Post Author: Anna Doherty
I have spent the last three years serving the same congregation (my first since graduating from seminary), and it has been a wonderful place, among wonderful people, to grow into my pastoral authority and role as clergy. When I started my ministry in this congregation, I was hired as a full-time vicar. Everything I did and learned in those first three year of ministry, I learned and did as a full-time priest. The projects I worked on, the aspects of ministry that I enjoyed doing and the things I found challenging—to say nothing of the amount of time and energy I spent doing these things—I learned and did within the context of a 40-hour work week. But two months ago, I went from full-time parish ministry to part-time ministry.
The reasons for the change in my position are purely financial—the congregation was running out of resources with which to pay me at my full-time salary. The congregation is growing, but not fast enough to realistically afford a full-time clergyperson, even one fresh out of seminary. Many other factors also affected the church’s financial stability: the economic downturn and a 10% unemployment rate among church members, a crippling mortgage, and changes in the wider community, to name only a few. I am grateful that my congregation and I were able to have the difficult conversation about our financial reality in an open and affirming way, without anyone assigning blame or guilt. But as the clergyperson, I found myself in the interesting position of needing to be the financial realist, pastoral caregiver, and inspiration to my struggling and anxious congregation while simultaneously downsizing myself. In no other job I can think of, would such a thing be possible.
I know that I am very lucky, relative to others in my position, that being able to continuing serving my current congregation part-time is even possible for me. For many clergy, a reduction in their position means needing to look for another place to serve. But I admit that it was a personal and professional struggle to make the change. Privately, I vacillated between resentment and shame. Was this somehow my fault? Had I failed the congregation, to say nothing of having failed myself? What about my expensive seminary education? Was I throwing all that away and making poor use of my skills by only working part-time? And yes, I did wonder if, because I was a woman, it was somehow easier for my congregation to accept having me work part-time. Is sacrificing one’s position for the sake of the congregation something that congregations are more likely to ask female clergy, rather than male clergy, to do? And what if, by doing such a thing, I was not only selling myself short as a clergyperson, but also as a professional woman? These thoughts all ran through my mind as I walked this journey from full-time to part-time with my congregation.
What I have discovered in four-months as a part-time clergyperson is that a lot of my energy is spent keeping strong boundaries in place. It is a lot of work, for both me and the congregation. I was accustomed to having forty-hours a week in which to do my job. Now, I have to strictly prioritize my time, balancing what needs to be done with what I enjoy doing. I’ve had to learn to say no. I’ve had to learn to let some things go, and to delegate. To be honest, sometimes delegating means flat out saying to people: “I do not have time to do that this week. Could you please take care of it, or find someone else to do this?” As someone who values my efficiency and responsibility as a professional, this has been challenging to do. I just need to keep reminding myself that it is now part of my efficiency and responsibility as a part-time clergy person to delegate and to say no to things that I do not have time for. My congregation has had to get used to fewer office hours, and the fact that I will not be able to attend every meeting or church function.
The most difficult thing for me has been learning to let go of some aspects of my ministry. I really enjoy the company of my church members—they are great people with wonderful ideas and committed and active faith. I still walk with them on their faith journey, but my level of involvement in that journey has changed. It’s as though I’ve moved to sometimes observing and offering coaching from the sidelines, rather than always being on the field itself. I’d love to be able to be there to help brainstorm ideas for the craft fair, but now, given my time, all I can do is show up and lend my support on the day of the craft fair itself. I’m available to help and advise people as needed, and I will be there to see the culmination of their work and talent, but I am not as directly involved during the process of getting there. It is a different way to walk alongside people on their faith journey.
In many respects, this change has been good for me and good for the congregation, even as it is challenging for all of us. I can say with confidence that the decision for me to move from full-time to part-time was a good one for the congregation at this time. My salary was the single biggest expense in the church’s budget and the congregation was literally on the path to bankrupting themselves trying to keep it up. As a congregation, people were so worried about money, scrimping and saving, that their anxiety had begun to have a choking, stifling effect on ministry. Since making this change, we now have a nearly balanced budget for the coming year, and as a congregation we are freed from anxiety about money and can use our resources in such a way as to create and build ministry.
As a leader, I am able to lead a congregation through the realities of the present, with all the challenges and opportunities that brings, rather than to continue to hold forth an essentially unsustainable vision. As a result of needing to take more responsibility and leadership within the congregation, church leaders are slowly but surely becoming more empowered. We are beginning to model, in many ways, the ministry of all the baptized. The congregation has also begun to create wider community partnerships in ways that church leaders were not always willing to do before. We are exploring more ministry and worship opportunities with our ecumenical and denominational neighbors. At a recent church-sponsored meal, we had 16 volunteers from 6 different churches take part. That would not have been possible even two years ago, when the congregation was still clinging to the idea of being completely independent in ministry and resources.
At a time when many congregations are struggling financially and numerically, and part-time clergy positions are becoming more and more common, perhaps we need to begin to look at the current reality of our churches and our ministry as an opportunity, rather than as a failure. I am only a few months into this, but I have already begun to see challenges that can be overcome and opportunities that can lead to new and different kinds of ministry. Please keep me and my congregation in your prayers as we continue to walk this journey together.