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.

Miller says some denominations are addressing the problem by covering a student's tuition in exchange for a promise to later work as a pastor in that denomination. Other denominations are helping clergy who minister in underserved areas (and who thus aren't compensated all that well) pay off their student debt—“But these efforts are quite limited in scope, as denominations are financially stressed themselves,” she says.

Sometimes evangelical pastors, especially those planting a new church in an economically disadvantaged area, intentionally choose a bi-vocational life. Fredrickson says these pastors often “sense that they will be able to serve their neighborhood better if they are engaged on a regular basis in their community.” One example of a deliberately bi-vocational church is Love Chapel Hill in North Carolina, where five co-pastors share the workload of the church and work other jobs on the side.

“We are reaching an eclectic group of people,” says Mat LeRoy, one of the five co-pastors. “We have a growing core of young families and professionals, a large collection of college and grad students from [the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] and a beautiful group of local homeless friends. With this type of socioeconomic diversity, bi-vocational ministry is currently a strategic necessity for a sustainable outreach.” He adds, “This is not an easy choice for us, but it is worth it to continue our mission in our community."

Cameron Lee, a professor of marriage and family studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, worries about how the current trends in pastoral ministry jobs are affecting families.

It has already become increasingly difficult, economically, for seminary grads,” Lee says. “For those who choose to start a church in a disadvantaged neighborhood and raise their own financial support, such placement may also be in an area where it will be difficult for the spouse to find employment.”

At some point, Lee says, the question of bi-vocational ministry ceases to be purely strategic and takes on an ethical dimension. “What is a church willing to do to support its pastor?” he asks. “And is that willingness conditioned by a consumerist mindset or a robust theology of what it means to be the church in the real world?”

Back in Lexington, Barringer loves his part-time job at the Methodist church, and he’s thankful that his nonprofit job allows him to minister to the homeless, even if he’s given up on the idea of paying back his six-figure debt.

“Though I will likely not be able to pay off my loans, I am blessed that I found another job that connects so well with my work at the church and my passions, so I didn’t have to take up work in an entirely different field,” he says. “However, I would love to see denominations and seminaries work out new and creative ways to train clergy at a more reasonable financial cost.”