Part-Time Ministry: Love It and Lump It

Another follow-up from my recent discussions about motherhood and working.

People ask me a lot about what part-time ministry is like. This is the second church I have served in a part-time capacity, and I love it. And it’s also hard.

I will often—often—hear people say that part-time ministry doesn’t really exist. Yes, it does.

Yes.

It does.

No, really. It does.

Stop saying it doesn’t. It becomes self-fulfilling. And it’s kinda belittling of the experience of many of us who make it work.

Are you saying you couldn’t do it? Why not? Because you require the full-time income? Because you are the/a primary breadwinner? Because you went to seminary and have loans to pay back? That’s all real, and I don’t know what to say, other than peace be upon you. In all these discussions the church is having about churches shrinking and full-time positions going away, I hope there will always be enough positions for people who need full-time work and are called to them. Especially folks who have already been through the process of seminary education, which is expensive in its current form.

But others say they’d like to work part-time, but they are such perfectionists, you see. They say they lack the discipline or boundaries to make it work. They’d end up working way more by default. They are so conscientious, so responsive, and there’s nobody else who can do what they do, that they couldn’t stand to let their churches down. (Like part-time ministers apparently do? And like full-time ministers don’t?)

Now, not every ministry situation can work on a part-time basis. But with good planning, compassionate boundaries, and a church that is excited (or at least accepting) of part-time ministry as more than just a money-saver, but as a way to share ministry and give their minister a well-rounded life, this can work. And there are many different constituencies who might appreciate the part-time rhythm. Folks caring for aging parents. Artists, musicians and writers who want time to work on their other vocation. Folks nearing retirement who still have gifts to give but want to slow down. And people like me: parents with young children.

Here are some challenges:

  • Not really feeling I belong anywhere. I’m not quite home enough with my kids to do the radical homemaker thing. We often do the convenience foods for dinner, I’m a hopeless non-gardener (though a BIG fan of the farmers’ market), and I haven’t quite gotten it together to be a regular volunteer for the Girl Scouts or at school. We are often in a hurry because there’s less margin for error in our schedule.

    On the flip side, I sometimes sense a devaluing of part-time pastors. Like we can’t cut it, or we rely on others to do the heavy lifting. Some of this may be in my head. But I do have a friend who sought a non-traditional career path and was once introduced by someone at presbytery to another colleague, saying, “This is so-and-so. We had such hopes for her but she’s just not living up to her potential.” Truth.

    It’s also sometimes harder to get us to volunteer for service to the larger church because we have less room in our schedule to play with.

  •  Financial. I have always been blessed with congregations who are as generous with me as they are able to be. They have bent over backwards and I’ve never had to play hardball to receive what I feel I deserve. But it is still a little jarring to look at a 1/2- or 2/3-time salary and think, “I have been out of college for almost 20 years.” There’s just an initial “yikes” factor.
  • Being content with “good enough.” That sounds like a benefit, right? But it’s reeeeeally hard. I will often finish a sermon, class prep, whatever, and think, With a little more time, that would have been really awesome. There’s also a whole lot of ministry that’s just about showing up, slowing down, being present in goodly portions of time with people. That is a definite loss. If you’re not careful, part-time ministry can be all about accomplishing tasks. Something gets lost in that.

Here are some joys, large and small:

  • Flexibility. I find this true of ministry in general, but especially part-time ministry. If I’m really cooking on e-mail or my sermon, I work well into the night. I go for runs in the middle of the day. I take off a day to do the school field trip and make it up some other time. I even (gasp!) feel fine with working on what is usually my day off, because it all evens out in the long run.
  • Lower expenses. When you’re not going to an office/church five days a week, you spend less on stuff like gas and fancy clothes. I can justify the expensive makeup I like because there are days, when I’m off or working from home, that I don’t even put any on, so it lasts a long time.
  • Less stress. Unless I have a specific reason to get on the road early, I will often work from home until rush-hour traffic clears out, then head to the church.
  • Lowered expectations. Don’t get me wrong; people expect good things from their ministers. I’m not excusing sloppy work. But I’m fortunate at Tiny Church to have people who understand that I am at best bi-vocational and really tri-vocational (with the writing). Really, they could not be more gracious in this, even giving me grace when I want to be hard on myself. For example, recently I had planned to meet with a person from church to discuss some non-acute pastoral care things. I found out the night before that there was a preschool thing that Margaret really wanted me to attend. I sheepishly asked the person whether we could reschedule, and the answer was instant: “Yes, absolutely. That is totally fine and preschool is where you need to be. Next week will be great.”
  • Many eggs in my basket means less pressure on the church to be my end-all-be-all. Many pastors are able to be well-rounded, but others have very little life outside the church. I have a lot of projects and vocations that fill my time. That means if something is going badly at the church, it’s not the end of my world. It’s just one part of the totality of my life.

    Paradoxically, I think this dynamic can be good for the church in the long run. My worth as a human being is not tied up in the success of the church, which means we can all just be ourselves, play, try some things, see what works, let stuff go, and not get enmeshed and codependent. (For the record, of course you can cultivate this perspective in full-time ministry. And… should.)

  • The opportunity to be a minister. As complicated as it can be with scheduling, etc., I would choose part-time ministry over no ministry, any day of the week. Those of you who are pastors know the joys. Even the challenges can be joys. Being with a family whose loved one has died is not fun. But it is holy, significant work. I have the best job in the world. That said, I do think it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. I’m not saying full-time ministry is always and everywhere too much, but the slower pace allows me to savor a lot.

    When I remember to do so.

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