Faith Works 10-24-15
A calling in context, and in change
Full-time Christian ministry, whether you call it ordained or commissioned or licensed, whether it's with a seminary graduate-level degree or two years of a Bible college, or a set of responsibilities called and claimed out of the membership for a set period . . . it's a hard thing to pin down.
Most Christian communities have a person who serves in a central leadership role for worship, which may or may not be as central having to do with secular matters for the congregation. In my own tradition, ministers don't own the building, sign the checks, or have any financial authority at all; in other Protestant traditions, the pastor is "sent" from a central authority to take the preaching and teaching office for a church and can't be "sent back" just by the congregation's choice.
In general, though, folks expect when they visit a church that there is a preacher who is also a leader of some sort, in casting a vision and coordinating services if nothing else. Titles can range from "Brother" or "Reverend" to "Father" or "Mother," "Bishop" or "Evangelist," and I once served a congregation where at least half a dozen of the men, all of World War II vintage, called me "Padre."
In many churches October is a time for "minister appreciation" in a week or month, and I have to admit to being a bit, well, agnostic about the whole thing. And I wouldn't bring all this up except for the fact that it seems like every October my social media fills with memes and posts and comments that all tie back to some stats and stories about how the overwhelming majority of ministers are, in a word, overwhelmed.
Images with captions saying things like "1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month" (or 1,700, says church consultant and ministry expert Ed Stetzer, wondering where the updated figure came from since he can't find a source for the initial stat), heartfelt pleas to affirm clergy "because 50% of pastors' marriages end in divorce" (also a stat without a source), and lists of negative impressions from "studies" of what ministers feel about themselves and their church.
At the risk of ruining a perfectly good pity party, it just ain't so. Ministry in whatever form, to take a public role, paid or unpaid or poorly paid, to represent your faith and its teachings out to the world and in pastoral care for your congregation, is hard work. No doubt about that whatsoever. And it's harder work than nailing together pallets, I can assure you.
But there are some standard complaints about ministry work that need some context. Yes, we work 55-60 hours a week on average: so do most entrepreneurs and senior managers. Yes, we make less than doctors or lawyers or school administrators (or most teachers), but we make about what most social workers earn, MSW and MDiv alike. Preschool staff and secretaries and children services caseworkers make less than us on a full time average, but I think we can agree it doesn't state the relative value of a person's work to look at their pay… and even doctors wish they made more.
We don't get days off much, true; I usually get about half of a Tuesday for my weekend. But my wife, who has a demanding professional job during the week and into many weekends, also has had an unpaid ministry leadership position for over a decade where she goes in and works on Saturdays and Sundays to make sure worship is powerful and effective in the area she's responsible for. When is the day off for a leader who works five-plus days a week and comes in to serve at church?
It used to be, not all that long ago, clergy were expected, in the words of an elderly mentor in my younger days, "to dress like bankers, keep doctors' hours, and be paid like ditchdiggers." You had to wear hand-me-down suits from better-off parishioners, borrow money for half a gallon of gas into your Model A to get to the hospital once a week, and got a basket of potatoes and turnips some Sundays.
As a member of the clergy, my appreciation is that those days are past. I appreciate and love my work, and as Ed Stetzer has noted, among Protestant pastors, 93% of us say we feel privileged to be a pastor.
If you'd really like to appreciate your minister, ask them to tell you about their vision for your congregation. And offer to take on some part of that vision for your own!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him your vision for your own ministry through your church at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.