Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle-Class Clergy

As full-time pastors become a thing of the past, more and more seminary grads are taking on secular jobs to supplement their incomes. 
Justin Barringer, a seminary graduate, couldn't get a full-time position at a church, even after applying to nearly a hundred jobs. (David Wheeler)

For someone seeking a full-time job as a church pastor, Justin Barringer would seem to have the perfect résumé. He’s a seminary grad, an author and book editor, and a former missionary to China and Greece. But despite applying to nearly a hundred jobs over the course of two years, Barringer, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, could not secure a full-time, salaried church position.

So he splits his time among three jobs, working as a freelance editor, an employee at a nonprofit for the homeless, and a part-time assistant pastor at a United Methodist Church. “I am not mad at the church,” Barringer says. “However, I wish someone had advised me against taking on so much debt in order to be trained for ministry.”

Barringer’s story is becoming increasingly typical as Protestant churches nationwide cut back on full-time, salaried positions. Consequently, many new pastors either ask friends and family for donations (a time-honored clerical tradition) or take on other jobs. Working two jobs has become so common for clergy members, in fact, that churches and seminaries have a euphemistic term for it: bi-vocational ministry.

Working multiple jobs is nothing new to pastors of small, rural congregations. But many of those pastors never went to seminary and never expected to have a full-time ministerial job in the first place. What’s new is the across-the-board increase in bi-vocational ministry in Protestant denominations both large and small, which has effectively shut down one pathway to a stable—if humble—middle-class career.

For example, the Episcopal Church has reported that the retirement rate of its clergy exceeds the ordination rate by 43 percent. And last year, an article from an official publication of the Presbyterian Church wondered if full-time pastors are becoming an "endangered species."

This trend prompted the Religion News Service to report that, in the future, clergy should expect to earn their livings from "secular" jobs. Pastors who don’t want to go that route might have to ask friends and relatives for money, or perhaps serve more than one congregation.

There is certainly a growing trend towards bi-vocational ministry in both mainline and evangelical churches,” says Kurt Fredrickson, a professor of pastoral ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

This trend dovetails with other recent developments that are troubling to many religious communities. Not only is church attendance in long-term decline, but financial giving by church members is at Depression-era lows. Meanwhile, seminary students are taking on ballooning debt for a career that may not exist by the time they graduate. This trend began before the Great Recession, and has only worsened since then.

Of the seminary students who graduated in 2011 with a Master of Divinity degree (the typical degree for a full-time pastor), more than 25 percent accrued more than $40,000 in educational debt, and five percent accumulated more than $80,000 in debt. Those lucky enough to get a full-time job as a pastor will join a profession whose median wage is $43,800, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Many denominations are concerned about the burden of student debt and how that impacts the vocational lives of clergy,” says Sharon Miller, interim co-director of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.

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David R. Wheeler is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Kentucky, and an assistant professor of journalism at Asbury University.

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