Monday, April 15, 2024

Part-Time Clergy Score Highest in Every Health and Wellness Category  

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The 2023 clergy health and wellness data are in, and they send a clear message: employment status makes a big difference in a pastor’s wellbeing. Those doing best in all respects are in part-time ministry positions.   

Only 62% of full-time clergy describe their overall health and wellness as good or great. Among part-timers, it’s 80%.

Part-time pastors are doing better than full-timers in 17 out of 17 wellness categories surveyed by Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (EPIC), a five-year project run by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.  

In the fall survey of 1,700 pastors, part-timers scored significantly higher in areas ranging from physical and mental health to not feeling lonely and general happiness. The widest gaps, where part-timers excelled by the largest margins, appeared in three categories: feeling connected to the broader community; feeling content with one’s friendships and relationships; and financial health. Forty-four percent of part-time clergy work another job.  

In only one category, which asked about a sense of purpose in life, was part-timers’ higher score too slim to be statistically meaningful.

That part-time clergy would be faring so much better than full-timers isn’t surprising to Dr. Scott Thumma, a religion sociologist who oversees EPIC and directs the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

“Most of the people that are part-time now are doing it more or less intentionally,” Thumma said, adding that some might have other income from employed spouses, pensions or investments. “It’s almost always by choice and with intentionality. They’re doing it as a hobby: an additional, meaningful service to a community.”  

Thumma
Thumma

This good news about part-time clergy wellness could be encouraging, especially for mainline denominations and congregations who increasingly turn to part-time clergy for leadership as attendance declines and budgets shrink. But Thumma cautions that other types of part-time clergy might emerge as part-time positions proliferate. And those potentially emergent types might not fare as well.  

Such types might include former full-time clergy who, under cost-cutting pressure, unwittingly transition to fewer hours and lower pay. Another scenario: part-timers reluctantly serving multiple congregations at once just to make ends meet.

Such types are still rare, Thumma said, but perhaps not for long. He expects cash-strapped congregations to cut costs by swapping out full-time clergy positions for part-time. For now, only 24 percent of U.S. congregations are led by part-time clergy, but that low number might be because budget-conscious congregations have been trimming other staff positions first, according to Dr. Charissa Mikoski, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hartford Institute.

“Someone young who’s coming out of seminary or someone at midlife who has a family – they are not going to be happy at all about choosing those part-time positions,” Thumma said. “So I could see, as the number of those [positions] goes up, the wellness scores of part-time [pastors] taking a pretty significant nosedive.”

At this point, however, part-time clergy rank as the happiest and healthiest of professional ministers, according to the survey. In fact, mainline part-time clergy top the heap, scoring higher than full-time clergy, part-time evangelical clergy and the U.S. general population.

Take, for example, 72-year-old Deborah Summerlin, a retired graphic artist who lives with her husband on a small livestock farm in Kenansville, N.C.

Deborah Summerlin

In her role as part-time local pastor at rural Salem United Methodist Church in Garland, N.C., Summerlin leads a group of eight to 12 in worship three times a month (sometimes more if she’s inspired to volunteer). Beyond that, she attends special church events and visits parishioners who land in the hospital. She does this work despite her own health challenges, including past battles with multiple forms of cancer. 

“I am in ministry for God, not for the money,” Summerlin said. “And this church needed a pastor.”

For Summerlin, ministry isn’t necessary to make ends meet. Her bills are covered by other sources: her husband’s supervisory job at a poultry processing plant, farm income and her Social Security check. She says her $300 monthly church stipend barely covers her out-of-pocket costs, which include running off worship bulletins and buying fuel for the 60-mile roundtrip commute.

Summerlin appreciates what ministry adds to her quality of life in retirement. She gives thanks that she gets to teach and preach from the Bible, introduce people to God and support their quests for knowledge and growth.

“I don’t know how to explain it: you become part of something that’s much bigger than just yourself,” Summerlin said. “It’s an extension of your family. You get to know their families. You care about them. I can honestly say that I’ve loved every person I’ve ever had for a parishioner.”

 Compensation for part-time clergy varies widely from one denomination and region to another. In the United Church of Christ, for instance, conference guidelines can push part-time salaries to $40,000 or more for 20-hour average work weeks in high-cost regions of the country.  

Thumma sees a correlation between part-time ministry and positive congregational dynamics. In cases where part-time clergy serve by choice rather than economic necessity, they can be choosy about which positions to take and hold out for what feels like a good fit.    

“The match between [a clergyperson] and the people is probably better for those intentional, part-time people who are using that to find some meaning in their life,” Thumma said.

Summerlin’s story also underscores how a part-time pastor – in her case, working 15 to 20 hours in a typical week – benefits from relationships beyond the church. She co-founded and volunteers at a rape crisis and domestic violence center. And she keeps up with friends and neighbors near her home in the country.

“If somebody on this road gets sick, everybody is going to be there,” she said. “When my son died, everybody came to my house.”

 Lives that include part-time ministry are worth studying more closely in the future, Thumma said. One reason: mainline denominations are going to need a lot more pastors cut from that cloth.

“There already are a whole host of congregations that need part-time work,” Thumma said. The challenge might be finding enough pastors who can choose part-time positions and still feel secure on account of other income, interests and social supports.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance religion reporter, UCC pastor, church educator and author. His reporting clients include the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, which runs the EPIC project.