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How to Snap Pastors Like Breadsticks

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Crunching the numbers speaks for itself: A 2007 Duke University study found that 85 percent of seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years and 90 percent flee before retirement. The attrition rate in North Georgia, the Bible Belt's leather buckle, "ran as high as 90% for those having served 20 years or more." Alban Institute and Fuller Seminary research showed that "50% of ministers drop out of ministry within the first five years and many never go back to church again."

It's a verified fact: Anyone signing up for the professional ministry is nuts. Don't waste time on those psychological tests. If they want the job, they're cracked.

That would be me. I've been throwing myself into the kind of work that lands us on the operating table for 25 years. It's American Anxiety Employment on steroids. I'm loopy.

And it's all sliding downhill from there. Beau Underwood shines more light on my calling's bizarre world on a Sojourners blog: "The Dangers of Bi-Vocational Ministry." Many churches now run on financial fumes, forcing their pastors to file applications at telemarketing centers, sales offices, and car dealerships. Some -- especially workaholic church planters launching new ministries -- ennoble the practice and loft it as "the way of the future." They've convinced themselves they're God's can-do entrepreneurs and elite Navy Seals (no kidding: I've heard it at their conferences). They stick to that story until they're sprawled on a psychiatrist's couch or screaming at their spouses before marriage counselors. Or both.

No pastor would need to moonlight in Never-Never Land, but we don't live there. I've combed the want-ads myself and finally landed temporary, part-time employment. But Underwood, who is bi-vocational by choice (Beau, we're worried about you ...), says we shouldn't fool ourselves. The back-slapping validation "appears to be nothing more than trying to put an extremely positive theological spin on a very dire ecclesiastical reality" (translation: we're bragging about a flaw). For one thing, "ministry is growing more complex." For another, "the growth of bi-vocational ministry degrades ministry as a profession." And make no mistake: Pastoral ministry is a profession whether we like it or not. Congregations now demand more of pastors amid dropping pay, not less. It once went without saying that we should possess the mind of a theologian, the heart of a child, and the skin of a rhinoceros; they've tacked on the business smarts of Warren Buffet, the marketing mojo of Steve Jobs, the political acumen of Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan (note the bi-partisanship), and the entertainment flair of Robin Williams - but keep it clean and tasteful. And not so inane. And preach with conviction and don't offend anyone and be our cheerful little Messiah - and remember, Oh Honorable Reverend, you've got a job review coming up.

We're also the poor person's counselor, available for those who cannot afford the how-does-that-make-you-feel experts.

I did a bi-vocational stint in the late 1990's and it sucked the life out of me. First, I was sent to a disintegrating church demanding full-time attention. Second, my secular job was in corporate sales, which inhaled stress like an addict in an opium den. But the denomination I served (back then) was in a church-planting kick and pressured its pastors into the workplace: "Be part of your real-world community where there are real-world people and real-world issues." The consequence: I was Uncle Daddy to my son (who has grown up and forgiven me, bless him); I was a sleep-deprived, snappy pastor; and I did not meet my sales quotas. As for the community: I drove to a distant city by day and huddled in my home office by night, with no time for shaking hands at town meetings or mingling at soccer games. I barely glanced at the newspaper before bed time -- and forget about keeping tabs on the latest theological trends and insights. I was working like a manic shrew.

Clergy people call this "sacrificial living." Other professions call it "abuse."

Bi-vocational ministry, when necessary, must be thought through carefully and, if possible, done in the context of a ministry team -- and the "other job" should have flex hours so we're free for funerals, weddings, counseling, and emergencies. It should at least complement the pastorate. For example, I'm caring for an elderly woman. She lets me read and write and study as long as I occasionally listen to her, brew her tea, and identify the birds at her feeder. She's a nice lady.

Denominational leaders don't play fair when they fold their arms and give their I'll-pray-for-you pledges. Are you really praying? If not, just say "let them eat cake" and get it over with. Better yet, help out. Upload job opportunities onto your web sites and network with employers needing temps. Better still, well-funded churches can insert another line-item in their mission budgets: Come to the aide of your brothers and sisters so they're not wet rags on Sunday morning.

We may never experience sanity, but we'd love to catch a glimpse of it.