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Monetary and market pressures affect ministries

Several regional leaders share reflections on the impact of economics on ministry: Martin Wells, Dale Cockrum.

Hollis Bredeweg
Hollis Bredeweg

The Rev. Hollis Bredeweg, a former regional minister who served as an interim minister in Spokane until this spring, recently reflected on ways monetary and market pressures affect churches’ ministries.

Several bishops and regional ministers also shared comments.

While the economic shift has accentuated Inland Northwest churches’ impetus to find other models than what Hollis calls “the mainline Protestant experiment with professional ministry,” he said that for most small, rural churches, the model was never economically feasible.

When he began ministry in 1978 after studying at United Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, he thought church buildings and professional ministry would hinder churches’ pastoral and prophetic roles.

“In the late 1960s and early 1970s, we talked of ministry as a profession, because it required the same education and responsibility as a school administrator, so salaries were based on those positions,” he said, “to account for education debts, health insurance, housing, sabbaticals, vacations and pensions.  The goal was to prevent pastors from burning out or retiring in poverty.”

“It’s tragic if churches can’t do viable ministry because they are priced out of the market,” he said.

In Eastern Washington and North Idaho, pastors already serve in creative ways in churches that never could afford the professional model.

As the son of a regional minister—Evangelical and Reformed, later United Church of Christ—in Indiana, he knew early about church and clergy issues. 

As a pastor in Indiana, Wisconsin and Colorado, and as associate conference minister in Nebraska from 1990 to 1994 and the Pacific Northwest from 2005 to 2008, Hollis dealt with such issues.  Since 1994, his wife, Sally, pursued her career, and he has worked with community programs and in interim ministry.  

“In Nebraska, many of the 114 churches in small, rural towns had a hard time finding ministers because salaries were low,” he said. 

Hollis described early models of ministry.  In his father’s early years, it was a subsistence calling.  Denominations supported people in seminary, so pastors started without debt, and churches could afford full-time ministers.

His father first earned about $1,000 annually, supplemented with gifts of produce and chickens, deals at the local grocery store, selling Fuller brushes, driving a school bus and farming.

Many small towns honored Sundays, and schools held no Wednesday activities, so people could attend church events, Hollis said.

For pensions, pastors invested a small percent of their salaries at 3 percent interest, but with inflation they had no pension, he added.  Some retired to church-owned retirement homes.  Most never retired.

Pastors and their families lived in parsonages or manses, church-owned homes.  Some retired pastors settled in small towns to serve a church in exchange for living in the parsonage.

When pastors wanted home equity, many churches sold parsonages.  Half continued to own parsonages, and half offered housing allowances at 30 percent of the salary, he said.

United Church of Christ churches began to contribute 14 percent of salary and housing to national pension plans.  Churches also offered health insurance, but rising costs make that harder.

When denominations cut support of seminaries, seminaries raised tuition, so graduates had debts of $40,000 to $60,000.  Many unemployed ministers live in urban areas near seminaries.

“Supply and demand crossed paths,” he said.  “Fewer churches could pay salary guidelines, and few seminary graduates with debts could afford to go to small churches—unless they had a working spouse, retirement income or independent wealth.  More churches are cutting to part-time salaries.”

Just as raising funds to support a pastor can become a church’s mission, so can raising funds to support buildings, Hollis said.

“We love our expensive, energy-inefficient buildings,” he said.

Few small churches can grow enough to support either salaries or buildings. In today’s economy, it’s hard to ask people to give more to ease a church’s financial pressures when members are unemployed, underemployed or aging,” he said.

Hollis described some options:

In the Midwest, churches “yoked,” or shared a minister, because towns were close enough for a minister to serve several.  In the Inland Northwest, where communities are far apart, some churches have wider parishes, and some have ecumenical models.

More licensed lay ministers are serving churches, and denominations are offering more lay training programs. 

While some seminaries offer distance-learning and online courses, there are programs in the region:

• Seattle University’s ecumenical School of Theology and Ministry offers a seminary degree for Protestants and master’s degrees for Catholics.

• Whitworth University has a master’s in theology, a certificate in lay ministry—now online—and a diploma in lay pastoral ministry at its Weyerhaeuser Center for Faith and Learning.  

• Gonzaga University’s Religious Studies Department offers master’s degrees in pastoral care, theology and spirituality. 

• Moody Institute Spokane offers bachelor’s degrees in lay ministry. 

• Eastern Washington University has a religion department. 

Hollis raised some questions:

• How can communication technology be used? 

• What models might be more efficient?

• What from the past may work again?

• With houses no longer producing equity, the difficulty of selling houses and high urban housing costs—should more churches again own parsonages?

• Can churches pay full health care and pensions as costs rise and other employers cut benefits? 

•  Will more tentmaker ministries or licensed lay ministers emerge?

• Is part-time ministry possible in a 24/7 vocation? 

• Can we continue to repair roofs, replace furnaces, lose heat out of single-pane windows and pay insurance for beautiful, sacred spaces?

• With pressure to retain and increase members, are pastors tempted to preach only humorous, entertaining sermons to stay employed—shying away from the faith’s prophetic message?

We need to be visionary and experimental.  We need to step out of our comfort zone to find new models,” he said, noting that bishops and regional church leaders in the region have been discussing models since the 1990s.

To help with building costs, some churches rent rooms for meetings, ministries and offices.

He noted universal health care would bring economic relief to churches and other businesses.

“The real bottom line is that we have a mission and ministry to do,” Hollis said.  “We have to develop new models so we can do our ministry.”

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