Pastoral ministry in a tent-making economy

Rev. Steven D. Martin

March 23, 2021

I’m worried. I mean, I’m really worried.

In the late 1970s, I remember the shifts in the economy that were forcing steel mills in the mid-Atlantic region to close.Steel production was moving overseas, and the US could no longer compete with cheaper Chinese steel. Workers were being laid off and would have to retrain to work in new fields. No worries, I thought, because this is the way of capitalism, and it makes the economy stronger.

In the 1980s, automobile factories started replacing line workers with robots. The quality of cars seemed to improve as machines took over the work of human beings. No worries, I thought, because this is the way of capitalism, and workers would retrain and move into different sectors of the economy. 

In the 1990s, the “information economy” initiated another shift of workers out of the manufacturing sector and into the service industries. No worries, I thought, because with a little hard work and perseverance, workers can retrain and become computer programmers. 

Not too long ago, the Amazon Kindle was invented. I thought about all the people involved in the publishing industry that just had the rug pulled out from under them. I began to worry: if automation and technology replace everyone’s job, how will people make a living? 

A recent article in the Washington Post raises questions about the future of such things as days in the office and business travel. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, predicted in November that half of all business travel and nearly one-third of days spent in the office are gone forever. The very technology that has allowed a large segment of urban commuters to work at home now endangers stores and restaurants, sandwich carts, coffee shops, transport systems, and countless other businesses that once supported the lifestyle of downtown office workers. Commuting is a national pastime that needs to end, but when a laptop computer replaces an office suite, how many other jobs are lost?

Which leads me to my worry. I have a particular love, and appreciation, for pastors. And I worry that “a time is coming, and now is…” when we will not be able to make a living being pastors. 

When I was in seminary in 1986, Richard Wilke’s book, “And Are We Yet Alive” was making the rounds. It was among the first books that marked the decline of the mainline church (the United Methodist Church in particular), and called for a reversal of this trend through outreach and evangelism. That was 35 years ago, and the trend has not reversed. I note this because for my entire career, churches have been shrinking, and clergy are being expected to do more with less. This has left churches teetering on the edge, facing what seem like existential crises year after year.

I worry that “a time is coming, and now is…” when we will not be able to make a living being pastors.

It was a steady trend until 2020 when a global pandemic hit. I don’t have to tell you what the last year has been like. Let’s just say that it has taken several trend curves and turned them from steady to steep.

Add to that the possibility of a split in the United Methodist Church. No worries—pastors for whom there are no longer churches can simply retrain and retool and move into another sector of the economy.

Except for this: clergy have a sense of calling. We have been called by God to do the work that we do. This is evidenced by the fact that even in our darkest, most despairing days, we still cannot imagine a life in which we are not clergy. We keep on going, following the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, walking through a wilderness with little more than Martin Luther’s utterance, assuring us that “I am baptized… I am baptized…” 

In 1998 I remember a fairly prophetic leader addressing a group of youngish clergy. This group had been formed as a cadre out of which pastors of new church starts would come. “It would be best to learn a skill with which you can earn a living,” he said. “More than half of you will have to be bi-vocational by the time you retire.”

Now that an economic mega-trend has finally come home to roost among my people, my friends, my colleagues, I’m no longer willing to slough it off by saying, “no worries.” Our profession is more needed than ever; it just might be more difficult than ever to make a living doing it.

Perhaps the church is coming full circle, back to the days when the apostle Paul made tents as a way to support his ministry. Will we be filled with a sense of calling and a passion for ministry such that we’ll tolerate the kind of change and adaptation that will be required?

Steven D. Martin is founder at The Lakelands Institute and a member of Advisory Council of The Christian Citizen. Used by permission.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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