There has been a trend in mainline churches to hire part-time and/or bi-vocational priests and ministers to fill pulpits. The reason is simple: money.
Communities have concluded that they cannot afford a full-time priest, and are opting for permanent part-time priests or bi-vocational priests (priests who hold down a secular paying job and work as a priest for part-time pay, or even for free).
It reflects the secular world’s reliance on similar arrangements: “temp work”, or “contingent staffing”. The employee works at jobs for short periods of time or part-time instead of holding down a permanent, full-time position. It’s called by those who work this life a “gig economy”.
My question is whether a gig priesthood is something we can tolerate as a faith community.
The gig economy has a mindset that is anathema to a faith community, as it is based solely on profit and loss. As Gerald Friedman, professor of economics at the Un. Of Massachusetts wrote:
Some have praised the rise of the gig economy for freeing workers from the grip of employers’ “internal labor markets,” where career advancement is tied to a particular business instead of competitive bidding between employers. Rather than being driven by worker preferences, however, the rise of the gig economy comes from employers’ drive to lower costs, especially during business downturns. Gig workers experience greater insecurity than workers in traditional jobs and suffer from lack of access to established systems of social insurance. *
Increasingly, priests have been recruited to non-paying jobs with the opportunity to grow the congregation whereby it can support them fulltime, posing the idea of congregational development as one of growth in numbers, not growth in holiness. The priest’s career advancement is tied to growth and profit, not building a community based on the Gospel.
A gig priesthood creates greater insecurity for the priest’s life, as they suffer from lack of access not only established systems of social insurance, but also spiritual systems of embrace and support from the very community they are asked to pastor. We must ask ourselves what we are saying to our priests, and the very vocation of priesthood itself, when it takes second-place to buildings or programs in the budget?
We read in the New Testament: ‘For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!”’ – 1 Timothy 5: 18. Priests are not oxen, of course, but what does it mean when we treat our priests less than what oxen are treated in the New Testament? How vocation-killing is it? The model of employment we see in the New Testament is radically different than what we see in secular business today, and we should be modeling the New Testament, not the modern business world.
I think the idea of a gig priesthood is a dangerous one. If we are concerned about trends in the larger society effecting the direction and growth of the Jesus Movement, we must stop and consider how nefarious the quick-fix of a gig priesthood is to the Gospel and the future of our faith community.
*The Rise of the Gig Economy, Truth-Out.org, May, 2014