Part-Time is Plenty

When I tell people that I serve as resident author with a local church that doesn’t have a full-time salaried pastor, I usually get one of two responses, and sometimes both:

  1. Resident author? That sounds cool—what is it?
  2. How can you have a church without a paid pastor?

To the first, I explain that as resident author, I preach once a month, do some community building like leading a write your story workshop and planning for the week of prayer for Christian unity, and share in the life of the church in other ways. For me it means having a church home and context for my writing, with some minimal structure and a lot of flexibility to work on my own writing projects and speak in other settings.

To the second, yes, it’s possible to be a church without a paid pastor. After all, that’s how churches started in the New Testament. For my particular local congregation, the church began with a strong sense of identity as a liturgical worship community, which has shaped their ministry and life together. From the outset five years ago, they relied on one another to plan, lead, and share in their worship and ministry, and that pattern continues today. They are an enormously gifted church, but they also know their limits, and rent instead of owning their own building.

With my previous experience as a full-time paid pastor, I’m fascinated by this new way of being the church, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to read Part-Time is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy by G. Jeffrey MacDonald (Westminster John Knox Press, 2020). What would the author say about his experience as a part-time pastor and full-time freelance journalist? What stories might he share about other clergy, and what guidance might he offer churches?

MacDonald is upfront about the challenges churches face: fewer people attending and increasing financial challenges have forced some churches to move from full-time clergy to part-time. But as he observes, the move to part-time clergy does not signal inevitable decline:

Congregations can and do find vitality after full-time clergy. They’re churches like St. John’s Lutheran Church in Lakewood Washington, where worship attendance doubled from twenty-five to fifty in the five years after it went part-time. Over the same time, mission giving at St. John’s jumped from zero to 7 percent of the budget. . . . In Maine, children’s ministries took off at Tuttle Road United Methodist Church in Cumberland and also at New Sharon Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in New Sharon as the more flexible leadership led to churchwide experimentation that bore new fruit in unexpected, jubilantly received ways.

Yet in spite of these stories of church revitalization with part-time clergy, MacDonald notes the strong bias toward full-time ministry, as if “any church that can afford it ought to have it. Congregations are so steeped in this bias that many believe full-time ministry is a necessary prerequisite for legitimacy.”

To counter this, MacDonald points out that even those in “full-time” ministry only work a fraction of the 168 hours in each week. He argues that part-time ministry is the ideal in Scripture, like the tent-making and church planting ministry of the apostle Paul. He points to a growing trend toward part-time clergy; for example, in 2010, 29% of U.S. churches had part-time clergy, and by 2015, this number had risen to 35% (Hartford Institute for Religion Research).

MacDonald’s book is focused on churches moving from full-time clergy to part-time, and he offers excellent advice for planning ahead, thinking strategically, and acting creatively. He includes a whole chapter on the role that denominations could play in supporting and valuing churches with part-time clergy, and another whole chapter on theological education and training for part-time ministry.

For MacDonald, part-time ministry isn’t simply squeezing the full-time role into a more limited number of hours, but a new opportunity with new possibilities. Congregational members can learn to exercise their gifts in new ways. Clergy have time for other creative pursuits, community service, and other work. For freelancers like himself, pastoring part-time serves as an anchor both spiritually in the work of ministry and financially by providing some steady part-time income in addition to his freelance writing.

MacDonald outlines three models of effective part-time ministry with the pastor serving either as 1) equipper of the laity for ministry, 2) ambassador to invite and interact with the community, 3) as part of a multi-staff team. He writes:

Seeking a part-time pastor should not be a hunt for a hero who will provide full-time ministry for part-time wages. A healthy, thriving congregation with part-time clergy accepts the pastor’s limits and lives into its potential as laypeople discover they don’t need a pastor hero. What they need instead is to become ministers.

For churches and anyone considering part-time ministry, Part-Time is Plenty is a must read. It’s inspiring, practical, and full of examples of churches thriving without full-time clergy. In these days of pandemic and considerable church stress, it’s a helpful and hopeful voice.

Disclosure: Thank you to Westminster John Knox for providing me with a complimentary review copy. As always, the choice to review and opinions expressed are my own.

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Embracing the writing life in all its delight and challenge: I currently serve as resident author with a liturgical worship community, write online and in print publications, and often speak in churches and other settings. Publications: On the Way with Jesus, Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. Websites: AprilYamasaki.com and WhenYouWorkfortheChurch.com.

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