Book Review: It’s Real Ministry

A Review of It’s Real Ministry: How Part-Time and Bi-Vocational Clergy are Challenging and Empowering the Church, by I. Ross Bartlett (Friesen Press, Altona MB, 2022).

You might remember seeing an email about a survey of ministers who work in more than one job. That’s how I became involved in this study initiated by Rev. Dr. I. Ross Bartlett. It’s Real Ministry… holds the results of that study.

This book provides a starting place for constructing a framework and developing a vocabulary for something that’s been happening for some time across the United Church, and other denominations. There are increasing numbers of ministry positions that are part-time, and that means that the people who do those jobs need to have alternate ways of finding an adequate income. Rural churches and pastoral charges are places where this is happening a lot.

There’s a chapter with biblical and historical background to help us realize that full-time ministry emerged as the norm only in the 19th and 20th centuries. There’s also some helpful theological reflection on the Trinity, reminding us that we experience God in multiple roles, and that ministers, and all people of God, might also be called to carry multiple roles.

There is a lot of data in this study, collected through United Church statistics, and from a survey of people who answered that initial email. It reveals a lot about the hierarchies that exist in our conciliar church. Who is most likely to be appointed to multi-point, rural pastoral charges, with the task of leading multiple worship services each week, even while they are considered to be part-time? The book will confirm your suspicions.

Leading Sunday worship clearly receives the highest priority of working time in these jobs, but emergency pastoral care and administration are also reported as high priorities. What receives less emphasis are matters of faith development, for all ages, and strategic planning, which, as Bartlett points out, are the areas of church life where something new is most likely to happen. They need higher priority. He also points out that part-time ministers are less likely to be actively involved in the wider church, which means their experience of being part-time gets left out of discussions about trends in ministry.

I recognized so much of myself in the chapter “What do we Mean by Part-time…?” Before being appointed, I was the volunteer musician a congregation in our pastoral charge. That continued after my appointment, and other church business infiltrated choir practice, because that’s when you see people. Walking elementary students to our noon-hour Sunday School didn’t take a lot of time, but it meant I couldn’t be away on those days. You know the meaning of the term ‘ministry creep’ without looking for a definition. Supervising a neighbouring pastoral charge is a chance to get groceries in a bigger centre, but with travel and the time of the meeting itself, it takes a half day of ‘volunteer’ time. Then you wonder why you didn’t have as many days subbing, or writing, or reading a novel, or puttering in the garden. ‘Part-time’ involves taming a meek-looking monster with the name of ‘volunteer’.

“It would be an extremely positive step for the church to acknowledge that rural ministry is different from urban and suburban” (p. 54). Could this please be printed on a banner and displayed at meetings of every Regional and General Council? Theological colleges too. Given that many rural pastoral charges are staffed by Designated Lay Ministers, it’s time to have some different models for what that work looks like.

I appreciate how this book helped me see the limits of my part-time imagination. It’s an opportunity to deliberately start a conversation about the future of our pastoral charge. And it puts us in a position of directing our future, rather than wishing we could be like other churches.

Connie Sykes