Monday, December 8, 2014

Economics and spiritual calling

(This is a kind of part 2 to my last post...)

As I said in my previous post, we live in an age of stagnant wages and widening economic inequality, and more and more intelligent people are starting to point out that this isn't some kind of technical glitch in the global capitalist system, but it is rather this way by design. The old "rich get richer/poor get poorer" line is what makes this whole thing tick. Or to use Thomas Piketty's recent formula: r > g. Return on revenue (r) will always outpace economic growth (g) in the current system, or at least that's how it's worked in the past few hundred years of the current system.

So the middle class in the US today is getting pinched harder than ever. People have to work harder and harder just to get by. A pretty standard middle class lifestyle is now incredibly difficult to finance. Professional clergy have traditionally been members of the middle class.

We've been hearing in recent years that "bi-vocational ministry" is going to be the wave of the future, and my denomination says they want to plant a crazy high number of churches in coming years, so we've got the church planting bug. Not that that's a bad thing, but...

Let me tell you folks, I'm a bi-vocational minister, and it's not all its cracked up to be in today's economy. If income-generating work takes up more and more of your time, it necessarily comes at the expense of the non-income-generating work.

Church work is becoming the non-income generating work, so it will get the short end of the work stick. You need to pay your bills, which for many young adults are significant (student loans, mortgages, car payments, etc.).

And if, as some suggest, this economy isn't going to change anytime soon and the middle class will just keep getting pinched harder and harder in order to eke out a living, I have serious doubts about the viability of "bi-vocational ministry" for clergy or church planters.

Bi-vocational could also be called "split-vocational," and who wants to live a split, disintegrated vocational life? Aren't we fragmented enough as a society, that now we have to expect that our ministers are going to model such fragmentation?

All of this is very near and dear to me. I've just described my own situation: earning about 2/3 of the income I made prior to grad school/seminary with twice the debt, working two jobs and looking for a third to make ends meet. (All of which I've whined blogged about earlier this year...)

You can say this is of my own making and that's certainly truth to that, but in our system I was called out as a minister by the church. And I think mine is going to be an increasingly common scenario. At least I count myself lucky because of my professional technology experience, which to this day continues to pay the bills. I know pastors (plural) in this little town who went the college-seminary-pastoral ministry route who are starting to face an even more uncertain future for themselves and their families. One has been looking for work for months, unsuccessfully, and relying on his wife's income to keep their family afloat. Seeing the uncertainty and shame on his face and hearing the fear in his voice is heartbreaking.

Is this what the bi-vocational future looks like for ministers and church planters? If so, I'm not interested in that church to come...

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