Will Work for God: How to Attract, Keep and Nurture Developing Ministers

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work4God

It’s Labor Day weekend, and an appropriate time to reflect on our work. As one whose life is ministry, my thoughts turn to others who have dedicated their lives to serving in ministry. To be transparent, church ministry is one of the things I told God early on I would NOT do. I had other plans, but so did He…and the joy and wealth of enrichment that this journey is and has been is immeasurable.

But I have been more and more troubled about something recently as the half-time show of my life’s work has likely passed, and I find my ministry career in the second half. It is a statement that goes something like this:

We just can’t seem to find anyone to hire for (fill-in-the-blank-ministry-position). I guess young people aren’t as interested in ministry anymore. Apparently our schools just aren’t producing them.

As a professor at a Christian university, I can say nothing could be further from the truth.

Compare this with a statement made recently by a friend who has worked in numerous faith-based non-profits (FBNP’s) over the years:

I can only work at a non-profit for about 2 years at a time. It’s about all I’ve been able to take, then I have to step out to recover.

This caught me totally off-guard, and catapulted me into thought as my wife and I are immersed in 3 faith-based non-profits: a church, a counseling center and a Christian university. And while we have been exhausted and depleted at times, we have been blessed to be in faith communities who have been nurturing for our souls.

I have a few things to say. Let me say first that although this may appear self-serving, it is absolutely not. I am deeply, profoundly blessed by the ministry environments in which I am and of which I have been a part, and am immensely grateful for the care shown to me and my family. This is for the up-and-comers in ministry, and most especially for those of us (especially elders, boards, hiring committees and pastors) who are being called upon to replace ourselves in the coming years in various Christian not-for-profits, most especially the Church.

But we do have a problem. Perhaps there are fewer young people entering full-time ministry, but from my angle-working with college students—I actually see quite a lot of them heading that direction. These are stellar young adults, sold out for Christ and developing their faith and wanting to make an impact for the Kingdom of God in multiple avenues of ministry. Many of them graduate with a Bachelor’s degree, starting their career somewhere between $30-$50K in student loan debt. These are students wanting to give their lives to ministry, who already realize they aren’t going to grow wealthy doing it and are okay with that, but who will likely enter a market where they owe more than their salary can handle. The ones who accept the offer, end up spending much of their time and energy working multiple other jobs just to survive. When they leave, it’s not always that they want to…it’s that they have to.

I love, love, love small to medium sized churches. I believe there are life-enriching, community-building, Kingdom of God elements here (because I’m in one) that aren’t nearly as obvious in mega-church communities. But y’all (that’s transliterated from “My Beloved” in the Greek), these young people are frequently offered a full-time salary that is less than what I was offered as a youth pastor in 1993! To add to this, I increasingly receive phone calls that go something like this:

We are looking for a youth pastor/children’s director/worship leader/small groups person/etc. Now we don’t have a lot of funds available, so it would be part-time…like $100-$150 per week. Do you know anyone?

Sorry, but you aren’t looking for part-time. You’re looking for a temporary intern.

Again, this is not to shame anyone’s situation. I know things are tight in many scenarios. The purpose is to alert you to what is happening and to offer some possibilities for consideration in your particular situation. And so, a few questions and a little food for thought for the sake of creativity, especially if you are in a position of seeking to hire in a FBNP.

WHAT IS OUR MISSION?

How would you answer…

  • At our church or FBNP, is our mission clear?
  • What are 1-3 things that we can do really well at this point?
  • Are we trying to do/offer a service that is beyond what we can afford to do?
  • Are we efficiently using our volunteer base?

HOW DO WE HIRE?

How would you answer…

  • Are we hiring in order to do these goals well?
  • When we hire, is the job description clear, or is it more of a vague “let’s see what happens?”
  • When we hire, are we secretly planning to tack on a lot of other jobs (for little or no more pay) if he/she performs well?

HOW ARE WE INVESTING IN OUR PASTORS/STAFF/EMPLOYEES?

I went back to my friend who made the remarks about only being able to stay with a FBNP for a couple of years at a time for clarification. I’m glad I did. She said,

“you have to realize that when a person says ‘yes’ to your offer, she’s all-in. Like, ‘you had me at hello’. But let’s be honest…there’s really no such thing as part-time [ministry] for this type of person. Everything that has to be done follows you home, to bed, everywhere you go, because it’s needed, and because you love the people you are serving. It can consume you.”

If you have hired the right person, especially the right pastor, how can you keep them…especially when institutional finances really are tight? We need to keep and develop these people. We simply aren’t making Kingdom progress if we start back at square one every couple of years. I want to offer some practical suggestions. You can click the links for more info:

Salary Structure.You have the ability to get more creative here than you think. Ordained ministers have complex tax situations. They are both an employee and self-employed (too much to explain here). What that means is “salary” is taxed at 15.3%. So what may look like a decent salary on paper, think of that number on a 1099 form.  But housing is taxed at half that rate. Help him/her pre-figure all qualifying housing expenses. The absolute worst thing you could do is just hand them (or direct deposit) a check and tell them “good luck figuring it out.”

Accountable Reimbursement.With a simple excel sheet and receipts, a pastor/employee can be reimbursed for a lotof qualifying expenses, including auto. This is a MUCH greater tax savings than itemizing deductions. These are funds that can be pulled from line items in your budget other than salary lines.

Insurance. Not required or can’t provide Health Insurance? You could in-house fund a MREP (Medical Reimbursement Account) that would be a giant help for common medical expenses. You may also consider Health Sharing, like Samaritan Ministries (which has been astounding for us). Medi-Sharenow offers an employer group plan. Term life insurance is super cheap, especially for a younger employee and could be a very easy benefit to offer for a few bucks per month.

Housing. Would your church or organization be able to provide proper housing? Taking $1000 per month off the negotiating table for a house payment or rent could be not only attractive, but win-win. One caveat though…if you provide a parsonage or on-campus housing, will the pastor truly be able to “be home?” Or will it fuel an expectation that he/she could or should go above and beyond all the time, simply because of presence? And will the faith community feel a sense of co-ownership of the residence that doesn’t allow the pastor to truly let down?

Debt Reduction.With student loan debt weighing on so many, consider repaying his/her loan or doing a loan reduction plan in the contract that you work out. MANY employers are now offering this.

Investment. Even if it’s a small amount—say $50 per month—we understand the power of compounding. Getting started veryearly in life is key. Starting a simple 401K plan for the new, young pastor could be a great benefit that he/she may not even understand the value of early on. Perhaps the promise of matching funds after a certain time period of employment would be an incentive as well. Additionally, ordained persons can opt out of social security, as long as it is filed within 2 years of ordination. If this is the scenario, then a very intentional investment strategy is a non-negotiable.

Bonus. Perhaps at Christmas, or birthday, or other appropriate time? If you can’t afford a financial one, how about a time bonus? Most people in ministry have to plan their celebrations at a different time than everyone else. For example, it’s easy to get to midnight on Christmas Eve before the pastor even begins to think about his own family. Or Easter…while many are off at the beach on Spring Break, the person in ministry is preparing to lead the Church in one of the holiest days of the year. While everyone else may be hitting the ground right afterward, this would be a good time for paid time off for rest, recovery and planning before resuming a normal schedule.

Sabbath. Insist that the pastor observe this. Study what this discipline is. It is not a day off. Eugene Peterson says, “a day off is a bastard sabbath.”

Sabbatical. What if, in your budget, you set aside some funds into an account on a monthly basis so that every 3 or 5 or 7 years you are able to give the pastor an extended season off for study, recovery and reflection, that’s paid for, and that leaves you with the ability to pay someone interim? Imagine how your church or FBNP would benefit by the return of a re-energized pastor with fresh perspective.

Counseling. Unless you are in it, this may not make sense…but ministry can potentially be the loneliest, most-isolating career on the planet. I remember a wise, old, Episcopal priest professor of mine from Fuller Seminary who told us: “be sure you’re working all your junk out before you get embedded in ministry, or the pressure of the office will cause it to leak out on everyone else.” Many employers offers EAP (Employer Assisted Provider) contracts because they know their organization is all the better when their employees are mentally and emotionally healthy.

Words. Proverbs 18:21 reminds us that words hold the power of life and death. I’ve kept nearly every positive, and negative, note I’ve ever gotten from someone in the Church. They go into folders in a file cabinet. Occasionally, I pull out the encouraging ones. I’ll never look at the negative ones again. Why hold on to them? Just to compare the size of the files and remind myself how ridiculous it is to allow a few ugly words to undo so much wonderful. When is the last time you wrote or spoke powerful, encouraging, life-giving words to one of your pastors? I can tell you it will be more sustaining than nearly anything else.

If I was the Enemy, I’d borrow a concept from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and make my strategy to convince those in charge that they don’t really need one. Aside from our desire to see the Church grow and thrive, imagine that it’s your son or daughter who is walking into full-time ministry. What would your hope be for him/her? With the trajectory we are currently on, ministry in the United States is going to become increasingly bi-vocational.

Leitourgia, one of our ancient biblical words translated as “worship,” literally means “the work of the people.” It wasn’t a Christian word. The early Church totally ripped it off from Caesar’s military and government because it most perfectly captured the idea of the public servant. Let’s get creative at taking better care of ours.