Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Full-Time Ministry Ideal

Ministry has always been full-time.

Whether people who make their living in the church are paid a full-time salary, carry two or more jobs with half-time pay, receive a small stipend, or get paid in livestock and housing, ministry is full-time. The term "full-time" comes from a small window of influence from the Industrial Revolution that compensation should be similar to a laborer or manager who works 40+ hours per week. Full-time is how anyone who serves the church for a living lives themselves, regardless of their compensation.

There may have been a relatively brief period of time where that full-time ideal fit people who work in the church, but I'm not sure it ever could fit or ever will fit. What does it mean for a pastor or other worker in the church to be fairly compensated? There are many variables associated with compensation--cost of living, size of family, retirement planning, disability, health insurance, taxes, Social Security, paying for theological education, student loans, and housing (there are probably others). Given the thousands of churches who cannot afford a living wage for those who make their living serving the church, how can the church realistically create an environment that does not include a vow of poverty for those who work in the church?

I do not know the answer to these questions. To me, the variables are tangled far beyond the level of my Christmas lights that I will take down from my rafters next month. I am thankful my wife has good work with a good wage so I can do what I do. Yet, as I am tangled the cords of compensation, I have come to accept a few realities that help me move forward.

1. I need to let go of the ideal of full-time compensation if I am going to work in the church. This doesn't mean that I'll never receive this level of compensation again (I haven't had it in almost 5 years), but letting that ideal go opens me to other possibilities.

2. I'm not sure I ever want full-time compensation in the church again. The church, as an institution, seeks to preserve itself. When I was compensated full-time, I was expected to participate and labor toward the church's own self-preservation. If I was released from one aspect of the church's self-preservation, another part of the institution would attempt to suck me in. The church was never called to preserve itself, but to participate in multiplication for the good of our neighbor.

As someone compensated half-time in the church I serve, I am free to choose some activities at a distance from the scrutiny of the institution. I have earned money substitute teaching and delivered bagels for income. I have served on PTAs, volunteered at the neighborhood swimming pool, in classrooms, and as a youth basketball coach. I would not trade any of these activities in order to participate in self-preservation. The religious landscape is full of stories of congregational decline that are rooted in a loss of connection with neighbors. I still work full-time, and then some. Not being compensated full-time by my church frees me to be connected with my neighbors. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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