funded by The BTS Center, a Maine-based think tank focused on 21st-century faith communities. It included visits to nearly two dozen vital mainline congregations that have shifted from full- to part-time clergy.
Adjusting to life without a full-time pastor has become a pressing challenge for thousands of congregations in mainline Protestant denominations across the country.
Shrinking attendance and ever-leaner budgets have forced churches to pare back the pastorate, and many wonder how effective ministry can happen when clergy are working just 30, 20 or 10 hours a week for the church.
Relearning how to do effective congregational ministry with part-time clergy is no easy task, and denominational officers have no easy answers. The traditional model for mainline churches relies on full-time clergy, and it can be difficult to envision a thriving congregation with a part-time pastor.
“It’s the white, old-line that is having to make the adjustment,” said E. Brooks Holifield, professor emeritus of American church history at Emory University and the author of “God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America.”
“The transition is being felt most deeply by churches that had an expectation of a full-time clergyperson who devoted all of his or her time to the church. In other groups and other traditions, that expectation was not always there.”
More and more congregations are likely to face this issue. According to the National Congregations Study, nearly 40 percent of mainline Protestant congregations had no full-time paid clergy in 2012.
Yet not all congregations struggle after transitioning to a part-time pastor. Dozens have found vitality by avoiding pitfalls that have caused other churches to stumble when making the shift. As more churches go part time, instructive stories are emerging.
“They recognize their reality that they can’t afford a full-time pastor, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to have a ministry,” said Darren Morgan, the associate conference minister for the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ, where 68 percent of the 156 congregations have no full-time clergy.
“The leadership within those churches is strong. They say, ‘We’re not going to be a weak church. We’ll be a strong, small church.’”
Some see it as recovering an ancient tradition for a new time.
“We’re doing things kind of the way the early Christians did before they built churches,” said Mark Raymond, a member of New Sharon Congregational Church (UCC) in New Sharon, Maine, where a handful of laypeople take turns leading worship around a table each week. “There’s more of that spirit,” he said.
The research for this story shows that vitality in those “strong, small churches” doesn’t look the same in every congregation.
Signs of vitality can include growing average Sunday attendance, increasing engagement in ministries, expanding community outreach or some combination. All the congregations featured here have stabilized church finances since going part time and have taken steps to reinvigorate ministries.
Three models have emerged that illustrate how vital churches are making the adjustment: the pastor as equipper of laypeople, the pastor as ambassador and the pastor as team member.
Pastor as equipper of laypeople, not provider of services
With part-time ministries, denominational leaders see a common problem. The pastor has diminished capacity for ministry, and parishioners don’t pick up the slack. Much of what the church once had to offer gets lost or hollowed out.
Vital churches, however, head off this problem by rethinking the pastor’s role. She or he becomes less a provider of religious services and more an equipper of laypeople to perform duties that had previously fallen to clergy.
These congregations are reclaiming dormant threads in their denominational traditions and finding meaning in the process.
Consider the Episcopal Church, where 48 percent of congregations have no full-time paid clergy, up from 43 percent five years ago. Lay Episcopalians are reclaiming ministries they’ve long been authorized to do but seldom did when full-time clergy were around.
If part-time clergy encourage laypeople to take responsibility and experiment, congregants can learn to spread their wings.
At St. Columba’s Church in Kent, Washington, for example, average Sunday attendance has grown 44 percent (from 55 to 79) since its pastorate went part time in 2014. New ministries to raise vegetables for the hungry and shelter homeless men have taken off since then, parishioners say, in part because part-time vicar the Rev. Alissabeth Newton doesn’t try to “run the show,” as founding church member Bob Ewing put it.
“What I found,” said Micah Kurtz, a young father who used to attend a nearby megachurch, “was an openness to let people own things and say, ‘Hey, why don’t we try this? It might meet your skills. Give it a shot.’” Kurtz is now an active member at St. Columba’s, where he oversees the Just Garden ministry.
In vital churches, priests may defer to laypeople to carry out some traditionally priestly functions. At St. Timothy’s Church in Henderson, Nevada, laypeople sometimes preside at funerals and always at the two weekday Eucharist services.
“Laypeople can do an awful lot of stuff in the church,” layperson Muriel Dufendach said. And Rev. Carol Walton, who serves 24 hours a week, is happy to accommodate.
“I’m not going to take over something that a layperson has been doing, because I think that’s part of vitality: having ministry that people want to do,” Walton said.
Sometimes laypeople have gifts just waiting for an outlet — and for permission to use them. At Christ Church in Bethel, Vermont, 10 of the 20 members of the congregation take turns preaching. That lightens the load for their volunteer priest, the Rev. Shelie Richardson, who works full time as an insurance agent and preaches just a few times a year.
Not every church has such a stable of talent ready to go, but some congregations are addressing this by making the part-time pastorate into a trainer’s role. This works especially well in a three-quarters-time arrangement, where the pastor can satisfy some congregational needs and still have time to train laity to do parts of his or her job.
For example, at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Tacoma, Washington, the Rev. Peter Mohr uses a portion of his three-quarters-time role to equip laity for functions he used to fulfill.
He meets with Bible study leaders once a month and then leaves the teaching to them. Rather than preaching every Sunday, he meets with congregants who fill in, answering questions they might have about texts or interpretations.
At St. John’s Episcopal Church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, full-time priests used to maintain an active presence around town, inviting people to church, but times have changed.
At 30 hours a week, the Rev. Bret Hays lacks the time for that. Instead, he has trained congregants in a multi-week workshop to be lay evangelists. And like many coping strategies, this approach yields additional benefits.
“It’s not just a strategy of equipping the laity,” Hays said. “It’s also a strategy to respond to the phenomenon that makes an invitation from a layperson count for much more than an invitation from a priest.”
Pastor as ambassador through strategic use of time
A second type of challenge arises when churches cut clergy hours back to part-time and then fall, sometimes unwittingly, into an insular chaplaincy situation. Pastors spend the little time they have leading Sunday worship and visiting the sick, so that they’re left with no time for anything else.
“But what we know for vital congregations — those that are having an impact on their communities, are growing and have increased access to resources — is that a pastor needs to be doing less visiting and more leading and engagement externally with their local community,” said the Rev. Sara Anderson of the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Some congregations have avoided the chaplaincy model by counterintuitively revamping the part-time pastorate to make sure it includes more time, not less, for community engagement.
Since switching to part-time five years ago, St. John’s Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Washington, has doubled average Sunday attendance, from 25 to 50. It’s seeing newcomers from nonfaith, Buddhist and Mormon backgrounds, among others. The church has boosted mission giving from zero to 7 percent of the budget over that period.
The Rev. Joe Smith envisions his three-fifths-time pastorate as St. John’s ambassador. And he gets creative with it. He sometimes stands at the curb at rush hour and waves to commuters passing the church. He visits Boy Scout troops as they meet at St. John’s and organizes Scout Sundays, which bring dozens of scouts and their families to worship.
“There was no playbook at all” for how to do part-time ministry effectively, Smith said. “Without it being a circus or too much of a publicity stunt, you do whatever you can to have people in the church, because the critical mass is important. If people come into what feels like an empty space, they won’t come back.”
Down the road in an East Tacoma public housing development, Salishan Eastside Lutheran Mission gathers a self-reliant flock of 15 or 20 for worship in the Holy Family of Jesus Cambodian Episcopal Church.
For worship, the group needs nothing from its pastor, authorized lay minister Lauren Vignec, except a sermon (and sometimes the Cambodian priest covers that part, too). Congregants handle everything else. Therefore, when he’s not on his day job as a financial adviser, Vignec can pour his ministry time into community outreach.
He finds plenty to do. One day he’s delivering emergency food from World Vision to homes in the neighborhood. The next day he’s visiting one of three local casinos, where he tells people he’s a pastor and lets the conversations flow.
Several times a year, Vignec organizes a Salishan “dance church” called Fear No Evil, where street dancers compete before a judging panel. It draws more than 100 dancers and spectators, including many young African-American, Latino and Native American men.
Vignec is on a dance team and takes his turn competing. Between rounds, he delivers Scripture readings and a sermon, usually about resolving conflict or managing mental illness.
“The really cool stuff we’re doing here, like with dance church — I don’t think this would be possible in a normal relationship between a normal pastor and a normal church board,” Vignec said. “The reason why I’m capable of even trying this stuff is because they just told me, ‘Lauren, do whatever you want to do to revitalize this church. Just try it.’”
In Vignec’s experience, mainline churches often get the part-time model wrong.
“They think of it like, ‘We can have a 15-hour-a-week pastor, because it will take 15 hours to do all the things we want the pastor to do.’
“No, no, no, no, no,” he said. “The church should do those things and let the pastor do something to bring in new people to the church, however that is going to work. And there are a ton of different ways to make it work.”
Sometimes, new experiments require letting go of what had been expected duties. Unlike her full-time predecessors, the Rev. Linda Brewster of Tuttle Road United Methodist Church in Cumberland, Maine, doesn’t attend committee meetings. And once a month, laypeople take over preaching.
With that carved-out time, Brewster, who works full time as a nurse practitioner, tries new types of outreach. Overall, the approach is working. Average Sunday attendance at Tuttle Road has doubled, from 30 to 60, since the church went part time three years ago.
One successful outreach experiment: Messy Grace. Around 5 p.m. on Saturday afternoons once a month, families with young kids who don’t otherwise go to church stop by for a 10-minute taste of worship, followed by music, supper and an environmental lesson, such as gardening or composting.
For parents and kids who attend, Messy Grace has become their church.
“We had a wonderful baptism,” Brewster said. “We had a pool of water with some white ducks in it. People sang ‘Wade in the Water’ and danced down the aisle. They wouldn’t have done that during Sunday morning worship, but for some reason they would do it on Saturday afternoon.”
Pastor as team member, sharing the pastorate with other part-timers
When cash-strapped congregations do whatever it takes to retain a full-time pastor, they sometimes court a burnout situation. A disproportionate share of the budget — and consequently, the ministry expectations — land on one person who can become overworked and unhappy.
In such situations, switching to part-time clergy, where the pastorate is joyfully shared among multiple part-time staff, can be enlivening.
Clarendon Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Arlington, Virginia, for example, can afford a full-time pastor but has strategically opted not to do so.
Before Clarendon made its pastorate part-time in 2012, burnout was a real problem.
“Everything fell on the pastor’s shoulders, from running copies of Sunday morning bulletins to changing burned-out lightbulbs,” said the Rev. David Ensign. He said he told his board the model wasn’t helping the congregation, and “it was killing me.”
The solution: Ensign volunteered to go half time and let the savings go toward hiring a part-time administrative assistant. The change has renewed Ensign’s ministry by delivering less clerical work and more time for family, guitar and other creative pursuits.
The arrangement has helped the congregants as well. The new staffer handles administrative issues related to rental units owned by the church, a job that congregants once had to do.
With more time for what’s fun and meaningful, people like Ron Bookbinder are more engaged in the Clarendon ministries they care about, such as writing pastoral care letters and going on a mission trip to help flood victims in West Virginia.
“The message I get from the change is that we can be open,” said Bookbinder, a ruling elder in the church. “We can do new things. We can focus on what we’re really good at. And we can explore — try something different.”
Other congregations are trying a similar approach. Since First United Methodist Church in Hudson, Massachusetts, went part time in 2015, 10 new members have joined, and lay-led classes are thriving.
With those successes and others, some hope the pastorate will become full-time again soon. But the Rev. Rosanne Roberts, a retiree on Medicare, said hiring another part-time employee to work with children and families would be better stewardship.
“As soon as it became clear that we would be ending the year in the black, someone on the finance team said, ‘Oh, great! We can move you up to three-quarters-time or back to full-time,’” Roberts said. “I said, ‘No! You’re forgetting it’s not just the salary.’”
Having a full-time pastor would put the church on the hook for health insurance premiums, she pointed out. “And we’d be in trouble all over again.”
Willing and able laity
One key to all three models is the congregation. Motivated laypeople are instrumental to both the vision and the execution. From leading worship to pastoral care, their new roles are inextricably linked to their congregation’s destiny.
“In order to be successful, the laity have to be willing and able to do this,” said Morgan of the UCC’s Maine Conference.
They’re proving they can step up, learn and lead. In the process, pastorates are becoming more distributed across entire congregations and less confined to one individual.
Whether growing vegetables for the hungry, reaching out to the church’s neighbors, presiding at services or sharing administrative duties, the clergy and laity of successful congregations are working together in new — or rediscovered — ways. They are reframing the part-time pastorate, allowing new vitality to emerge. And their stories hold lessons for congregations across the country.
Jeffrey MacDonald is a journalist focusing on religion, ethics and social responsibility. His stories have appeared in TIME magazine, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor. He is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.