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The economics and ecclesiology of sustainable pastoral ministry: Part 3

The Reverend Dr. Frank Clark Spencer

This is the third article of a three-part series. Part 1 reviews research on how ministers are compensated and what leads to their flourishing in their roles in a congregational setting. Part 2 describes supportive programming consistent with the research. Part 3 provides new data on outcomes associated with current PC(USA) practices and why programmatic solutions must give way to structural change.

Moving beyond historical patterns into structural change

Shifting hiring practices within congregations

The corporate model insists that each legal entity stand on its own from a budget and employment perspective. Our research confirms that congregations will call a Minister of Word and Sacrament to a full-time, installed pastoral relationship as long as the congregation can afford it. When the congregational budget no longer allows, the two most obvious alternatives to a full-time pastoral call are:  a part-time, non-installed, and, therefore, non-benefit bearing contract with a minister; or the commissioned lay pastor (CLP) approach, in which a ruling elder is commissioned to serve in a pastoral role in a particular congregation. These part-time solutions stem directly from the corporate model as the congregation seeks to make ends meet with no outside support.

Both the CLP and the part-time solution have their place. CLPs may be the only feasible solution for congregations that are geographically remote. Part-time leadership from an honorably retired minister may be the perfect fit for a smaller congregation. In some cases, a part-time, bi-vocational structure may fit both the congregation and the pastoral leader.

Despite these limited situations in which moving away from the Presbyterian tradition of a seminary-trained, installed minister serves God’s people, our research demonstrates that it is not a formula for sustainable pastoral ministry.  It serves neither the congregation nor the pastoral leader. The flourishing research cited in Part 1 of this series explicitly shows that those forced into bi-vocational ministry by economic necessity find this to be an additional negative stressor. It seems unlikely that top candidates will continue to enroll in PC(USA) seminaries if the likely outcome of three to six years of graduate education is part-time ministry in conjunction with secular employment. All of the flourishing research points in the opposite direction, highlighting the importance of authenticity, institutional support, and financial security.  

Within the PC(USA), the number of CLPs has stabilized between 940 and 1,000 during the last 10 years.i Last year, only 87 of the CLPs received benefits through the Board of Pensions, despite the Board’s dramatic restructuring in 2017 designed to make them all eligible. Thus, the decision to deny benefits is a deliberate economic decision by the congregation, driven by the pressures of the corporate model. Lack of benefits increases financial stress and, as the research demonstrates, diminishes the likelihood of flourishing.  

Congregations are creative and have sought ways to continue with some form of pastoral leadership. Their options are limited by the corporate model, which demands they provide for their own employees with little if any economic support from beyond their own resources. A structural solution that transcends the corporate assumptions is needed.

Understanding structural barriers

The dues structure for ministers’ benefits was created in the 1980s following the denominational reunion. It has not changed since, but the context has, and dramatically. The PC(USA) has fewer and fewer ministers in active service each year. Fewer than half of our congregations now have installed pastors. Only about two-thirds of active ministers participate in the Benefits Plan. New ordinands have fared no better.

Between 2007 and 2021, the PC(USA) ordained 4,049 new ministers of Word and Sacrament. Of that group, 1,176 have not been provided any benefits from the Board of Pensions and therefore have no access to the programs that exist to support ministers in all aspects of well-being.ii Despite ordaining more women than men during that period, of those thus excluded, 63 percent are women. Congregations and presbyteries are intentionally structuring calls without benefits.

Our small congregations are suffering as well. Of congregations with 150 or fewer members, only 30 percent have installed pastoral leadership. For historically African American congregations, the installed percentage is 20 percent, and the National Black Presbyterian Caucus cites required Board of Pension dues as one of numerous barriers to installation.

The programmatic support of ministers’ flourishing described in Part 2 of this series is available only to members of the Benefits Plan. Therefore, any denominational solution must work to enroll all ministers ordained in the PC(USA), rather than working to exclude them. Why has this not been an urgent matter in our denomination? Although 77 percent of our congregations have 150 or fewer members, most Presbyterians are members of larger congregations, and 84 percent experience church with an installed pastor, a sanctuary, and a sustainable budget.

Thus, the question, properly formulated, is no longer how can PC(USA) find the resources to put a pastor in over 4,700 empty pulpits, but rather how can the overwhelming majority of members restructure things to provide for the minority of members who are doing without? It is a structural challenge because that minority is spread among divergent locations and is currently worshiping in individual church buildings. However, if we can abandon strict adherence to the corporate model, it does not seem to be such an insurmountable task. Any long-term solution will require a realignment of denominational and congregational resources because adequate salaries and benefits, both necessary for sustainable ministry, do require ongoing investment.  

One answer may lie in a model of shared ministry. Shared ministry is an explicit rejection of the corporate model. There is not a single employer, but rather two or more employers in a covenant relationship. There is not a single decision-making body as exists in the session of an individual congregation or in a yoked combination. In shared ministry, congregations are not yoked, and the sessions continue to operate independently for their congregations. The congregations, the presbytery, the minister, and the Board of Pensions enter into a covenantal agreement. The minister is not employed part time by either congregation, but rather full time, serving both as need arises, with hours per week in each setting varying over time. In a shared ministry model, multiple congregations install the same person as their pastor. In this model, because all ministers are employed full time, they are provided access to the Benefits Plan, protecting themselves and their families and receiving full access to the Board of Pensions programming and support. We know that full-time pastoral employment provides greater likelihood of flourishing and sustaining ministry for the long term.

This shared ministry model is currently in a pilot stage in Pittsburgh Presbytery. It has gotten positive reviews from the ministers, who are employed full time with benefits; the congregations, who have a Minister of Word and Sacrament; and the presbytery, which is creating more permanent solutions for its congregations.  

What is required is the abandonment of blind loyalty to the current system of corporate organization and a devolving of current power structures to many who have been too long excluded. The current system of corporate organization operates on assumptions of scarcity and competition. It works very well for ministers with access to larger pulpits and PC(USA) members who belong to those congregations. It does not work well for ministers who cannot find a call, for women, for historically marginalized groups, nor for the thousands of small congregations who have no way forward. If we believe that in Jesus Christ we can have abundant life, that there is enough for all, that sharing is fundamental to our faith, the concept of shared ministry beyond the legal bounds of the corporation is attainable.

Eliminating barriers to inclusion

As we have seen, the current practices of the PC(USA) have worked to exclude women, communities of color, and those serving smaller congregations from the institutional support they deserve. The Board of Pensions wants all ministers ordained in the PC(USA) to be members of the Church’s Benefits Plan, which includes the well-being support of assistance and education programs. So, the agency has embarked on a two-year, transformative effort in collaboration with the Church to assess and redesign the plan structure. 

Fueling this effort, or season of rebuilding, is the commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). As a national agency of the PC(USA), the Board of Pensions shares the denomination’s commitment to DEI; to dismantling structural racism; and to taking tangible, intentional steps to expand benefits access for historically underrepresented communities. The agency is determined to remove barriers and increase inclusion wherever possible.

During the season of rebuilding, the Board of Pensions is working with the Church to find solutions that focus on flexibility, choice, and cost control and will enable congregations to create benefits packages that are right for them and their pastoral leadership. To that end, the agency is hosting a series of national conversations with agency heads, mid council presbytery leaders, and Benefits Plan members to discuss the challenges and to begin to evaluate the plan and its dues structure within the context of the diverse and evolving needs of the Church.  

The Church’s Benefits Plan was created in a different time for a different church. Shifting demographics, dwindling church memberships, rising healthcare costs, and a dues structure that has not changed in nearly 40 years have resulted in fewer and fewer congregations being able to afford to enroll their pastoral leadership in the plan. It is critical that the plan evolve, and the season of rebuilding is an evolutionary step. A plan design with flexibility and choice will enable congregations to address affordability issues so more ministers may receive the support of the denomination’s Benefits Plan and flourish in ministry and in life.  


i Office of General Assembly, data as of 12-31-2021

ii Living by the Gospel