I realize this sounds weird. I said to another clergywoman at a party that I think I’ve developed enough of an outlet for my calling beyond the congregation (through writing), to make congregational ministry sustainable for me now. She gave me a side eye and said carefully, “That doesn’t sound like a very compelling case for serving in parish ministry…” Maybe not on its own, but I have a theory.
There is a shortage of clergy that is only getting more serious as the size and viability of mainline Protestant congregations decline. How will we care for the people within these communities, with only the leaders who just love the Church so much they are immune to the frustrations of dwindling commitment and influence in the lives of even the people who do show up? I bet we need the skeptics and cranky and disgruntled-enough-to -really-push-us-forward leaders too. If our egos (in both needing affirmation and needing to make an impact) are not bolstered by preaching to 40 gathered on a Sunday, then we do need some additional outlets. Many congregations can only pay a leader part-time, so we talk about being bi-vocational for financial reasons, but isn’t the conversation about meaningful impact just as crucial?
I have noticed a pattern. Some of the pastors I relate to and admire most have a common survival mechanism. They have developed a calling-related but outside-the-parish form of ministry for a greater impact and sense of meaningful work (and yes, they probably get some positive attention and affirmation too). These pastors have cultivated a variety of other ministry outlets:
- Part-time chaplain at a nearby university
- Marriage and Family counseling
- Writing for magazines, online platforms, and even books
- Steering an initiative for ministry leaders
- Consulting and teaching on areas of specific expertise (digital media, inter-generational ministry)
- Cultivating a demographic, faith-related fellowship (young adults, adoptive families, LGBTQIA+)
When the congregation was the center of civic life and pastors were respected public figures by default, it must have felt different to lead. I wouldn’t know, since this hasn’t been the case for awhile. As mainline Protestant churches diminish in size and significance in people’s lives, we have to constantly give ourselves pep talks about how “two or three gathered in (Jesus’) name” is enough and how even playing a bit role by hosting a wedding or funeral could “plant seeds” that we just don’t know how they will grow. Smaller parish ministry is hard on the leader because no one else is as invested in the life of the congregation as those on the payroll, except some in unhealthy ways. For me at least, the smaller congregation’s life in this day and age is not the level of impact I went into the ministry to make, the influence I hoped to have (for the Gospel).
Author, pastor and professor Walt Wangerin Jr. is a role model for me. He wrote the stories of parish life while living it, the lives of people like his parishioners, the Bible as a novel, the things a pastor thinks about (before becoming a writing professor at my college). A writer needs something to write about. And obviously, writing doesn’t pay the bills. I could do this too, I thought. But I didn’t start right away. I didn’t know that I had valuable things to say that anyone would want to read, beyond sermons.
When I was preparing for ordination someone recommended I get a hobby that produces results – something like knitting, they said – in order to have a sense of accomplishment and measurable outcomes. Ministry involves a lot of open-ended effort, relational investments that we might never see come to fruition. But I don’t gravitate towards handicrafts; I’d rather read a book. The advice of one leadership program I participated in was to turn where you are into the “next call” that you want to be in. But that was still about the small, struggling congregation and what I could get them to do. I wish I would have heard that advice as, “Turn this into the time when you write, get published, build a platform. Trust that you have unique perspectives, things to say that no one else has seen from your angle, even if you haven’t magically transformed the congregation you serve, rocketing to success against all odds.” The advice I truly needed was to find a way to do ministry that stretched beyond one particular congregation, although I was indeed on several non-profit boards and coordinated synod projects.
My theory: For longevity in smaller parish ministry, this “outside” work needs to be a required, protected, essential part of the call, because it is what can sustain a leader thru the disappointment, or bearing the brunt of anxiety in a dwindling congregation. Not everyone will find that compelling. But to me, it is essential.