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The vanishing of middle class clergy

The vanishing of middle class clergy

The Atlantic notes that full-time salaried church positions for clergy are becoming rarer:

… despite applying to nearly a hundred jobs over the course of two years, Barringer, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, could not secure a full-time, salaried church position.

Barringer’s story is becoming increasingly typical as Protestant churches nationwide cut back on full-time, salaried positions….

Working multiple jobs is nothing new to pastors of small, rural congregations. But many of those pastors never went to seminary and never expected to have a full-time ministerial job in the first place. What’s new is the across-the-board increase in bi-vocational ministry in Protestant denominations both large and small, which has effectively shut down one pathway to a stable—if humble—middle-class career.

For example, the Episcopal Church has reported that the retirement rate of its clergy exceeds the ordination rate by 43 percent. And last year, an article from an official publication of the Presbyterian Church wondered if full-time pastors are becoming an “endangered species.”


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Geoffrey McLarney

“The secret for clergy, I suspect, is to know how to find the right people, empower them, ask the right questions, provide support when needed, then get out of the way.”

Yes, that is what “total ministry” means. Parishes do not need micromanagers: you don’t need an MDiv to unplug toilets (conversely, I’d raise an eyebrow at any adult who couldn’t do so). I suspect that’s where the contrast lies with a small non-profit: the Church has a laos of baptized ministers whereas in many small non-profits the ED may well be the only full-time officer, remunerated or not.

Terry Pannell

Sr. Laurie’s observation is very relevant and timely. With that said, the total cost of a theological education far exceeds just the tuition and living expenses. Student debt is but one of many important factors that have to be considered. Potential candidates for ordination who leave their secular careers must also take into account lost or greatly diminished wages while in seminary. This also includes the suspension of contributions to social security and private retirement plans.

Clergy are certainly not exempt from the effects of diminished wealth and the economic pressure to sustain a standard of living. At the same time, my guess is that the church may find fewer and fewer gifted people who can afford to commit themselves to ordained life, especially those who are in their peak earning years.

Sr Laurie Joseph Niblick, SSG

How much of this trend is driven by seminary debt? What parish positions are really available/practical to someone who finds themselves with $70-90K of debt? Not very many parishes could afford to pay someone commensurate with that kind of debt responsibility. And younger people are thinking very carefully about their financial futures. How could we as a Church address the issue to allow for a wider pool of good priests?

Eric Bonetti


Hmm, want to come work at a small non-profit? As a former executive director, I have to tell you: Your list is rather too short.

That said, you raise a good point. The secret for clergy, I suspect, is to know how to find the right people, empower them, ask the right questions, provide support when needed, then get out of the way.

Or, to recount the words of a female family member to her boss who worked outside the home long before it was acceptable:

“Charlie, you are lazy, dumb, and constantly drunk, yet you’re worth millions, have a yacht in Bermuda, and you’re successful in every way. How is that?”

Charlie: “Easy. I find great people like you, I pay them well, treat them well, then get the hell out of the way. See you in Bermuda!”

Geoffrey McLarney

“Too many clergy lack the real-life skills needed to manage the day-to-day realities of parish life, ranging from HR issues, to vendor management and procurement, to plunging toilets and performing minor repairs, and more”

And too many parishes are content to pay their clergy and then sit back to receive services as from an omni-competent professional, rather than a facilitator of shared ministry or a coordinator of peoples’ diverse gifts. Very few businesses employ one individual as HR manager, vendor liaison, and plumber!

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