The Upside of Having Part-Time Clergy

Hiring part-time clergy can have many tangible benefits for congregations


Skeptics can sometimes be positively surprised. That was the case for Nathaniel the disciple, who at first leerily queried Philip before daring to follow Jesus. He wondered aloud: can anything good come out of Nazareth? 

Similarly, naysayers watch today’s massive trend away from paying full-time clergy salaries in shrinking mainline congregations and ask: can anything good come out of having part-time clergy? Good news: the answer is yes! 

Dozens of congregations have experienced more vitality after switching to a staffing model where the pastor works less than 35 hours a week, or part-time. Though not all churches with part-time pastors are thriving by any means, those that are can be instructive for the mainline world, where 43 percent of congregations had no full-time clergy even pre-pandemic. 

In researching vital congregations with part-time clergy, I’ve seen promising patterns in their methods. They capitalize on assets that get freed up when a church is no longer dependent on a full-time ministry professional. They deploy those assets strategically to advance the kingdom of God. Then comes financial stability and other vitality signs, such as increased engagement, attendance, or mission impact. 

Come and See!

The benefits of having part-time clergy are on display if you know where to look. As Philip responded to Nathaniel: come and see. 

Consider preaching. When a pastor serves part-time, laypeople tend to share more in the pulpit ministry. In Cumberland, Maine, a layperson preaches once a month. In Bethel, Vermont, the recent tradition has been for 10 laypeople to take turns in the pulpit. That means the unpaid priest at the altar preaches only as much as she wants to (typically a few times a year) and doesn’t get burned out. 

This trend can be Good News for the whole congregation. For decades, homiletics has been evolving away from the antiquated ideal of listening every week to the same ‘sage on the stage,’ according to the Rev. Dr. Joy Blaylock, Dean of the School for Ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast. The Gospel needs a fuller proclamation than one preacher can muster alone. Having part-time clergy opens the door for that to happen and as it does, lay preachers mature as Christians. They become grapplers, teachers, and encouragers. Listeners meanwhile hear the Gospel related by someone like themselves. Some wonder: maybe I could do that! And if lay people can preach, what other great traditions might the church recover and reimagine?

Having part-time clergy unleashes appreciation for other lay ministries, too. In Henderson, Nev., congregants take pride that fellow laity serve the reserve sacrament at midweek liturgies and officiate memorial services. In Hudson, Mass., a United Methodist pastor counts on trained Stephen Ministers (volunteer laypeople) to provide the church’s high-quality counseling ministry. 

What we see in such examples is a robust valuing of laity – not solely as religious consumers, attendees, or donors, but as spiritually gifted practitioners who’re able to shine when not overshadowed by full-time, over-functioning clergy. 

Another benefit: more options with money. Budgets become more flexible when clergy serve part-time. A portion of the savings, once it’s no longer earmarked for paying full-time salaries and benefits, can be targeted strategically for projects. The church can now afford to hire contract specialists to improve digital outreach, address building needs, or tackle other priorities that lie beyond the capacities of volunteers or part-time staff. 

Part-time status can also improve clergy health, as long as the pastor is able to make ends meet. Poor clergy health has been a stubborn problem. Clergy suffer higher-than-average rates of hypertension, obesity and depression, according to the Duke Clergy Health Initiative. Going part-time frees up an essential ingredient – more time – for fostering healthy habits of exercise, eating well, sleep, play, and spending quality time with family and friends. 

The key to healthy part-time clergy is boundaries. If a part-time pastor is expected to work full-time hours or always be on call, then he/she can’t commit necessary time for healthy habits, including paid work outside the church for those who need the income. Ensuring the part-time pastor has time to earn a living and practice self-care is part of the deal.  

Harnessing benefits of part-time pastorates doesn’t happen automatically. Congregations that cling to a consumeristic model will only be frustrated by the part-timer’s limits. But every congregation can experience the part-time pastorate’s inherent benefits by empowering laity, redeploying assets and honoring boundaries. For those with eyes to see what’s emerging, an abundant harvest awaits.

  • G. Jeffrey MacDonald

    G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a religion reporter, UCC pastor, consultant and author of Part-Time is Plenty: Thriving without Full-Time Clergy (Westminster John Knox, 2020). His workshops and courses help mainline congregations learn to do better with less. His website is

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