Part-Time Is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy by G. Jeffrey MacDonald
A Book Review by Andy McClung
A once-thriving congregation shrinks in membership until finances necessitate changing from a full-time to a part-time pastor. Over the next several years–or even decades–the membership dwindles while the focus on survival increases, and the focus on doing ministry decreases. Eventually, the last few remaining members decide to call it quits, and presbytery closes the church. Sound familiar? That is a common pattern for Cumberland Presbyterian congregations, and that familiarity gave birth to the stigma that a church with a part-time pastor is second-rate, on its way out, and not as vital as churches with full-time clergy.
Jeffrey McDonald uses an optimistic approach to address the unpleasant subject of diminishing church membership and finances. His research confirms that the above pattern and its associated stigma are common in U.S. churches of all denominations. He also discovered that the transition away from full-time clergy does not have to be part of a church’s decline but can instead be part of its revitalization if done strategically and intentionally, regardless of location or denomination.
This book is not a guide on how to squeeze full-time work out of a part-time pastor (which is unethical and contributes to clergy burnout, health problems, and high suicide rates). It’s not an academic and disconnected how-to guide meant to be followed step by step. It instead showcases real churches who experienced the full-time to part-time transition. Some did well after the transition; some did poorly. The churches that did well had looked ahead, realistically assessed where they were heading, and made the transition before it was absolutely necessary. The churches that did poorly had tried to keep things as normal as possible until circumstances forced them to transition.
According to the 2020 Cumberland Presbyterian Yearbook, the average C.P. congregation has an active membership of 46. There is no easy way to determine how many C.P. churches already have part-time pastors; like many denominations, we don’t keep track of that. From available data, MacDonald nevertheless extrapolates that 38 to 43 percent of all U.S. churches did not have full-time pastors in 2019. It’s time we C.P.s look ahead, realistically assess where we are heading, and make appropriate adjustments before it is absolutely necessary… or too late.
The most common reason for transitioning from a full-time to part-time pastor is, unsurprisingly, a lack of money. What may be surprising, however, is that MacDonald found several churches who increased their ministries after this transition, both rejuvenating existing ministries and starting new ministries such as Financial Peace classes, Stephen Ministries, and food pantries. The difference between a church thriving or dying after this transition is how active and involved the members are in the hands-on ministries. The mindset that says the pastor does all the ministry while church members help and support him/her leads to the church dying, even if it takes a while. The mindset that says all Christians are supposed to be doing ministry, and having a part-time pastor means the members must be actively involved in planning, executing, and evaluating ministries, leads to ministry getting done, and even increasing.
A benefit of a more active laity is members’ better understanding that their church is not merely an institution to be maintained, or a community of like-minded friends enjoying fellowship, but a place where Christians gather to worship, learn, and serve. Members also gain a sense of ownership of the church’s ministries (which is good), not just the building and traditions alone (which is limiting). So, if the members are accustomed to the pastor doing all the heavy lifting and are not willing to change that, then transitioning to a part-time pastor will only decrease the church’s ministry and prolong the church’s death. MacDonald says any church can benefit from transitioning, even when membership numbers and finances are doing well. This likely would be a tough sell to most C.P. churches who currently have enough warm bodies in the pews and dollars in the bank… unless, perhaps, the session has read this book together.
Surviving this transition requires that all parties involved be very clear about expectations. Exactly what is the pastor to do, and for how many hours each week? What is the session’s role? Exactly what are members to do? MacDonald recommends the pastor’s role be limited to worship leadership, being a resource for the lay leaders of the various ministries, and representing the church in the larger community. While this makes sense, it also seems too far removed from the hands-on ministries.
A more difficult key to a successful transition is the denominational structure beyond the congregation. In our case, that would be presbytery, synod, and General Assembly. Part-time churches are unconsciously marginalized, says MacDonald. Resources and attention perpetuate the “part-time = half dead” stigma rather than serve as a witness that churches with part-time pastors are vital. Meetings and training events are scheduled during the work day. Resources are designed for full-time churches with others expected to adapt them. There is no help for part-time pastors to find additional employment. Health insurance availability is based on full-time employment. There is no financial help for laypersons to pursue education to help them develop and lead ministries.
MacDonald issues a challenge to seminaries. If the future is congregations doing full-time ministry with part-time pastors, then most seminaries are not preparing students for that future, and theological education needs to change. Huge sums of money–or debt–for a degree is hard to justify for a part-time job. Part-time pastors will need more training in how to identify, nurture, and utilize church members’ gifts for ministry. Most seminaries are not modeled to prepare part-time pastors for other, non-church jobs. If laypersons, who do not want a degree, are going to be leading and doing most of the ministries, then seminaries need to offer more short-term classes and certificate programs at affordable prices.
While this book is about and for congregations, ministers should pay attention to the increasing prevalence of part-time pastorates. (That 38 to 43 percent, above, was 29 percent just five years earlier.) Ministers may be concerned about the lack of a full-time salary, but lots of people now work more than one part-time or freelance job, and steady income from a pastorate can make pursuing other “gigs” more sustainable. An additional bonus for C.P. ministers is that, with more than one stream of income, your entire livelihood is not wiped out when a few elders decide it’s time to fire the pastor.
Above, I called MacDonald’s approach optimistic. It may seem pessimistic to assume the number of churches with part-time pastors will increase, but MacDonald points out that this change is really a return to what churches originally were intended to be.
I dislike that such a book even needs to exist, and I hate that so many C.P. churches are in the position to consider making this transition. My feelings, however, do not change reality. This book is needed, and many churches, many of our churches, can benefit from it. Churches doing full-time ministry with part-time pastors might just be what ensures that your congregation—maybe even the whole Cumberland Presbyterian Church—is still around after you and I are long gone.