This blog post will be more personal than usual. Last Wednesday, I wrote my most recent blog post The Ministry Gig Economy. I was inspired by one single comment made by the Rev. Marie Mainard-O’Connell as she spoke to the General Assembly while running as a co-moderator candidate for the 224th GA meeting. She and her running mate did not get elected but her words immediately resonated with me. She stated that a pressing issue for the PCUSA is the need for resources and infrastructure for our part-time ministers who represent an emerging “Gig Economy.” After reviewing our own presbytery statistics I discovered that a full 47% of our congregations have either part-time pastors or no pastor at all.
My blog post was published Wednesday night and by Thursday morning a few responses and comments began arriving in my inbox thanking me for highlighting this.
Then something happened.
A major emotional shift took hold of me. It was as if someone had lifted a veil from my eyes and let me see the meaning behind my chaotic life and ministry. Rather than feeling shame for the rather unconventional path that I have taken I finally had a label for it. Rather than seeing my professional life as running just ahead of failure I realized that my ministry experience has uniquely set me up to support, guide and lead the Church into the future.
My blog post on the “Ministry Gig Economy” was meant to help you see the new world in which we now live. What suddenly grabbed me was the realization that the struggle I have personally experienced in ministry was due to the fact that I have been living in a ministry gig economy for the better part of my thirty years in ministry. I have always been a gig pastor; I just didn’t have a name for it.
My election as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission is really just my most recent gig. Some might see it as the culmination of a career of ever-increasing responsibility. But my path here has been unconventional and, at times, chaotic. I did not get here by climbing a more typical ladder to success. Rather I got here from my experience at being a “gig pastor” following my call wherever it took me and living with the financial insecurity that often came with it.
It is all making sense now. I have beaten myself up over the years for not figuring out how to play the more typical game of professional success. But, now I see it. My success is not rooted in accepting ever-increasing responsibility and with it, larger churches and salaries that reflect that growth. My success is rooted in having become the consummate gig pastor. I have spent a career honing my ability to follow my call even if it meant financial sacrifices. Here is a quick picture of my ministry gig economy lifestyle:
- Twenty years ago I worked as a hospice counselor while growing an emerging worshiping community into a new church development (NCD) without pay, on my own time, and in another denomination. That church is now 19 years old and thriving;
- As I re-entered paid ministry after the NCD I accepted a half-time call to a church that was heading toward closure using my hospice background to walk with them through the stages of congregational grief and putting in place their legacy. I worked two other part-time jobs as a tentmaker to provide a livelihood.
- That position eventually became full-time and I lived for four years in low-income housing as the presbytery minimum qualified me for such in the expensive Portland housing market.
- Following the church closure/legacy work I accepted an interim position. One year into it I took a 13% cut in salary and time in order to help the church balance its budget before calling a permanent pastor. I balanced my own budget by housesitting for a year saving me the cost of rent;
I misjudged the transition between interim positions and ended up with ten months of unemployment. During that time I lived on my savings that came from housesitting, worked for three months as a gopher on a construction site and survived with food stamps.
- As I neared the end of the next interim, I bought a 20-foot camper as insurance against homelessness. I still have that—just in case!
- Now, as I enter my sixties, I ponder the reality that I have built no home equity and wonder how living in a ministry gig economy will impact my retirement planning.
Thursday was a big day for me. I had this sudden realization that God had been preparing me for this moment when I could lead the presbytery and the church through this time when more and more ministers are finding themselves in a gig economy. I had this realization that I wasn’t just lucky to get this position, but that I was meant to get this position. Over the years, a subtle shame has nagged at me that my ministry path was not more conventional. Now I realize that what the presbytery needs is unconventional. Conventionality will not be our way forward.
We were meant for each other in this moment.
Thursday was a big day. I relegated my shame to the past. I will no longer apologize for my unconventional path. I will no longer apologize for doing NCD work in another denomination. I will no longer apologize for closing a church and putting in place its legacy. I will no longer apologize for living in low-income housing. I will no longer apologize for loading trash at construction sites between positions. I will no longer apologize for needing to fall back on food stamps. I will no longer apologize for keeping my camper handy, just in case!
I have always followed my call, even when it was financially costly for me. I will not apologize for that!
My friends, I am the consummate gig pastor.
You need me right now.
You need someone who is more dedicated to call than convention.
I am that person.
Thank you for calling me. Thank you for paying me.
This is one good gig!
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades