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The Revolving Door of Ministry

It’s been a year since I graduated seminary and as the class who I was in classes with starts their final year of seminary, I wonder what they are walking into. What will the world of ministry look like in a year, especially for those who are looking to find positions in parish ministry?

I didn’t realize that “seminary student” was a special classification and that once you graduated and accepted a call to ministry, there would be a subtle, yet real change to how other ministers interacted with you. Although this makes sense, it is still surprising to me to be considered colleagues with those who have been in ministry for years. Yet, I have been welcomed into conversations, brainstorming opportunities, and even conversation in our state about what it means to be a pastor in 2015.

In the midst of these conversations, I have talked a lot about the nature of bi-vocational ministry and its sustainability as the future of the church. There are a couple of reasons this conversation is becoming more a part of mainstream conversations (even across theological dividing lines) about church work: church budgets are suffering and oftentimes personnel costs are the biggest expense and there aren’t as many full-time ministry positions available for the vast number of seminary students who are graduating and searching for positions.

The crux of the problem comes to those who are willing to try bi-vocational ministry when the new minister’s student debt or expenses exceeds the amount he or receives for the two jobs. Logically, it seems that this would work because by putting two jobs together that equal the starting salary of a minster, then the student should be able to make ends meet. The reality is that if you are working two part-time jobs, then the cost of health insurance, retirement contributions, and other benefits are covered by the new minister, making it nearly impossible to make any dent in student loans and other debts incurred while in seminary.

This is not a phenomena that is happening just in churches. In fact, as we live in post-2008 recession world, this mentality of paying less for highly-qualified people is called the interim strategy. Companies (and yes churches operate a lot like companies) have convinced themselves that “just for a little while” they will pay ministers less or combine two positions that were recently held by two people into one, so that the budget can catch up.

This interim strategy applies in reverse as well. Recent seminary graduates often decide to take jobs that are for less money, have less benefits, and more responsibilities as the end of their grace period on their loans looms overhead. They convince themselves that they are going to work in positions that they are overly qualified for or positions that don’t pay the average salary of minister “just for a little while” until they get the hang of ministry only to find out that they can’t make ends meet.

New, young ministers then get the reputation of not staying around in ministry positions for very long and leaving after one to two years perhaps from that “just for awhile” ministry position, but, in many cases, from ministry all together. This may not seem like such a big issue, especially because there is always a new crop of seminary students who will be looking for those “just for awhile” positions, allowing congregations to continue operating with an interim strategy, but the revolving door of ministry this kind of thinking creates is detrimental not only to the sustainability of congregations, but also to the gospel we try to preach and live by in those congregations. If we are suppose to welcome in those who are in need when they are hungry and need something to eat or when they don’t have clothes, give them something to wear, then are we truly living the gospel?

Maybe right now in the current economic context and in the midst of 7+ years of operating with an interim strategy, it’s our ministers who are struggling to buy groceries and clothes and pay for their houses and find themselves in need while also trying to serve others.