I can’t remember ever hearing a discussion about unemployment in seminary. Seminarians worked on their Greek and Hebrew, interned at a church, and looked forward to graduation, ordination, and employment. The major questions we asked were, Which job will I take? Do I want to be an assistant pastor, associate pastor, or solo pastor? Or perhaps a military chaplain or missionary? The opportunities were many and varied. One could always find a job in ministry.
How times have changed! In 2012 the Presbyterian Church USA reported 10,262 active churches. In 2015, just three years later, they listed 9,642 churches, a loss of 620 churches. During those three years, 802 clergy members either retired or died. Yet 1,176 new clergy members were ordained. This presents a growing problem for seminary graduates beginning their ministries and for experienced pastors who must move due to a church closing, downsizing of staff, or personal family issues. Often, they can find no immediate job to step into. The problem isn’t confined to mainline denominations. With church attendance dropping across the country, all kinds of churches are cutting back on staff.
What can we pastors do to protect ourselves from unexpected unemployment? Every pastor should have a plan. Fortunately, there are many strategies we can employ. Here are three ways you can thrive in a volatile ministry market.
1. Put your pastoral skills to work elsewhere.
Since most pastors already have highly developed intrapersonal skills, along with managerial and communication skills, teaching in a local community college or even in a middle or high school is always a possibility. Working pastors can refine their counseling skills with more education and become certified marriage counselors, hospital chaplains, hospice chaplains, social workers, or daycare administrators.
Try acquiring new marketable skills. There’s nothing wrong with seeking out non-ministry related ways to supplement your income. One pastor I know recently bought a new car—a four-door model that complied with Uber’s car requirements. “Just in case I ever need a job with Uber,” he told me half-jokingly.
When I sought to move back to a church position from the collage chaplaincy position that I held, I couldn’t find opportunities within a church. So I accepted a position as dean of students at a northeastern university. There I was able to work with students, faculty, parents, and townspeople. Some semesters I taught a course in Introduction to World Religions. I continued to be active in my presbytery, served on special committees, and accepted invitations to lead Sunday worship in local churches.
During that season, my understanding of ministry expanded. I’ve learned not to rule out part-time gigs. There are growing opportunities for employment in part-time and three-quarter time pastoral ministries. To obtain and keep a good pastor, many smaller congregations are open to the pastor having an additional part-time job outside of the church.
2. Use the networks you’ve already built.
When facing unemployment, stay active in your denomination or network’s events and programs, serve on committees, and volunteer for extra service. Keep in contact with former church friends and especially former seminary classmates who may know of possible church openings.
At their 25th alumni gathering, Dartmouth University’s class of 1986 began talking about some of their classmates who were having a tough time. One problem area was unemployment. Out of that discussion, they formed a group called COMPASIO. It is composed of volunteers from the class who work together to address individual classmate’s problems. Many colleges and seminaries have similar programs. Your alma mater may be a worthwhile resource when you face unemployment.
3. Take a break. (It doesn’t have to be permanent.)
When no immediate position is available, step back and do something totally different.
After 15 rewarding and demanding years as dean of students, I needed a change. So I did something different. I bought a farm in New York State, which gave me a chance to refocus and reconnect with nature. Three years later, much to my surprise, a search committee asked me to serve as interim pastor in our local church. I accepted their offer, and when that assignment ended, three other interim opportunities followed.
Then one day I was called to have coffee with a retiring pastor who wanted me to continue his work. I was honored to follow him. For the past 17 years, I have been the part-time stated supply pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Newark, New Jersey serving a small, diverse congregation of Presbyterians. There have been times when I acted as janitor, landscaper, secretary, and part-time organist. We (the congregation and I) all pitch in when needed.
Over the years, I’ve learned that ministry never really ends; it just changes. My advice to any pastor facing unemployment is this: don’t obsess about it. Instead, refocus and pray, knowing there is a mountain of work to be done in the kingdom. Adopt the philosophy of General George Patton, “Never retreat; attack in a new direction.”
North Barry Dancy worked in churches in New York and New Jersey for more than 30 years. Though retired, he joyfully serves the congregation of Third Presbyterian Church in Newark, New Jersey.
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