Part-Time Ministry (2002)
Part-time ministry is a subject that can seem to be the last resort for the life of a church that is slowly dying. Is that one reason why the subject of part-time ministry seems to polarize people? Some people in church are horrified by the idea that part-time ministry is all that the church can afford, while other people believe that part-time ministry is simply full-time ministry in disguise, and on the cheap. Many questions are raised when part-time ministry is mentioned, starting with the foundational enquiry:
- What is ministry? That is a question that could take up the whole of this discussion and still have depth to explore. Most of the times that I have heard part-time ministry being discussed, it focused exclusively on paid and ordained pastoral ministry, but I sense that the discussion is widening out beyond that.
- Does a part-time minister only have a part-time love for the church? While this can almost be an insulting question to ask, it does get asked, even though the question is starting from the wrong side. Some ministers only seek part-time ministry, while some churches can only afford part-time ministry.
- Is part-time ministry a step backwards or a sensible strategy for the future? Is a step that is necessary automatically a backwards step? Could a step that is necessary not be part of a strategy for the future?
- What are our perceptions of part-time ministry? Is part-time ministry always to be viewed with a negative outlook? Is part-time ministry only ever to be discussed in response to church decline or church closure?
- Is part-time ministry a necessary economy or just a desperate measure? Why do church leaders wait until a church is almost dead before discussing part-time ministry? And, if part-time ministry is the only response to decline, one must ask why the reality of decline has never been faced up to before.
- How do full-time ministers view part-time ministers? This is such an important question. If part-time ministry is seen as being at least partly a failure, then part-time ministers will also be tagged as failures.
Such questions may also find in some people a very negative expression that leaves no-one else in any doubt about how those people view part-time ministry and part-time ministers. I am trying to take a detached and, as far as possible, an unbiased view with which to try and somehow address these questions and more. I believe that these are relevant questions that we need to answer if we are to discern how ministry can move in a hopeful way into the 21st century that we have just entered.
I want to discuss my first-hand observations of part-time ministry and, having reflected on this and related issues, to make suggestions for the future and draw some conclusions about whether part-time ministry has a meaningful future in Scottish Baptist churches in particular. In a short paper such as this is, I cannot fully explore the issue and I recognise that limitation; but I nonetheless hope that what I have to say is of practical value and can make a worthwhile contribution to any debate on the subject.
In considering whether part-time ministry is a step backwards or an example of necessary forward thinking, I must first deal with something that ought not to be a part of Scottish Baptist church life but is: status. That part-time ministry is viewed as second-class ministry by many people – including some ministers – is obvious; just as there is also status conferred according to the size and prestige of the church a minister ‘leads.’ Listening to ministers (and others) speaking merely seems to confirm the existence of this status and reinforces the prejudice. Therefore, in considering the issue of part-time ministry, I must confront the larger issues of (perceived) status and the spirit of competition that so often infects our churches and the people in those churches.
If the church in our land is dying, as some have said, then I find it extraordinary that ministers still compete with each other and compare themselves with one another, so that they can decide who is putting on the best show. Like actors overplaying their parts on stage, ministers look to the green grass of other churches so that they can prolong the agony of dying and put a better face on it. Am I being unkind? I hope so.
I believe that ministers (and others) need to repent of status and the spirit of competition that is between them, and discover again the truth that we are all (a small) part of the body of Christ, and that no-one has any right or reason to look down on another.
I am, however, concerned that such repentance is easily hoped for, but is very difficult to achieve. Yet, the fact that a church is unhealthy and declining in our day is, I believe, a direct reflection of the attitudes and prejudices of the church’s leadership. I therefore contend that Scottish Baptist churches may need to repent of independence and instead embrace interdependence. The other denominations can work it out for themselves.
In the meantime, let us stop looking at other ministers and churches through the eyes of status and prejudice. Part-time ministry is a necessary reality for some churches, but it is surely better than no ministry. Yet part-time ministry is, in itself, fraught with difficulties and dangers, and I now turn to consider these.
It is my observation that churches which are short of income and therefore opt to call a part-time minister can quickly fall into the trap of forgetting that their minister is, in fact, part-time. The demands upon a minister’s time can quickly exceed their stated hours of work and infringe upon either the minister’s personal time or upon their other part-time employment. If the minister is living in a church manse, then telephone calls or visits can easily extend beyond the part-time boundaries and place stress upon the minister and their family.
Now, I know that these issues also affect the families of full-time ministers, but they place an even greater stress upon a part-time minister. Furthermore, the part-time minister may have the same expectations placed upon them as would be experienced by a full-time minister. Home visits, meetings, availability, emergencies, and routine administration; all have a way of sneaking around the part-time boundaries and making the minister effectively full-time, but paid only part-time.
Ministers themselves can also contribute to this situation because they may want to be involved in all the church’s affairs and therefore be at the centre of everything that is going on in the church; even though that forces them to increase their commitment well beyond their part-time boundaries. Committees, sub-committees, meetings, administrations, decisions, meetings, meetings, and even more meetings – where does it all end? If the minister’s other part-time employment is also very demanding in terms of hours and effort, there can be real stress for the minister in trying to balance their home life with their working life.
This is also true where the part-time minister may be the only (Baptist) minister in quite a large geographic area because the other Baptist churches in the area cannot afford a pastor at all, and so the part-time minister is called upon for weddings, funerals, and pastoral emergencies, in other fellowships outside their own. This frequently involves much more than one meeting or occasion, and can put a serious strain on a minister’s ability to remain within the part-time boundaries. Such a situation would place enough strain on a full-time pastor, but a part-time pastor may well simply not cope with the situation and eventually fall into personal or family crisis as a result.
There has been a suggestion that the ministry crisis in church could be eased by the use of gifted ‘lay’ people within our churches being trained for bi-vocational ministry among a network of local churches. Douglas Hutcheon’s discussion paper ‘Ministry for the 21st Century’ suggests that this approach could ‘create a vast force of gifted, trained, non stipendiary “ministers” through which the church and the kingdom would be beneficiaries.’ I must ask if such people would work alongside part-time (or full-time) ministers, or would they replace the ministers? If, as Douglas suggests, bi-vocational ministry is not a substitute for stipendiary ministry, then it does not directly address the ministerial crisis that the church has right now.
As much as the idea of bi-vocational ministry seems attractive, I think my major question about the idea is this: Why should gifted lay people submit to such training? If they are employed outside the church and so work for the church on a voluntary basis, why should they increase that commitment? Would they perceive that such training would help them to do their voluntary job better? If so, why are they not going for such training already?
This is not, in any way, to dismiss Douglas’s suggestion, which is worthy of the fullest consideration, but I do have to see these lay people’s point of view and ask why they should undergo such training and recognition. If they are already doing the job in the church, what would motivate them to increase their church commitment in the midst of their already over-busy lives?
My experience, though limited, is that the people who are already doing voluntary work in church want to decrease their commitment, not increase it. However, bi-vocational ministry may be a way of involving people who are not already practically involved in church life, but this possibility would need to be carefully considered along with the ramifications.
How, then, do we move forward in order to bring hope to a beleaguered church? Are there other options that could be considered instead of part-time ministry? If there are, what are their advantages over part-time ministry, and what are the consequences of the alternatives? I turn now to consider the way ahead.
THE WAY AHEAD
I do believe that there are other options to be considered alongside part-time ministry, and I want to consider these options before coming to any conclusions about part-time ministry. I recognise that the options I put forward may not be at all popular, and certainly will involve considerable sacrifice; this serves merely to force us to ask ourselves how important the kingdom of God is in our lives, and how much our own agendas displace the needs of the kingdom. I want to be practical, for I regard theology as central to how we live our lives as Christians; therefore, I will state my case plainly and simply.
I believe that every church needs to put ministry first and buildings second. (That is, if buildings should be a priority at all.) By ministry, I do not mean only ordained, stipendiary ministry, though I certainly begin with that. I believe that every church and every denomination needs to face up to this issue, for many fellowships are declining and many are near to death; yet they cling on to their building(s) because they cannot face losing the ‘church’.
In simple terms, I must point out that people may ‘go to heaven’, buildings most certainly do not. Individual fellowships that have no money for ministry, no money for a minister, and no money to reach the outside world, need to carefully evaluate the building(s) that they have. If the building(s) would be of a high value to a property developer, then I believe that they should be sold and the money ploughed into financing a minister or other forms of ministry, and other ministries such as youth or community.
Let go of the buildings and release the people. That is my suggestion and my challenge. I realise that this is in stark contrast to the common situation where a declining church congregation releases the minister but continues to pour money into maintaining a building. I suggest strongly that such congregations should release the building and pour money into people ministry. There will always be people to invest in, there need not be buildings to drain a congregation’s resources unnecessarily.
Furthermore, I suggest that, where appropriate, declining churches that are reasonably close together could use this simple strategy of disposing of buildings to bring small congregations together and release the money tied up in a multiplicity of buildings to finance ministers, youth workers, and more. In these days of declining churches, it may make sense to have such ‘area’ churches where a number of small churches previously existed.
It is clear from a few larger churches (such as Queen’s Park Baptist Church in Glasgow) that people will travel some distance to get to church of their choice and there is no reason that I can see why we should not utilise that willingness in this way. One centrally placed congregation that has a good building(s) could become the locus of the area church, while other congregations merge and join with it. The new larger (and richer) fellowship should be renamed to reflect the merger and may, for example, be called ‘Clyde Valley Baptist Church’ or ‘West Glasgow Baptist Church’ The new church would be able to finance one (or more) minister and could look seriously at youth and community work, too.
I know, and I have heard, the arguments about the history of buildings and what they mean to some people, but we need to radically re-order our priorities in our current situation. Sentiment must not rule over purpose. Otherwise, if we are not careful, we will realise all too late that buildings are of no intrinsic value to the Lord Jesus Christ but that people are of immense value to him. If we care more about buildings than we do about people then we have built our church – and possibly our lives – on sand.
How, then, should we see part-time ministry? As a blessing or a curse? As a financial necessity or a convenient solution? As the undesirable past or the way ahead? I am aware that the issue of part-time ministry is a complex one, and that a short paper such as this could never cover the whole scope that needs to be covered in order to do it justice; but I have made very practical suggestions of how smaller fellowships could move into future ministry with hope. Whether any will seriously consider my suggestions remains to be seen, but I do see major obstacles ahead; not least of which is every Baptist church’s treasured autonomy.
If my suggestions are to be taken up, then smaller Baptist churches need to abandon independence and embrace interdependence; ironically, in doing so, they would actually be returning to our Baptist roots. Independence and buildings are two golden cows that need to be sacrificed in order to create an environment where the life – and glory – of YHWH may return to fellowships and to a people that once knew the life of YHWH throbbing in their midst, but do so no more.
Part-time ministry is better than nothing, but I believe that it should always be seen as a short-term measure until a strategy for growth has been put into place and implemented. Part-time ministry may keep a fellowship going until they have decided how to move forward in partnership with other, similar fellowships. But I believe that any church which has a part-time minister and is content with that situation will find it very difficult – if not impossible – to get back into the position where they are again able to take on a full-time minister on their own. Furthermore, once a part-time minister leaves, they may find it very difficult or impossible to get another part-time minister; especially if other fellowships are strategically merging to create area churches that are able to finance full-time ministries.
In short, I believe that part-time ministry can be a short-term solution, but that it has no long-term benefits to either party. The saddest thing of all is that a part-time minister has a full-time love for their church and people, but they are often looked upon as being less than real ministers. This situation does no-one any favours, and only contributes to the decline of a denomination. Let status and independence be firmly nailed to the cross of Christ, and interdependence and kingdom values be worn as the finest clothing; then we will begin to have a future and a hope where now there is doom and dismay.