A Move to Part-Time Clergy Sparks Innovation in Congregations

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
From Faith and Leadership

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.

Although church leaders often worry that switching from full-time to part-time clergy will lead to decline, congregations across the country are finding new vitality by reimagining the roles of clergy and laypeople.

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.

Laywoman Muriel Dufendach distributes elements consecrated the prior Sunday by the congregation’s priest-in-charge, the Rev. Carol Walton, who sits in a pew and receives with everyone else.

“Laypeople can do an awful lot of stuff in the church,” Dufendach said. And 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 multiweek 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.”