Nickel and Dimed in Bivocational Ministry

In the last week or two, I've been hearing a lot of talk about "bivocational ministry" as the potential saving model for sustainability in our movement.  The subject has come up in a number of collegial conversations, and Scott Wells introduces the subject in a recent post

First of all, as far as I can see "bivocational ministry" is just a fancy term for "part-time ministry" that makes it sound like something the minister wants because they have some other wonderful job they don't want to give up.

What are the problems with bivocational ministry?  It can be a great choice if:
  • You're independently wealthy
  • You're a second-career minister with a lucrative first profession
  • You have a spouse with a good income
On the other hand, it's not so great if:
  •  You're a first-career minister
  • You're not independently wealthy
  • You don't have a spouse with a good income
I was a part-time minister for a couple of years.  You could call me "bivocational" since I had a second part-time job.  As a first-career minister, I don't have a professional practice in psychology to make up a second job.  What I have is an M.A. in English, and so I taught adjunct at a community college.  I continue to do that now, even though I'm in full-time ministry.  But I taught enough during my 3/4-time ministry to make up 1/4 of my income through college teaching.  And I gave up that life as quickly as I could to go into full-time ministry.  Why?

Part-time work in this country usually comes without benefits.  As a 3/4-time minister, I therefore threw much of my total cost of ministry (TCM) into benefits.  I had a benefit package that looked much like a full-time ministers, but with a tiny salary attached to it.  The other 1/4-time job would make up some of the income difference, but not all of it.  Full-time work, because of the benefit balance piece, pays better than two part-time jobs.  Esssentially, you see, I was paying for 1/4 of my benefits that wouldn't be part of a balanced 3/4-time job out of salary.  And adjunct salary being what it is, it wasn't equivalent to 1/4 of a professional salary.

This leads to my second point: part-time employment is usually under-paid.  Even if the minister isn't underpaid in their half-time ministry, their other half-time job probably is underpaid, especially if this is a first-career minister.  As you find in ministry, being well-trained for ministry doesn't exactly put you on the top of the market for non-ministry jobs out there.

And part-time ministry is overworked.  Full-time ministers in our movement often get one Sunday a month off.  Most half-time ministers seem to get two Sundays a month off.  And 3/4-time ministers get one Sunday a month off.  That's what I find as I talk to my part-time colleagues.  So a 3/4-time minister is often doing full-time ministry for 3/4 of the money.  And since full-time ministry is often a job and a half at full-time pay, that's even worse.

I left part-time ministry for health reasons: I was pregnant.  And I had good health care through my ministry profession.  I probably could've gotten maternity leave (although this was a debate with the congregation, which is another story).  But an adjunct professor gets no paid maternity leave.  So essentially getting pregnant meant I would lose 1/4 of my income at the same time as I gained 1/3 of my family.  That math didn't look good or sustainable to me.  And the idea of working as much as I was working with a baby also didn't sit well.  And so I found myself in search and pregnant at the same time. 

For me, bivocational ministry looks like a ministry model to attract older and wealthier ministers.  It looks like an even more classist ministry.  And it looks like a future that if we pursue it will lose a lot of ministers who would add a lot to our movement, but who simply can't afford the luxury of part-time work.

In a movement that's talking about how work should be sustainable for a family, let's quit the talk of bivocational ministry as our future fix, and keep thinking about how to make a sustainable ministry sustainable for congregations as well.  It's a challenge, but if we don't meet this challenge we aren't living our faith.


Scott Wells said…
I hear your points, but something doesn't jive. First, bivocational ministry (across denominations) so often takes place in poor or marginal communities that to call it classist misses the evidence. Second, while some (presumably few) bivocational ministers say they prefer it to a fully-stipendary ministry, I have to think the reality is bivo or nothing, both for the church (which may also want fully-stipendary ministry, amd may have a history of it) and the minister. I've been there.

I promote discussion about bivocationality because it happens, but with little discussion create a "don't ask/don't tell" onus and possibly shame, and that's the worst outcome of all.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Hi Scott,
I agree with the fact that you were promoting discussion of it, and that discussion should be promoted.

A lot of bivocational ministry I think also takes place in denominations where the ministry isn't a required graduate degree field. To talk about that, and the associated cost to our ministry of a four-year (or three or five) professional degree and the associated student loans opens up a whole new can of worms.

I think we will continue to have part-time work, and more of it, but with it structured the way it is right now, it's not sustainable for ministers, at least not this one. It's a trend that fills me with frustration and dismay.
Scott Wells said…
It is dread-ful and complex; frustration is appropriate. The supply of settlements, their stability and their compensation are all reasons I did not go into search after my last pastorate ended 10 years ago. Nonprofit management in D.C. has been very good to me, and has made use of many of the skills I acquired in the ministry.

But I do think something has to give. Obligatory graduate education? Educational self-funding? Something else? (I have a blog post, long-tinkered, with one idea.)

I advocate for church planting, but that's for the health of the UU ecosytem, not as an employment stream. And having seen lawyers with the same complaints, I don't think we're unijue.

And it won't just "work out" for "the best people."
Steve Caldwell said…
Cynthia wrote:
A lot of bivocational ministry I think also takes place in denominations where the ministry isn't a required graduate degree field. To talk about that, and the associated cost to our ministry of a four-year (or three or five) professional degree and the associated student loans opens up a whole new can of worms.

Cynthia - we have a system for denominational religious educator credentialing that allows for different education levels obtained -- no degree, bachelor's degree, master's degree.

Perhaps it's time to ask some questions about ministerial credentialing and education? Maybe we should have bachelor's level ministerial fellowship and graduate level ministerial fellowship?

This would allow for smaller congregations to call ministers who can work part-time as ministers because they are not burdened with heavy student loan debt.
Perhaps bivocational ministry would be more viable if the expense of training was carried by the UUA (funded through congregation dues) instead of by the ministers themselves?

Of course, it does not solve the problems of the fact that ministers need money to live.
Thanks for this very thoughtful article.
Elz Curtiss said…
How to reconcile these divergent realities? Bivocational ministry might work better in marginal communities because those are places where life is a patchwork quilt anyway, and therefore, the families know how to support such situations. They might also have different expectations about family necessities, such as being okay with (or resigned to) fast food rather than slow cooking. That said, the strength of families in these communities is that the harder times get, the closer families rally around a single activity.
Anonymous said…
Cynthia -

Thank you for your post. I agree with Scott that bivocational ministry is certainly more common among poor communities. The relationship of theological/denominational tendencies in these contexts is an interesting one.
Bivocationality will be the reality for increasing numbers of those serving in ministry, whether seminary trained or not, ordained, licensed or not.
I think there are four crucial issues:
1) how will we help these ministry leaders identify and thrive in alternative income streams?
2) How will we educate for a lifetime of ministry given the new economic realities?
3) How will we help clergy find collegial community when they're not serving in 'traditional' structures and perhaps have less control over their time (again, a historic challenge for racial/ethinic minority pastors when "ministerial alliance" meetings are held on Tuesday at 10am or the like.
4) How will we help congregations and denominations understand and adjust to these new realities?
I've been working on these issues for a few years, and am launching a new nfp - to address them.
I'd love to have you as a conversation partner. Again, thanks.

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