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Number of Unpaid Ministers Rises as Denominations Decline

The Christian Examiner spoke to Scott Thumma this week, a Hartford Seminary sociologist of religion about the decreasing numbers in denominational congregations and the increasing numbers of unpaid or part-time pastors in mainline churches. Thumma says churches are looking at new models to make ends meet, and more and more mainline churches are cutting pastors to half-time or quarter-time compensation. 

For example, the state of Wyoming has 49 Episcopal congregations with few if any unpaid ministers in the mid 90s. Now the number of unpaid ministers has swelled to 20, and that number will increase to 35 within a few years. Lori Modesitt, ministry developer for the Wyoming diocese, sees unpaid ministry as “the future of the church.”

“What we’re talking about is going back to the original church, where people took an active part and used their God-given gifts for the betterment of the community,” Modesitt said. “This is a way to enliven congregations.”

Most mainline churches in the U.S. pay their ministers, but 30 percent have a part-time pastor. And denominations are expecting to depend more and more on bivocational ministers to serve infant congregations without the means for a salary plus benefits for their senior pastor.

One bivocational pastor, Mark Marmon of the 50-member All Saints Episcopal Church in Hitchcock, Texas, works as a fly-fishing guide while he serves his congregation. He says there’s a benefit to unpaid ministry: The congregation knows his dedication is unwavering. “They know my degree of dedication is 110 percent,” he told CE. But some parishoners don’t always feel comfortable confiding in unpaid staff, and some paid clergy Marmon knows feel threatened that unpaid priests will soon come and take their jobs.

Auburn Theological Seminary in New York is developing an entrepreneurial ministry track for students who plan to do ministry but aren’t counting on church employment after graduation.

“We’re encouraging a new form of ministry where students realize they may not go into congregations in traditional buildings that can pay them full-time salaries,” said Auburn president Katharine Henderson. “So they have to know how to do ministry in entirely new ways.”