THE BLOG
08/01/2014 11:07 am ET | Updated Oct 01, 2014

Ministry on the Margins: The Good, the Bad and the Awesome

"Who in their right mind would want to be a minister?"

It's a question I hear a lot nowadays, especially with news reports about how many in ministry experience low pay, high burnout and potential unemployment.

Last week, I read an article in The Atlantic, "Higher Calling, Lower Wages: The Vanishing of the Middle Class Clergy." It tells of Justin Barringer, who has applied for over one hundred jobs, but has yet to receive a full-time job in ministry. Instead, he juggles three jobs: as a freelance editor, working at a nonprofit for the homeless, and as a part-time assistant pastor at a United Methodist Church.

The popular PBS show Religion and Ethics ran a story chronicling the tale of seminary graduates who are taking on jobs as photographers and mall security cops.

While not all ministers major in theology, CNN Money came out with a list of nine college degrees that don't pay. Religious studies fell between interior decorating and horticulture.

But perhaps the most devastating information out there about the change of ministry comes from a recent article highlighting J.R. Briggs' new book, "Fail: Finding Hope in the Midst of Ministry Failure." The article, "Why Half of All Pastors Want to Quit Their Jobs," listed some daunting statistics, like 80 percent of pastors are discouraged in their roles and 1,500 pastors leave ministry for good each month.

These highlights tend not to be what job-seeking college graduates with high levels of school debt are looking for.

I am reminded of the opening of the movie Annie Hall, where Woody Allen is alone on screen and tells the joke about two old women who are having lunch at a Catskills resort. One turns to the other and says, "the food here is terrible," and the other replies, "yes, and such small portions."

It might seem like there isn't much good news at all. Clearly, ministry is hard work if you can get it.

So here is the bad news:

  • There are not an abundance of ready-made jobs out there for seminary graduates.
  • Many of your friends and family will not understand, agree, or support you. (In other words they will think you are crazy).
  • Ministry (and seminary) is hard work and will challenge many, if not all, of your assumptions about God, the church, other people, and yourself.
  • People will assume that they know your theology and your politics and will judge you and look down on you for that.
  • God rarely gives out big warm fuzzy hugs or loud shout outs when you make the choice to enter ministry.
  • Ministry is at times lonely and isolating.

But here is the good news:

  • Ministry is in a time of radical transformation, which lends itself to creativity even if the old guard doesn't like it.
  • Being a minster is humbling and empowering.
  • As a minister, you have unique access to people's lives: through instant intimacy and a public platform.
  • Ministry will have its most powerful moments when you least expect.
  • You will be called to minister to anyone at anytime. You need to be ready to preach, pray, or die at any moment.
  • Ministry does not equal certainty; we are called to be faithful, not certain.
  • Ministry offers the possibility of colleagues that will walk with you both at the light of a noonday parade and the darkness of the halls of death row.
  • You are going to have to use your imagination and creativity to think about what ministry will look like for you (because it is not going to look like it did or does now).

And now for the awesome news! As a minister (in whatever form that takes), you will:

  • Heal like a physician.
  • Listen like a therapist.
  • Wear a uniform like a policeman.
  • Hold confidence like a lawyer.
  • Rally the troops like a camp counselor.
  • Educate like a professor.
  • Address the public like a politician.

Oh yeah, and don't forget the perks:

  • I have received six free cups of coffee, two loaves of bread and cup of soup.
  • I do get out of some traffic tickets.
  • The seat next to me on Southwest Airlines is almost always empty because no one wants to sit next to me.

My life's work is to encourage individuals, particularly those in their 20's and 30's, to connect to their faith and to consider ways that they can sustain and deepen their commitment to service and justice. This often leads to conversations of spiritual exploration and faith formation.

Walking with people who are trying to figure out how to live a life of integrity and meaning is a place of privilege and awe. So often when I introduce the idea of considering the rich opportunities of theological education and then unveil how an individual's desire to make a difference and build community are expressions of ministry, there is an epiphany, a light bulb goes off, and the spirit is lifted.

As I encounter noble and committed individuals who want to change the world and see ministry as a way to do that, I do not hear a lot of whining. They do not expect a guaranteed salary or a church pension or a housing allowance. They are not sitting back and waiting for someone to give them something or moping for what they don't have. They are determined, diligent and persistent as they seek ways to sustain themes economically and to live out their sense of call to engage and change the world. They don't see the side jobs they have as distractions, but rather integrate that work into their larger understating of ministry. They are prepared for hard work and study, open to the spirit and find or rebuild a community of faith that will inspire, sustain and instruct.

Welcome to the new understanding of ministry. You will be required to think outside the pulpit* and draw outside the church. (*Think outside the pulpit is a term I heard first at Andover Newton Seminary, where I believe it was coined!)

Please Nominate a Minister on the Margins!
I think it is worth identifying and lifting up individuals in ministry who are living out their lives in this way. Click here to nominate a minister who is living out their call with certainty despite economic uncertainty. Those who are nominated will be lifted up in an upcoming post.