Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Reconsidering the Tentmaker

I've suggested before that I suspect it is time to reconsider having full-time professional clergy on the staff of most congregations. For many churches, this is simply not good stewardship of their resources. Clergy packages, often mandated by the diocese, can consume up to three quarters of a small church's net disposable income. Beyond this, there is still the assumption, now often unspoken, that the clergy are hired to "do ministry," because the laity are too busy.

If the church is intended to "equip the saints for ministry," when does the equipping end and the ministry begin if the assumption is we can hire someone else to do it? What is the point of the worship and educational opportunities? To enhance our own spirituality? To make sure we have our ticket to heaven?

Primarily, I see this as a stewardship issue. My understanding of healthy stewardship is that we give half of all income away. Half for maintenance and half for mission. I see no other way to keep those two priorities in balance. For a small congregation to accomplish this, they cannot spend the bulk of their pledge income on full time clergy.

This kind of thinking is not popular. I told one search committee that I thought their problem was that they had too much money. They had this huge endowment, and it was clear from reviewing their materials that they were quite distracted by the need to protect this money. The strongest indicator that this preoccupation with the endowment was unhealthy was the huge amount of endowment income that was used to fund their operating expenses. The members had no personal investment in the institution. Large endowments can kill a church. We've all seen this happen.

I suggested to them that they live within their means; function only on pledge income (even if this means not having full time clergy), and use the endowment income to fund community events or outreach projects. In other words, give it all away. This would result in a proper use of the funds from a Christian perspective, as well as cause the community to sit up and take notice of the parish, resulting in increased membership. Needless to say, I wasn't called back for a second interview.

Personally, I'm quite weary of the popularity contests, "auditions," and the theological sparring involved in the hiring process within the Church. If you tell the truth, you might not get hired.

I have four possible positions opening up when my current one ends sometime in the near future. One is more or less a start-up; a small church that will be using their savings to hire a full time priest for two years to turn them around. Another is an interim position (advantage of interim ministry? No popularity contest!). Another is running a program for a large non-profit (which I doubt I'll get, but it's fun to go through the process). And the last one is teaching High School English, and offering my services on Sunday to those congregations in need of a priest.

I'm inclined to go for the last option. On a personal level, that makes no sense, as I won't be adding to my church pension. That's the real glue of the Episcopal Church, btw; the clergy have an excellent pension fund. If it wasn't for that, many of the angry priests in TEC would have left a long time ago. Consequently, I don't think the pension fund is such a great thing.

Since I question the wisdom of every church employing full time clergy, and wonder sometimes if the pension fund is creating a unity based on personal security rather than any spiritual bond, maybe it is time to walk the walk?


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