Thursday, July 24, 2014

Three Ways to Adapt to the Pastoral "Vow of Poverty"

The article's been making the rounds in my social media feeds, which I suppose shouldn't be a surprise.

It's a piece in The Atlantic, laying out the reality that being a pastor in the 21st century means taking what amounts to an unintentional vow to leave the middle class.  The old system of the old-line, in which entering the pastorate meant chugging along in the middle of the middle class?  That's fallen apart, or so the article suggests.

Now, pastors are falling behind financially.   Oh, sure, there are a tiny minority who are filthy rich.  The Chief Executive Officer of your local AmeriChrist, Inc. JesusPlex makes out like a bandit.  But most pastors--meaning not just a plurality, but a vast majority--do not.  And within that group, there are many folks who struggle.

In that, the church is a microcosm of that reality.  The deindustrialization of America and the absorption of capital by a tiny minority has torn the heart out of our formerly thriving middle class.  The megachurch has done to the small church what Walmart has done to small business, and small American congregations are simply too strapped now to pay enough to sustain a family.

That's certainly my reality.  My little church is a blessing in so many ways, and its members are generous to a fault.  But there aren't enough of us to meet my denomination's minimum salary requirements for a full timer, not without critically impacting mission and our efforts to maintain our humble facility as a welcoming place for community.  And so I'm a half-timer, one of that huge cadre of folks who don't--and won't--make enough as a pastor to sustain a family.

I could live on what my church pays me, were it just me.  It would be a spare life, just me and one rented room.  Or perhaps I could live in the slave quarters in the old manse, that one tiny room up that little flight of stairs from the kitchen.  I've lived in smaller spaces in my life, and been content.  That's the stuff of my monastic daydreams.

With a family, though, that's just not my reality.  "Hey honey, let's the four of us go live in the old slave quarters" is not a sentence any sane husband says to his wife.  And so my wife's work is absolutely necessary to sustain our modest suburban household.  Oh, she'd work anyway.  It's who she is.  But I've had to accept the reality that my income was unlikely to be enough.

Thing is, I've known this the whole time.

It's always been my expectation.  From day one, the folks responsible for preparing me for this task were dead on clear about that reality.  "It's going to be next to impossible for you to find full-time work as a pastor in this Presbytery," they said.

They were wise, and they were right.  Though I didn't want to hear what they were saying, I knew it to be a hard truth.  Where things get messy, in my experience, is where those charged with preparing folks to walk the path of ministry don't make that as bright and clear as crystal.  You want to be encouraging and supportive of the gifts of your charges, sure.  But you also want to avoid being so insulatingly overprotective of the tender sensibilities of fledgling pastors that you leave folks with the expectation that this isn't going to be a wilderness experience.

'Cause it is.

So here, three things that you should know, entering the ministry in this more challenging age.

1) Know that You're Not the Exception.  Oh, we all think we are.  We know, in our hearts, that we're the most talented, most interesting, most extraordinary person in the universe.  We are the Special, dagflabbit, just like Emmett told us in the Lego Movie.  We think this.  I certainly did, ten years ago.  God had a plan for me, and sure, things were hard out there.  Everyone was telling me this.  But I was just so magical, so called and gifted and Spirit-blessed and innovative!  How could I not be the exception to the rule?  Surely, a church would see the wonder that was me.


It didn't take long for reality to disabuse me of that delusion.  My applications to churches with full-time calls vanished into a yawning chaos of other applications.  It was like the experience of trying to get my manuscripts published, only instead of form letters, there was only silence, as overtaxed committees of lay volunteers never quite got around to "wishing me well in my future endeavors."

If you like closure, this part is going to make you crazy.  It also lasts a very long while.

Oh, God was working.  No question.  And as I listened, and opened myself to other options, I was able to follow that calling.  But it was hard.  Expect it to be harder than you've imagined, because it will be.

It is, for most of us.  And, to use the Southern American colloquial emphatic double negative, you ain't no different.

2) Don't Go Into Debt:  This is absolutely central, and should be told to every single earnest soul with a calling on their heart.  Don't debt-finance seminary.  Do not do it.  Yeah, yeah, I know, forgive your debts as you forgive your debtors, but that ain't how student loans work.

You are entering a field of endeavor that can no longer pay you enough to service that debt.

It won't. Will. Not. That must be your operating assumption.

What that debt will do is add stress to your life, layering in mammon's anxiety on top of the challenges of ministry.  Worse still, what it will do is corrupt your calling.  I say that with all seriousness.  Seminary is important, and profoundly helpful in the reality of ministry.  It's worth the time, and the investment. But if you use loans to pay for seminary, those loans can become an impediment to God's work in your life.

You may well be called to a small, beautiful, intimate gathering.  You could be called to revitalize a struggling, tiny, broken-hearted church.  You may be called to start a cell church, or to be a pastor-member of an intentional house community.

But if you've got student loan debt worries gnawing at your soul, you will be less likely to consider those options.  You will be less likely to take joyous leaps, or Godly risks.  You will be more likely to use mammon's measure to select your "call," and that's setting you down the wrong path.

If you can't afford seminary, and you can't cobble together scholarships and grants, take it more slowly.  Work your way through it.  If the calling is there and real, God will give you the patience.  It will also be, in a way, your first experience of bi-vocational ministry, as you learn to balance the demands of your calling and work.

Should seminaries and denominations have a better approach to training their leaders, one that reflects this new reality?  Sure.  Absolutely they should. But right now, they don't.

No point in racking up the debt and then complaining about the injustice, 'cause what's real is real.  If someone tells you a car has no brakes, kvetching about it as you're careening down a mountain road does you no good at all.  As for praying about it?  Well, here I remind you of that overused story about the guy, the flood, the rowboat and the helicopter.  Your way out of that mess is to know the reality you inhabit.

The car has no brakes.  The system is broken.  There.  You know it.

Pay attention, and adapt to what you're facing as you pursue your call.

3)  See the Blessing this Represents.  That the full-time pastorate is no longer a safe, comfortable, middle-class career track is a good thing.  It should never have been that, because the career-ladder expectations that came with that way of viewing it do not reflect how the Holy Spirit works in our lives.

Funny, how that approach to the ministry always involved God calling human beings on to a slightly bigger church that paid slightly more.

What the pastorate is becoming is a vocation that is rare in the secular working world: an intellectually and spiritually rewarding labor that both shapes your identity as a person and allows for work-life balance.  It cannot be the only income for a family, sure.  But it can be a meaningful part of the income for a family.  It can be the labor of a part-time stay-at-homer, who mixes their call to the Gospel with the call to care for children.  It can be the labor of the dual-class pastor, who yearns for space to write and be creative, or to work in another area of vocation.

It can be the work--once congregations realize that the pastor is not the one "professional" Christian responsible for doing everything in the church--that allows you to have a sane existence with a working spouse.

There are very, very few jobs in the private or public sector that permit this.  And yeah, I realize that it's not the cultural norm to live creatively and in balance.  That's particularly true in my inside-the-Beltway neck of the woods, where dishing about overwork is a competitive sport, even among pastors.

But if you're going to provide gracious and centered spiritual leadership, you can't be shimmering with stress.  If you want to maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, accepting that you are the half-income of a one point five income household can make the difference.

Embrace your call, but be realistic.  Don't let our debt culture leaven God's call on your life.  And see the blessing this new reality can offer.

Because the new reality of pastoring in America is where we are now.