Recently Read: The Vanishing of the Middle Class Clergy

Justin Barringer, a seminary graduate, couldn't get a full-time position at a church, even after applying to nearly a hundred jobs. (Photo via David Wheeler, The Atlantic)

Justin Barringer, a seminary graduate, couldn’t get a full-time position at a church, even after applying to nearly a hundred jobs. (Photo via David Wheeler, The Atlantic)

The Atlantic has an interesting article tackling a present reality of clergy (or ministry staff) coming out of seminary with large debt and unable to find work in a shrinking church job market. Are full-time pastor positions becoming a thing of the past, except in the largest of churches? How might the church and its future clergy and ministry leaders adjust to the changing landscape?

despite applying to nearly a hundred jobs over the course of two years, Barringer, who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, could not secure a full-time, salaried church position.

So he splits his time among three jobs, working as a freelance editor, an employee at a nonprofit for the homeless, and a part-time assistant pastor at a United Methodist Church. “I am not mad at the church,” Barringer says. “However, I wish someone had advised me against taking on so much debt in order to be trained for ministry.”

Barringer’s story is becoming increasingly typical as Protestant churches nationwide cut back on full-time, salaried positions. Consequently, many new pastors either ask friends and family for donations (a time-honored clerical tradition) or take on other jobs. Working two jobs has become so common for clergy members, in fact, that churches and seminaries have a euphemistic term for it: bi-vocational ministry.

This trend dovetails with other recent developments that are troubling to many religious communities. Not only is church attendance in long-term decline, but financial giving by church members is at Depression-era lows. Meanwhile, seminary students are taking on ballooning debt for a career that may not exist by the time they graduate. This trend began before the Great Recession, and has only worsened since then.
READ MORE: There is quite a conversation in the comments section as well

What do you see the future career life of clergy in the United Methodist Church? Will clergy (elders, local pastors, deacons) and other ministry leaders need to plan for second and third jobs to support themselves and their families? Does the church need to outfit staffs like it has in the past or do our ministry leaders need to adapt to the church’s upcoming needs?

Encourage your thoughts in the comments..

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21 Comments on "Recently Read: The Vanishing of the Middle Class Clergy"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Has he thought about military chaplaincy?

As a retired physiologist, medical doctor and 23 year veteran of Methodist charismatic living I sit every Sunday behind our part-time clergy, even helping pastors trying to open a healing ministry, beginning with myself as one in need and responding. I give thanks through voluntary service while my wife has the paying job. I also serve seniors with a voluntary music circuit with my accordion, about ten visits a week starting in 1998. A surprising finding in them is the lack of a remaining life goal, the mountain not yet climbed. Here is my offering: Amazing Grace is a waltz.… Read more »
Kent Wilfong
I realize my story may be unique and anecdotal in that I graduated seminary with an MDiv and no debt. I worked fulltime as a Licensed Local Pastor and went part time to seminary. It did take 7 years to graduate and during that time I served 2 churches and helped my wife (who is employed) raise 3 children. The way that everything worked out convinced both of us that God has called us to ministry. It took a few more years but I was later Ordained. Granted I did not go to Asbury or Duke, but people still call… Read more »
Facial hair? Education? Duke/Asbury/Illiff/Claremont? Called by Father/Son/Holy Spirit? Encouraged by “Aunt Sue?” ETC ETC ETC?!? Most important in a greasy old layman’s mind is “Called!” Ministry has got to be the MOST rewarding call one can answer–also the MOST difficult. Folks who sit in pews can be really fickle and mean. So can folks who stand behind the pulpit. Works both ways. And it always come down to $$$$$. If one does anything ONLY for the money–that one is likely to be grossly unhappy–always. Yep, $$$$$ are nice. But a contented heart and saved soul are priceless. So, choose…………………………………………

Don’t jump in the water if you don’t want to get wet. We don’t want a unified salary scale, it never gets any traction. We do want the organization to set and fund a minimum salary. Since resources are disproportionate you get a stratified system. Still ours is the least worst system.


In my opinion, the United Methodist Church suffers from a long-standing problem with clergy education. What exactly do we want to produce? If it’s professional good people, I suppose we’re doing a stellar job. If it’s church leaders, I believe we’ve failed miserably. Leaders will always be in short supply. Professional good people will always complain about the unfairness of it all.

Katie Mattox
First, there is the assumption that ministry is a CHOICE… it is a calling. We are called by God and some of us cannot fulfill our calling outside ordained ministry within the church setting. In order to be ordained, we are required to be trained, and well trained. We must have a master’s degree, and for me that required more student loan debt. Second, as a result of our ordination in the UMc and full time status as elders (not so much for deacons) we are not allowed to have a second job. Therefore – we are going to have… Read more »

Katie, the call of which you speak is one we “choose”…it is not forced upon us, as though we cannot escape the albatross of seminary debt if we are called and others must pay the bill. Something’s missing in your logic, though many seminarians feel they must profit from their academic exertions with high salaries, lavish parsonage allowances, and a ladder to more of the same within their conferences, regardless of our changing corporate environment (which means there will be more part-time Licensed Local Pastors).


” he’s given up on the idea of paying back his six-figure debt”
So he is going to start out his professional life with an act of theft by defaulting on his student loans. I wouldn’t hire him to sweep the floors. How about trimming up the shaggy beard, getting a job that will enable him to pay his debts and maybe someday he can get that middle class pastor position he covets so much?

Paul W.

I would extend him some grace. I know from personal experience that reporters often get quotes wrong or collapse them into poor paraphrases of the actual statement. Yes, the statement sounds bad as written, but it is just as likely that all Mr. Barringer really said was something to the effect that, at the moment, he doesn’t know how he will pay back his debt.


His beard is probably similar to the one Jesus and his followers would have worn. Would that have stopped them from ministering in the United Methodist Church? Why are the people who write on this forum so concerned that everyone be just like them? The same appearance, the same social class, the same work ethic, the same theology, the same way of performing ministry and of course the same sexuality. God made his people diverse and loves all of them. Why can’t we love each other and respect each other?


Jesus no doubt dressed like most of the other folks of the day. There was no middle class then as we understand it. Justin wants to be a middle class pastor. He needs to look the part and he needs a plan on how to get there. Take a look around any middle class Methodist church. What do you see? A group of people who are very much alike in theology, economics, work ethic and race.

Paul W.
To bring another perspective, I go back and forth over whether clergy should be paid. Also, I think there is a level of hubris inherent in the concept that simply because one has earned a degree that they are somehow owed a salaried clergy position. Not everyone who can earn a degree is either called to ministry, cut out for ministry, or suitable for ministry. I have known more than a few seminary graduates who similarly have had trouble finding positions, but in majority of those cases, the reason was obvious to all except for the person themselves — e.g.,… Read more »
willie lyle
KW I hear what you are saying. However, one must understand you are working for The Lord. At the church I serve we have a young adult serving and she does a great job. She works full time but we are still growing and trying to get her to equitable pay. In my first appointment it started out as supply for the first two years but I worked 60-80 hours a week to grow it. The 3rd year we had grown so much we went full time and my pay was reflective of that status. I am now in another… Read more »
Gary Bebop

What really startles me is the assumption that clergy jobs will be there for you when you graduate with your big debt. That scenario has long been in retreat (especially in the Mainline). Clergy aspirants seem oblivious to harbingers of the future: increasing economic instability due to the shifting sands of church culture, erosion of message, ambivalence regarding evangelistic mission, and irrefragable internecine conflicts.


What’s particularly ironic is that the mainlines have helped create the conditions for their own demise.

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