Others think: Just perfect for me.
And increasingly, leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are encouraging seminarians and pastors to consider tentmaking as a creative option in a church that’s trying to be more missional – more connected to the organic flow of the world. That encouragement also flows from the recognition of a noticeable imbalance between the number of ministers or candidates seeking jobs (more than 2,100) and the number of congregations looking for pastors (a little over 600).
As the PC(USA) continues to lose members – down another 69,381 members in 2008, leaving a denomination of just over 2.1 million – many small congregations can’t afford a full-time minister and some are without pastoral leadership at all. In some of those situations, a tentmaker pastor, someone who serves the church part-time and also works at another job — as the apostle Paul did in the New Testament, making and selling tents – has provided an answer. But the PC(USA) lists only 42 ministers as “bivocational” or “tentmakers,” although the numbers may be somewhat higher than that.
The idea is not without controversy. Many graduates from seminary with significant educational debt, and the discussion of how the PC(USA) can continue to afford and support an educated, professional, committed clergy also continues to simmer.
In the Synod of South Atlantic, for example, more than 600 congregations have fewer than 100 members – some with as few as 12 people, said synod executive Reg Parsons at the recent Big Tent gathering. About half of those are not staffed with ministers, and that number is growing.
But with part-time clergy, the big difference often is “the pay, not the work,” Parsons said. “When you’re called, you’re called. You’re the pastor,” and the work tends to expand.
“Some people feel like they’re not ‘real’ pastors unless they are called and installed” to a full-time position, said Jody LeFort, stated clerk and associate presbyter for equipping leaders with the Presbytery of Western Reserve.
“But we have such a variety of pastoral leaders that we want to say, ‘All these folks are real pastors.’ It’s not unreal or invalid to have other types of leaders.’”
Why do it?
It also seems that many come to tentmaking not out of a sense of what isn’t – of not enough money, not enough jobs – but what could be, out of a sense of excitement about creative ministry. Some are immigrant pastors. Some are already living in a place that’s exactly where they want or need to be – they want to find a way to stay put, earn a decent living, and also answer the call they feel to be in ministry. Some are second-career pastors with well-developed professional skills outside of the church. Some feel certain they are meant to be doing, vocationally, more than one thing.
“Tentmakers are very experienced at ministering on the fringes,” said Jeff Scott, a minister from Creed, Colo., and moderator of the Association of Presbyterian Tentmakers.
Here’s one example. Kofi Noonoo works for Catholic Charities in Chicago. He’s also the pastor of a fledgling Ghanaian congregation. “The whole of my life I pray to be working and pastoring,” Noonoo said.
Noonoo was thrilled to find the job with Catholic Charities, where many in the agency call him “minister,” because it meant he could support his family and also do the work he’s certain God intends for him to do. His church can’t afford to pay him. “I’m happy to be a tentmaker. I want to be paid somewhere, so I don’t put the burden on the church,” he says.
“There it is,” said Ross Blount, a farmer from Iowa and pastor of Allerton United Presbyterian church. “It’s that sense that God has called.”
Blount’s commitment to his congregation is to work one-third time – although he said he typically works 20 hours a week. He preaches, performs weddings and funerals. But he has challenged the elders and others in the congregation to visit the sick and others who need support and comfort, and to take leadership in other ways as well.
Some think that unless you’ve got a full-time pastor, you don’t have a full-type ministry, and I think that’s wrong, Blount said. “To me, it’s a tremendous incentive for shared ministry. It’s a matter of lovingly negotiating what needs to be done in the church. You don’t have all that time. … So they don’t dump everything on you.” … “It’s a model for discipleship.”
Scott now serves full-time at a United Church of Christ congregation in Colorado. But for years he worked as a tentmaker – attending seminary for nine years part-time while serving two congregations, running a home inspection and construction management firm while also serving small churches. Scott said he may well return to tentmaking someday or explore other approaches to shared ministry.
“I don’t want the pastor to do all the work,” Scott said – and he doesn’t like “that feeling of being a hired hand.”
Some also contend that tentmaking is “friendly,” as Scott put it, to post-modern and emergent visions of church – to the kind of flexibility that many seeking new visions of Christian life are seeking. Pittsburgh Presbytery, for example, recently ordained two tentmaking pastors – both just out of seminary – who are working part-time jobs while starting a new, multi-cultural congregation for young adults in Pittsburgh, called the Upper Room.
With one foot professionally outside the church, a tentmaking pastor also can serve as an interface between the congregation and the community, Blount said. When he started in ministry, before going to seminary, he worked as a commissioned lay pastor while farming as well. When the farm crisis hit in the 1980s – rocking families much as today’s economic churning is hitting home – and he knew firsthand, directly from his own bank account, what that meant.
One morning, knowing that his soybeans needed to be harvested quickly, Blount lay in bed and watched the rain dripping, dripping, dripping from his crops. He had already borrowed $6,000 that his son had saved from his paper route – so felt that he was stealing not only from his own dreams, but his boy’s as well. He remembers thinking that if the rain – and there had been ceaseless rain that season – didn’t end soon, “we’re done.”
“That’s what tentmaking is all about,” Blount said, “to join in the agony and the joy.”