Body and Soul

Body and Soul

When ministry doesn’t pay

In four out of five churches in the US, membership has plateaued or is declining. Church via www.shutterstock.com.

Mindy Mayes is a 29-year-old African-American woman with a second job many might find undesirable. Some might even call her crazy for sticking with it. She thinks about it almost constantly, and those thoughts often fill her with heartache. She sometimes feels that she is putting far more into it than she could ever get back. Her commute requires her to drive more than two hours, and in a typical month, she gets paid less than US$200. Some months, she does not get paid at all.

Why would anyone cling to such a second job? The answer is that Mayes, whose primary job is in public health, is also a pastor. During the week, she works full-time as a public health educator, providing health promotion services to the people of Grant County, Indiana. This job puts food on the table and keeps gas in her tank. Then each Sunday, she drives 100 miles each way to and from her church in Montgomery County, Indiana, where she serves as part-time pastor.

Mayes is ordained in one of America’s historically black denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Her congregation, Bethel AME, was founded in the 1850s and once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Years ago a thriving congregation, more recently it has fallen on hard times. The building has suffered from lack of upkeep, and weekly worship attendance has dropped to around 20 or so.

Mayes’ path to this role is a complicated one. She holds a master’s degree in public health. She always knew she wanted to make a big impact in a community, and she worked for a time in southern Indiana, helping flood victims move back into their homes. Just as funding for her position came to an end, she learned that she had been admitted to Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis on a full scholarship. “I sensed a call,” she says, “so I enrolled in the masters of divinity program.”

When she graduated from seminary, she imagined that she would become the youth minister of a church. But when AME officials contacted her about the Bethel church, she decided to accept the role of senior minister. Working two jobs is taxing, but she finds energy and inspiration in the members’ strong commitment to keeping their church going. “I come alive through this work,” she says. “They really need someone to love and care for them, and it is a privilege for me to do it.”

It hasn’t always been easy. During Mayes’ third month with the church, in the dead of winter, the pipes froze and then burst, causing the basement to flood. This in turn caused the furnace to go out, leaving the building with no heat. Yet the church’s members, wearing hats and gloves, still came to worship on Sunday. To Mayes, this speaks volumes. “Even though they knew the church was colder than a refrigerator, they were still there. They refuse to let their church and its rich history die.”

People don’t join the clergy for the money. Woman via www.shutterstock.com.

Economic realities are making bi-vocational ministries such as Mayes’ more common.

It is estimated that membership for more than four in five of the churches in the US has plateaued or declined, and about 4,000 churches close their doors every year. By the year 2020, only 15% of Americans are expected to attend weekly worship services. As church membership declines, so does financial support, making it increasingly difficult for many congregations to employ a full-time pastor.

The life of even full-time ministers can be fraught with difficulties. This is reflected in a study showing that about 85% of seminary graduates leave the field within five years, and only about one in 10 new ministers will actually stay in the clergy until retirement. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that full-time ministers are poorly paid, with an average salary of around $36,000, meaning that many ministers’ families require two incomes to make ends meet.

Such challenges are amplified for the bi-vocational minister. Balancing two different jobs, many feel guilty that they cannot be available to their congregation at all times. Mayes, for example, is unable to provide Bible study classes during the week or attend youth academic and athletic events.

Another challenge is an unspoken but widespread assumption that bi-vocational pastors are neither as committed nor as effective as their full-time counterparts. If they truly cared enough about their congregation, some suppose, they would find a way to work full-time–– a perspective that flies in the face of hard realities. In answer to this charge, Mayes smiles as she points out that “The greatest Christian evangelist who ever lived, the apostle Paul, earned his living as a tent-maker.”

In contrast to such challenges, Mayes sees upsides in being bi-vocational. One is the fact that ministers like her need not contend with the high congregational expectations placed upon full-time pastors. People understand that bi-vocational ministers have other responsibilities that they must attend to if they are to continue to serve their church communities. “The challenge,” Mayes says, “is to avoid burnout by ensuring that people do not end up working two full-time jobs.”

Another advantage is the fact that Mayes spends many hours every week serving people who are not church members. In doing so, she strives to be a good example of Christian service to the community. “In some cases,” she says, “colleagues and clients who otherwise would never encounter a pastor have posed questions about my faith, requested that I pray for them, and asked me to preside at their wedding or funeral.”

In this respect, the nonclerical careers of bi-vocational ministers give them a chance to speak not only through sermons but also with their lives, reaching out to many people not affiliated with a church. Says Mayes, “Having a job outside of church keeps me well-grounded in the real world inhabited by people in the community. I see it as an opportunity to stay more relevant and responsive to the lives people actually lead.”

Mayes and other bi-vocational pastors understand from personal experience what it is like to work long hours at multiple jobs, to struggle with anxiety over job security, and to have difficulty securing such necessities as health insurance and child care. Mayes points out that Jesus devoted much of his life to the downtrodden and dispossessed, and “I like to think that treading a dual path keeps me close to the people Jesus would serve today.”

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