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Part-time pastors: No longer unicorns

When it comes to being a bi-vocational pastor in the PC(USA), Julie Raffety shares her experience of what works and what expectations need adjusting.

Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

Even 10 years ago, part-time pastors in the PC(USA) were a bit like unicorns — unlikely to be seen. But these days, a call of fewer than 40 hours a week (considered full-time) is much more common both inside and outside the PC(USA) (National Congregations Study from Duke University, 2019). As a purposeful bi-vocational pastor, it has been my personal experience that many pastors and churches do not intentionally make the decision to move from a full-time to a part-time pastor. Instead, they are compelled into a part-time call based on reduced people, finances or both. And yet, part-time pastors and churches continue to do God’s work, exemplifying the truth that “Jesus won’t abandon you if you don’t have a full-time pastor.” Considering my own experience and the ever-changing church climate, I pause today to assess what is working and what is not working when it comes to part-time ministry calls.

What is working

  • PC(USA) benefits and the Board of Pensions’ commitment: PC(USA) requires benefits for any installed call of 20 hours or more. In doing so, they have made it possible for clergy to serve a church part-time and have health benefits and participate in the retirement plan of the PC(USA). In a world where so many part-time jobs do not offer benefits, this is the key to making part-time ministry a feasible real-world option for those who choose to pursue bi-vocational ministry. Praise God for a denomination that fully takes care of their pastors’ health even as the church employs them half-time. (It should be noted that part-time pastors have to be even more intentional about planning for retirement as pension is based on their part-time effective salary or other Presbytery minimum.)
  • IRS “two places of work” mileage deduction: The IRS allows for deducting travel when you drive from one job to another on the same day. For clergy with two jobs, this can be helpful.
  • Negotiable terms of call: My second vocation is a high school math teacher. “Everything is negotiable,” I frequently tell my students. Having two jobs can make it even more difficult to legitimately take vacation time since the employee needs to coordinate time away from both jobs simultaneously. Thus, the PC(USA) terms of call worksheet allow for clergy to negotiate — perhaps additional Sundays away for a part-time pastor in exchange for a raise one year. Certainly, not every church is flexible, but it has been my personal experience that most churches understand that part-time employment offers unique challenges and thus, they are willing to listen and adjust terms of call according to what is best for clergy and the church.
  • Rigid boundaries: It is no surprise that part-time pastors need even more stringent boundaries to carve out privacy and sabbath. I have made it a rule that I will never take time off from one job to work another job. This has served me well along with separate social media accounts and out-of-office messages.
  • Church leadership empowered: Churches with part-time ministers correctly see their role as essential to the church’s work and ministry success. A part-time call affords and necessitates a real opportunity for employed leadership and volunteer leadership to partner together in the work and ministry of the church.

What is not working

  • A part-time ministry call with full-time presbytery expectations: Unfortunately, part-time pastors seem to be expected to participate fully in their presbytery even within their part-time hours. I have found it really challenging to moderate a committee and attend all presbytery meetings and trainings within my allotted hours. All of this said, I think my presbytery is trying to make changes and look for ways to allow part-time pastors the flexibility needed. In the past, trainings were only offered on one day and time, which means that I can rarely participate. However, there’s been a recent push to incorporate asynchronous online and Zoom options, which is helpful.
  • Continuing education opportunities: There are very few continuing education options that are possible in a part-time schedule. Additionally, there is very little incentive to participate in a week-long continuing education option when 20 hours is a normal work schedule. Shorter 2–3-day trainings and conferences would allow part-time clergy more flexibility and incentive to participate. I have found it helpful to plan my own continuing education options with colleagues, but this often takes more time and effort than participating in a pre-planned option.
  • Church and clergy coordination and understanding: As mentioned above, the move from a full-time to part-time call is often motivated by lack of members or lack of money. As such, many churches still hold onto full-time expectations of their part-time clergy. Obviously, this can lead to inappropriate expectations in all areas. It would be extremely helpful to have some education around this transition or perhaps an interim to guide a church as they make a change. In addition, many churches see part-time ministry as temporary with the future goal to return to full-time ministry. This has the effect of discounting and devaluing the part-time call as well as diminishing the church and the pastor’s joy. In a denomination that has always struggled to celebrate, churches with part-time clergy need to be taught to celebrate and joyfully proclaim their identity and their contributions to the kingdom without comparing and diminishing their accomplishments to other models of ministry.