There *is* such a thing as part-time ministry

Divine Details

I’ve been working part-time for more than a year, and with
three young children and a small writing vocation on the side, it has been the
perfect schedule for this stage of my life. For many pastors, part-time
ministry can provide untold benefits: more space for parenting, attending
school, or pursuing other vocations; the opportunity to continue pursuing
ministry even during a busy stage of life, as opposed to stepping out of
ministry altogether; the chance to distill one’s job description to those aspects
of ministry that are most important and/or those for which the person is most

On the congregation side, this process gives churches a
specific opportunity to be the body
of Christ, providing support for a pastor who requests more time for children,
aging parents, or other worthy pursuits. As one member of my church put it to
our session (governing body), “It says a lot about us if we can support a young
parent at this time of her life. And it says a lot more about us if we are unwilling to do this.” It can also be an
opportunity for deeper discipleship as churches learn how to minister to one
another, rather than relying on the pastor for things they could (and should)
be doing for themselves.

But how do we make the shift to part-time? How do we convince
congregations who view part-time ministers as “too outside the box”? And how do
part-time pastors make the most of the two, three or four days we are on the

I contacted some of the pastors I know who work or have
worked part-time, and they were generous to share their experiences, tips and

Know When the Time is Right

Often pastors will decide to shift to a part-time ministry
after becoming a parent. This can be excellent timing, because the church has
already gotten used to being without the pastor during his or her family leave.
It can make for a less abrupt transition, according to Ashley Goff, who
negotiated a 30-hour-a-week call with Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, DC
after becoming pregnant with her second child. They were so glad to have her
back at the end of her maternity leave that it cushioned the adjustment to

I was very fortunate in my negotiation, because we had a
pastor who had attended our church for years while working in non-parish
ministry. As it happens, he was ready to retire from that position, but still
wanted to serve in ministry part-time. He and I now job share, 20 hours each
per week, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. He and I
complement one another, we make a good team along with the head of staff, and
most people feel that two halves make more than a whole in terms of energy and
quality of ministry.

Even without a pastor waiting in the wings, it can be done.
Ashley and others affirmed that healthy churches know when they’ve got a good
thing. They will do what they can to retain a pastor who is gifted and
dedicated, even if it means having him or her for fewer hours each week.

That said, sometimes the timing is just not right for the
church. One pastor found herself pregnant immediately after beginning her call,
and as much as she would have liked a part-time schedule, she knew it was not
in the cards. “The prior associate had left to raise children. So the church
system’s panic was palpable,” she said. “My husband had also just started an
unstable job.” It was a difficult phase of life, but she persevered full-time,
and continues to serve that church faithfully many years later. If a part-time
arrangement is not meant to be, know that people do survive, even in the midst
of early parenthood, a spouse’s illness, or other special life circumstances.

Negotiating the Call

While others may disagree with me, I think it is a mistake
to let the negotiation be framed in terms of the church being able to save
money. Certainly we are more aware of financial issues facing congregations
during this economic downturn. And sometimes churches have no choice but to
reduce a pastor’s call to part-time status. But if that is not the impetus for
the shift, then keep the focus where it belongs: the pastor’s request, her
reasons for it, and the church’s opportunity to support a brother or sister in
Christ who needs a different rhythm for ministry.

Shawn Coons, who currently serves as co-pastor with his
wife, Carrie Smith-Coons (for a combined position and a half), emphasizes the
importance of getting things specified in writing. “We had been told that if it
isn’t on paper in the terms of call, it most likely will never happen. We have
experienced this to be true.” He also advises doing your homework in terms of
denominational insurance, pension, and other nuts and bolts issues. Helen
Moore, who worked as a supply pastor for a small church in Clear Lake, Texas adds: “I made use of the resources available to me. This church
had a troubled history with pastors and was struggling with the whole issue of
closing. I often spoke with presbytery staff about how to proceed with that,
and found them invaluable, both in mapping out strategies and in giving me
pastoral support.”

Monica Thompson Smith, stated supply at Good Shepherd
Presbyterian in San Antonio advises, “In arranging your weekly schedule, think about if you’d rather have
multiple full days off or work fewer hours on a daily basis. I think it’s
easier to just work fewer full days. If I go in to the office in the morning,
it’s hard to quit at noon, for example.” In fact, churches will need you to
help them envision what part-time will really look like. Many congregations
have a hard time imagining a model of ministry other than a pastor in the
study, every day of the week, ready and waiting for people to drop in.

Of course, interruptions are a part of ministry, and face time at the church is
probably more important when one is only there a couple of times a week.
Jennifer Garrison Brownell, currently a solo pastor at Hillsdale Community
Church (UCC) in Portland, but who worked a 12-hour-a-week call in the past, made sure to be visible, even to people not connected to her ministry area, “for instance asking and
receiving permission to attend governing board meetings. The leadership could
still see my face and I think that helped to alleviate any concern that might
have been floating under the surface.” At the same time, in an age of cell
phones, laptops, and cafes with wireless internet, ministry is happening in
different ways and in different places—even with people who work full-time.

Ashley Goff says, “One thing that might be helpful if folks
are anxious about someone cutting back is just to give it a trial period, like
a year. More than likely all will be well at the end of the year, but it might
let folks feel better if they know there is an evaluation, or just a marking
point so that change can take place if necessary.”

In my case, we had a nine-month trial period and a pastoral
review committee, which met for several months, talked to church staff,
surveyed the congregation, and presented a number of options to our session,
with the pros and cons of each. These options included everything from
dissolving the current part-time positions and searching for one full-time
associate, to continuing with the current situation, and everything in between.
The session considered their feedback and voted unanimously to keep the current
arrangement for the foreseeable future.

Working part-time is freeing in the flexibility it gives
people to do things during the week—everything from haircuts to doctors’
appointments to teacher conferences. Let congregations know there is a benefit
here for them as well: you will typically take care of those things on your
days off. In other words, when you’re on the job, you’re fully there.

Be Creative

Be creative in the ways you advocate for yourself and
encourage others to advocate for you. I was blessed to have both women and men
speak on my behalf in session meetings about my request, which helped keep this
from becoming just a “mommy problem.” I did not plan this, but would advise
women moving to part-time to make sure that you have some men as well as women
advocating for you.

Shawn Coons found his denominational forms too limiting when
describing the advantages of two pastors (in his case a clergy couple) sharing
one position. “One thing we found very helpful in ‘selling’ ourselves was to
provide additional information in our own website…The website gave us freedom
to offer more information about what it might mean for a church to call us
both, and we also included more personal information so people could get to
know us a little bit. We kept it confidential, with a login that only those
with our PIF (church resume) would know. The website made a very good
impression on several churches we spoke with.”

Use the negotiation as a way to do some soul searching for
the church and yourself. Ashley Goff found the part-time negotiation gave her
the opportunity to examine what aspects of her full-time job description still
made sense, and what needed to go: “Part of my job that was ‘cut’ I really
wasn’t doing anyway.”

And I, too, used the process as an opportunity for revise my
job description, which had not changed in five years. I am focusing energy on a
new aspect of church ministry now, one that both energizes me and is something
that the church has needed and wanted. I think that the move to a different set
of responsibilities has helped eliminate some of the “creep” that comes when
people are accustomed to a pastor’s doing something (“Oh, MaryAnn used to take
care of this; it’s such a small thing; surely she wouldn’t mind just this

thinking outside the box can yield some hidden benefits. Helen Moore worked
part-time ministry took place while also doing clinical work as a licensed
professional counselor. The church was small enough that it became clear that
they did not have a viable position to offer someone full-time. “So they
disbanded their pastor nominating committee and doubled my salary with the
money set aside for the search,” she reports.

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

Few of the pastors I talked to kept track of their hours.
Churches were satisfied knowing the work got done, and none of them asked for
an accounting of where a pastor had spent his or her time. Ruth Everhart, who
works 20 hours a week as pastor of Poolesville Presbyterian Church in
Poolesville, MD, writes down the number of hours she works each day, and
occasionally reports an average, but nobody has ever asked for it. And I keep
track of what I spend my time on, using a simple shorthand only I understand,
because this is a new job description, and I want to have information readily
available if people ask which tasks take up most of my time. So far, they

Jennifer Garrison Brownell suggests negotiating hours in
terms of a monthly rather than weekly figure, to allow for busy times. “That
way, if you have to work one week to get ready for a funeral or run a VBS or
something, you can flex it yourself the next week without feeling guilty or
worrying about people looking over your shoulder all the time.”

One of the best pieces of advice I received in seminary came
from Ernestine Cole, associate dean of students at Columbia Theological
Seminary, who urged prospective pastors to enjoy the down times in
ministry—they are few and far between. Instead of inventing things to do just
for the sake of adhering to some pre-determined number of hours per week, revel
in the slower times: rest, study, and take care of personal errands.

Boundaries and the need for self-care are huge issues, and
the guilt of leaving things undone can be tough whether a pastor is full-time
or part-time. Shawn Coons says, “My wife, who is currently part time, sometimes
finds it challenging to keep things in balance. She often feels as though she’s
either short-changing the church or short-changing our son, and she strongly
feels a call to parenthood and to ministry. Sometimes the boundaries of part-time
ministry are pretty fuzzy, and in a new position now, she feels the need to
‘prove’ that she’s working, as well as the desire to find a healthy balance.”

Jennifer Garrison Brownell entered ministry with the desire
to work part-time. When she communicated this to the ordination committee, she
was told, “There’s no such thing as part time in ministry.” She shares her

At the time, I thought that was
part of a baby boomer pattern of over-work and just indicated the sort of
out-of-control work ethic that burns pastors out. My reply was gracious, but
basically was, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ All of that was partly true—pastors do tend to be overfunctioning
over-workers in my experience—but the committee did have a point. I never
really kept track, but I suspect I often worked more than 12 hours per week.
And, anything extra that I did, like working on Conference committees for
example or, reading related to church stuff, I did outside my regular hours.

So, I would not advise, as the
ordination committee advised me, not to do it. But it really is true that it
will expand to take over any part of your life that you let it take over.

A few other thoughts about boundary-setting, shared in the
pastors’ in their own words:

  • Setting
    boundaries is completely up to you! No one else will do it.
  • Even
    though you are part time, you still deserve as many Sundays off as a
    full-time minister.
  • At
    times, I realized that I was not being very collegial with the number of
    hours I over-worked. It was fine for me, because I did not have another
    job… But if someone had come into that role after me who really had to
    support herself or her family on that income, plus other part-time jobs,
    it would have been very difficult for her. The church would have
    unrealistic expectations of the person in that role.
  • The most difficult part
    for me was feeling like I was never fully present anywhere. I would say to
    anyone looking at part-time work to be aware of how you spend the rest of
    your time and allow for the fact that part-time work is about balance of
    energy and emotional investment as much as it is about time.
  • I used
    to keep track of my hours, just for me. Then my daughter was born and I
    began multi-tasking so much that it just became impossible. Do I count the
    time I spend thinking about the sermon while feeding her, or just the time
    I actually spend staring at the computer screen?
  • Never
    justify your existence. It should be obvious to all that you do important
    work. Remember who you work for, and it is not the crankiest elder on the
  • Don’t
    do anything somebody else could do. Have a good administrative assistant
    and empower that person to do a lot of things for you.
  • Many
    church members have bought into the “no such thing as part-time” idea, but
    it is expressed as concern for me. I really do work part-time, basically,
    but they assume I work more hours than I do, and worry that I am working
    too much. This might sound bad, but I don’t disavail them of that notion!
    I don’t lie to them, but I also think that if church members think I have
    a lot on my plate, perhaps they will think twice before assuming that I am
    the only one who can do something. It’s a gift when church members will
    take ownership of the ministry themselves.

The Greatest Challenge

For me the biggest challenge is balancing getting things
done with being flexible and open. My job description includes
administrative/programmatic responsibilities, and I am a very organized person.
In the beginning, I worked hard to prove myself, and assure the church that it
was getting its “money’s worth.” I got a lot done, but I neglected the
relational aspects of ministry. Meanwhile my head of staff, who is very
relational, was missing the times when we used to just get together and reflect
on ministry in a less hurried way. Communication also became a huge issue,
since our schedules are such that we only overlap about 6 hours a week at the
church. So I am learning to balance getting things done with being available
for the unplanned, yet deeply important, moments of ministry.

I have realized that the part-time negotiation did not end
last year when the session approved my current terms of call. It is a constant
negotiation, as it is for every pastor, as we find our way in the midst of the
myriad needs, demands, challenges and blessings of ministry—regardless of how
many hours a week we undertake it.

4 replies
  1. see-through faith
    see-through faith says:

    love this
    Personally I would like to see a lot more bi-vocational / part time pastors both male and female – so that the work load is shared, gifts are put to use well and so that the body of Christ can grow in the area of ministry themselves.

  2. Betsy T
    Betsy T says:

    I appreciate this, and I am glad to hear that there are healthy part-timers out there. I’ve not had as much success, partly since I need to work two part time jobs- one at a hospital. The parish DID hire me “part time as a way to save money” and money has always been a filthy word there. Some persons constantly, angrily harp on the hours I’m not there, and others accuse me of favoring the hospital.
    I’m worn out with not being able to meet the expectations. But I have changed some behavioral patterns, and the next person might have it easier. Easpecially if that person doesn’t have a hospital job!
    I think the hardest part about the two jobs is that one is very strict in its hours- the hospital has me exactly 20 hours a week and one overnight- and the other is flex, but I can’t “borrow” hospital time when the parish is heavy-demand, nor do extra hospital hours when the parish is low-demand.
    This has worked for a season, but I can’t keep it up long term.

  3. Laura Hudson
    Laura Hudson says:

    Thank you for this post. It is timely for myself and for my husband, as we begin to seek a call in which we can job-share. I really resonate with the limited ability to describe the advantages of job-sharing in the Personal Information Forms and so forth in my denomination.

  4. At-home Mom
    At-home Mom says:

    Thanks for this great piece. I’m not working right now, and planning to stay home for a few months with our first baby, due in about six weeks. But when I go back, I will probably be hoping for part-time. The regional leadership here is frequently saying things like “there’s no such thing as part-time” so I don’t know how much support I’ll get in this. It’s encouraging to know that people are making it work!


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