Episode 64: “Churches Thriving with Part-Time Pastors” featuring G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 64: “Churches Thriving with Part-Time Pastors” featuring G. Jeffrey MacDonald

We don’t typically associate a thriving church with having a part-time pastor. Journalist and pastor Jeffrey MacDonald begs to differ as he discusses with us his new and provocative book, Part-time is Plenty: Thriving without Full-time Clergy.

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We don’t typically associate a thriving church with having a part-time pastor. Journalist and pastor Jeffrey MacDonald begs to differ as he discusses with us his new and provocative book, Part-time is Plenty: Thriving without Full-time Clergy.

Lovett Weems: Hello and welcome. I’m Lovett Weems, Senior Consultant with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. I am pleased to be the guest host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks podcast. Today our guest is the Reverend G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a journalist whose reporting on religion and ethics regularly appears in national publications. In addition, he is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and the part-time pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation. He is the author of a new and provocative book called Part-time is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-time Clergy. Jeffrey, welcome. We are honored to have this time with you.

Jeffrey MacDonald: Thank you, Lovett. I am delighted to be here.

Lovett Weems: Jeff, the title of your book is intriguing. I suppose the last thing we typically associate with a thriving church is a part-time pastor. Tell us what led you to write this book.

Jeffrey MacDonald: Well I would say it was a book written out of necessity in some respects for me and for others, I believe. I was serving in the church where I’m still serving now, First Parish Church of Newbury in Massachusetts. And I’m serving a church that had a full-time pastor up until 2012. And they very quickly, abruptly I would say, made the transition to a quarter-time pastor and didn’t do so with a lot of planning. So they brought me in to be the quarter-time pastor because I have a full-time job and support myself in that work. And so I could accept this call. And yet there was no real playbook on how to do it. How does a church thrive when the responsibilities for many pastoral duties are no longer doable by the pastor because the capacity is so much diminished? How does the congregation adjust expectations, take up more ministries on a lay level? And continue to serve the community in a powerful impactful way when the staffing structure is so radically changed? This is not unique to my church. There are about twenty-six thousand at least around the country, mainline Protestant churches that have no full-time clergy. This is a growing number, and it represents about 43 percent of all mainline Protestant churches. So it’s a huge swath of the religious landscape. And yet our denominations have very little sense of how to do this well because we’re largely built for a different model that assumes a full-time leader in most settings. So there’s a learning curve. And I’ve written this book to be something of a playbook as well as a collection of examples and analysis of how this can work in various settings. It’s not a one-size-fits all prescription. But we can learn a lot from each other and from those churches that are thriving with part-time clergy. So that’s what this book is meant to  offer.

Lovett Weems: If I’m reading your definition of part-time correctly, a church could have a part-time  pastor in one of two ways. One, the pastor could be part-time in the sense that their ministry is part-time. Or it could be where a church is sharing a pastor with one or more churches. So the pastor may be full time but from the congregation’s perspective they have part-time ministry because they’re sharing their pastor with another church. Is that correct?

Jeffrey MacDonald: Yes. I’m glad you brought that up, Lovett. Because this is really looking at it from the congregation’s standpoint first and foremost. So the way I define  part-time for the purposes of this book is that it’s congregations that have no full time clergy. They will all have a pastor who they share with someone else. It might be another church and so the pastor might have a full-time vocation but shared among two or more congregations. Or they might share their pastor with a secular employer. Or they might share their pastor with a vocation as a parent or a homemaker or a caregiver. In all those possibilities, they are not working with a full-time pastor who is dedicated 100 percent to their congregation in terms of vocation. So I hope that helps to explain. I think it’s an important way to approach it because this is not just pastors who have secular jobs. It takes a variety of forms. But in each case, the congregation finds it needs to work with a pastoral presence who is divided in terms of where they can be and so the congregation needs to adjust to that reality. And that’s the reality that we’re really trying to develop into excellent ministry in this framework.

Lovett Weems: People won’t be surprised to discover that the primary reason for churches going  part-time is money. Are there other factors you found as well?

Jeffery MacDonald: Yes. Money is the main one. Churches are moving this direction because they can’t afford full time clergy anymore. But there are other dynamics. I came across a few congregations not because I was looking for them necessarily, but they manifest when I asked about where I can find thriving churches that have  part-time clergy. There’s one church in Maine where they could afford a full-time pastor, but they have chosen to have a part-time pastor. And then a couple of other  part-timers who have specialized roles in the congregation working with youth or working with elders and then a part-time pastor on top of that. So that has worked well for them because they all have vocations outside the church that they’re pursuing. And as well a church in Virginia, Clarendon Presbyterian Church, had a pastor who was burning out in the full-time role with no administrative support and was doing so many different roles in the church. He was doing a burnout track and asked to be  part-time, and they were in a position to supplement his ministry with some other support, a combination of  part-time administrative staff and volunteers.

Lovett Weems: That’s interesting because one normally wouldn’t think of a church with a part-time pastor having some other ministry staff. How across the board are the various responsibilities shifted when there’s a change from a full-time pastor to a  part-time pastor? You’ve indicated that sometimes others are engaged on a part-time basis for some aspect of the ministry. What other changes take place, especially among the lay leadership in the congregation?

Jeffery MacDonald: It’s a crucial question, Lovett, because it varies from one setting to another depending on the needs of the congregation and the needs of the surrounding community. And so the way it has played out in Vermont, for instance, where they have about 80 percent of Episcopal congregations with no full-time clergy, they’re very used to this. They have a method up there where they have a couple of churches that mentor others in this kind of transition and those that provide some guidance in this. And the diocese that provides guidance is doing it in a way that essentially takes stock of what are the pastoral needs of our congregation and our community. Do we need to have a visitation presence? Do we need to have some pastoral role in coordinating missions and being a presence outside in the community? Do we need a pastor who is going to be preaching? A priest who’s in the pulpit every week? Or can we share some of those responsibilities among our lay people? And that’s what we’ve seen. They’ll sit down and look at that and then look as well at who has a sense of calling to any specific role and who has some time and passion and transferable skills that could be used. And so we’re seeing things like school teachers who are used to getting up in front of people, used to preparing presentations, are not nervous by speaking to a group of 15 or 20 people to learn some of the craft of preaching so that they can provide that and so they’ll go through an avenue that will prepare them for that. And likewise we’ll see it in pastoral care. There are some who will be trained for instance in the Methodist Church as Stephen Ministers and in other denominations we’ll see some of that and we’ll take on a chunk of the pastoral care as trained lay people doing that kind of counseling. I think of it as a First Corinthians 12 embrace of the idea of pastor where the gifts are shared not in one head but all across the body. And so we’re embracing how the Holy Spirit has distributed the gifts and enabling people to use them in these various roles that have traditionally been thought of as all the pastor’s responsibility. But that’s more a matter of custom than biblical necessity.

Lovett Weems: Well you do point out that the concept of one church, one full-time pastor is a relatively modern phenomenon. But that certainly we have a lot of biblical models for part-time ministry.

Jeffrey MacDonald: Right. That was another interesting part of what I learned in researching this book is to go back and see how the early church was using a  part-time ministry. We think of the Apostle Paul in his tent making work well familiar to many in the church. There is a value that Paul commends to the people to be able to care for their own needs if they can so that there are no questions raised about that person’s commitment or motivations. And as it has gone through the ages, the norm through the centuries has been one of part-time clergy, of folks who would be a priestly presence in their communities but would also work as lawyers, administrators, clerks. Through the Middle Ages that was a norm. And so it was more of a clergy status than a profession per se. The professionalization of the clergy to the point of having one full-time clergy person as a norm established in a local congregation in North America was certainly much later in development. It comes with the rise of other types of professionalization in graduate training for other fields. And so it’s really an interesting history. And one that breeds some appreciation for the fact that that there is an expectation that through the history of the church that there will be leaders of the church who will also do other things and earn money in other ways. That’s more of a norm than an exception. And we can embrace that now in a fresh time.

Lovett Weems: Jeff, what happens when a church makes this transition to the church’s self-understanding? You point out that we’ve almost come to see having a full-time pastor as a kind of a badge of legitimacy or that we are a real church. And when that’s no longer the case, how do congregations change how they think about themselves or do they?

Jeffrey MacDonald: That’s a great question. They do, I think, change the way they think about themselves for the better when they are moving in this direction of thriving with part-time clergy. When they’re on the opposite side, when they get stuck in the idea that well we can’t be a real church if we don’t have a full-time pastor, that’s when they are in a rut and may continue in decline. I heard in researching the book that in fact there are many that transition to part-time clergy and do not thrive. They decline and there are a few reasons for that. One is the reluctance or failure to embrace a new concept. It works when churches will take stock. They’ll go back and look at their calling in the context of scripture, and they will come to feel good about taking on more roles in the church. They’ll take a bit of pride in a good sense of pride. They’ll have a sense that they are stepping into what God has called them to do and to be and to become and really welcome those roles. It’s when they don’t see this. “Oh, it’s so unfortunate that we need to have a visit in the hospital from you know Bob the deacon instead of having the pastor come.” Rather than view that as an unfortunate development, to see it as a great blessing, an opportunity that Bob would come on behalf of the church and as a vicar of Christ in his own right to come and offer a prayer at the bedside, to be a presence and to recognize that he can do that and others in the church can embrace similar ministries or other roles. And it’s when they say, “You know, we like doing this. We feel good about having more responsibility, having more opportunity because a lot of these things are some of the most meaningful dimensions of church life. Why should they all be consolidated in the life of the pastor? Why shouldn’t others also share in those meaningful experiences of being able to touch someone’s life?” That’s really one of the key transitions that happens here.

Lovett Weems: We’ve often associated our part-time ministry with rural America where since the 1920s and 30s the proportion of the population in the country has shifted more to urban and suburban leaving us more areas with more sparsely distributed population. Is that what you found that this is primarily in rural America or is it at other places as well?

Jeffrey MacDonald: It’s in other places as well. You’re right that it has been a phenomenon in rural America. Some of these churches have had part-time pastors since inception which might be decades or even centuries ago in rural America. And so they know the model well. But we’re increasingly seeing it also in suburban and urban settings. One of the areas where it’s been growing most significantly has been in the Northeast where you have a combination of a secular rising culture which has led to declining attendance and smaller budgets in churches that have very expensive properties in many cases to maintain. And so a shrinking budget is increasingly claimed by building maintenance. And that leaves them with less for ministry and they can’t afford a full-time package with salary and various types of benefits. So we see increasingly that happening in those regions that are transitioning to a different model where it’s new because the model of having a full-time pastor was increasingly seen in the 19th century as sort of a badge of legitimacy that had a lot to do with American middle class aspirations . And as the rising tide of prosperity spread, more places transitioned in that direction. And so they got used to having a full-time cleric and thinking of that as a marker of legitimacy. Now those places are under more economic strain and need to remember where they came from in a way which is something that predates that sort of aspirationalism that came to change how clergy are viewed and their connection with their congregation’s status.

Lovett Weems: What does all this mean for clergy who now may be part-time and have some other commitments for compensation beyond that or needing to spread their time among multiple churches? What does it mean for them in terms of, for example, the saying there’s no such thing as a  part-time job in the church? What about boundaries and how is it working for those who find themselves having limited time to spend with an individual congregation.

Jeffrey MacDonald: It’s working well for many of them, not all of them. And I think it has something to do with expectations and hopes on both the side of the pastor and the lay people. I think there is an environment where the generation that went to seminary in the in the 50s, 60s, early 70s really expected that they were going to finish college go to seminary, get a full-time position in one church and stay in that capacity if not in that same church throughout their careers. That expectation has really shifted among the rising generation. I see many seminaries that feel a responsibility to tell their students, especially before they borrow five-figure sums, that they need to be prepared for a landscape in which that type of employment is not waiting for them. And so I think many are taking that to heart and recognizing that they can have more than one stream of income in their lives and that doesn’t threaten their sense of identity. They’re still Christians. They’re still called to minister. They still have a special role to play in the church, but they’re not sort of taking the ministry of a congregation entirely on their shoulders and defining their whole professional identity as that of the cleric. They are increasingly able to embrace these other roles and see it as an enriching part of life. You know it’s very meaningful to be able to have a special role in a church and to be a leader in that way but to also have room for other interests, other professional priorities is increasingly seen by my Generation X, Generation Y, Generation Z as allowing for richness and variety and multiple experiences. So that’s what I see. I think it’s hard for the baby boomer pastors who are used to something different to make this adjustment in some cases. In the way that work has changed to be more driven by, some referred to it as a gig economy, a freelance economy. In the United States, there are fifty-seven million people who work as freelancers or contractors in a self-employed situation. That’s just another giant reality that our society generally doesn’t acknowledge. It’s not well represented in how we organize ourselves with benefits that are connected to employment. You know some of our structures haven’t caught up with the way the world is today. But when you have people working in those formats to have a church role be part of the mix so to speak can work really well for those who feel a calling to be an artist, a writer, to have a craft or a trade that they ply, but they also want to serve the church in a part-time way can really round out a person’s life, a family life, and another professional life. And that’s what I see. It doesn’t work for every temperament, but I see it working for some. And it’s a really interesting and hopeful story.

Lovett Weems: Thank you. Finally if a church is sensing that they may be approaching a time when they need to consider moving from a full-time pastor to less than full-time, what question should they be asking first?

Jeffrey MacDonald: Well, I think if they’re driven by financial necessity, they first need to ask, “why are we doing this?” If we’re doing it because we can’t afford a full-time pastor then that sort of sets a stage that will create an environment where you need to know that you’re going into this because you don’t have a choice. But it doesn’t have to be reluctant in that way. It can just be a matter of accepting reality and then saying, “OK, what we do to thrive in this new framework?” So if we know we’re going toward a  part-time pastor, “How are we going to do that well?” That’s a question that I think a lot of churches don’t really ask, and they don’t ask it early enough. One of the things I argue in the book is that the churches that thrive in this are those that make the transition early enough. If you wait too long you might have very little resources. You might be on the brink of bankruptcy or just having no wherewithal financially anymore. You might also have so few people and such elderly people that you don’t have the energy that you need among young or middle aged volunteers who can take on some of the pastoral roles. So you need to be asking “Are we going this direction?” And “Are we clinging to our full-time ministry irrationally?” Because I see that happening in a number of cases where pastors and churches have been told “If you transition to a part-time pastor that’s the kiss of death and you’re going to decline.” And that’s not true. But it can be a fait accompli if you wait too long to the point of having no resources or having so few volunteers that you can’t pull it off. So you need to do it when you can still do it successfully. And then also do it strategically to be asking “What do we have to work with in our congregation? What does our community need from the church? What kind of witness does our community need? And then what do we have that we can bring to that?” When we look at our assets more broadly, certainly the pastor is an asset and a part-time pastor will also still bring a set of gifts to the equation and a second set of passions to the equation and to think strategically about where is our vitality going to come from. Of course, it comes from the movement of the Holy Spirit. But it also happens in particular ways and we can see trends. So if we see it happening among a real opportunity for a certain kind of mission presence, let’s say in my church we’ve seized an opportunity to develop a food pantry ministry where we’ve become a hub for the region after taking over a very tiny food pantry from another church that was closing. There are opportunities like that that can emerge. And so I think a lot of it has to do with asking where are the opportunities and how can we marshal our gifts, our passions, our sense of calling drawn largely from the lay people to fulfill those callings and to impact our community in those areas.

Lovett Weems: Well that’s very helpful. We’ve been talking with G. Jeffrey MacDonald, author of the new book Part-time is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-time Clergy published by Westminster John Knox Press. Jeff, thank you so much for your time and for this wonderful book.

Jeffrey MacDonald: You’re welcome, Lovett. It’s been a pleasure to be with you.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Andy Root about how youth can find identity and deep joy in shared narratives and intergenerational connections.

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Related Resources


About Author

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance religion journalist and author who, as an ordained United Church of Christ minister and a Certified Transitional Ministry Leader, serves as an interim or part-time pastor in New England UCC churches. He currently is the interim pastor of Kensington Congregational Church in Kensington, NH. He maintains a website, jeffreymacdonald.com. His book Part-Time is Plenty: Thriving without Full-Time Clergy (Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.