Substitute pastor

April 28, 2022

On March 9th, 2020, our junior high was to host a concert band “Extravabandza.” The back of the cafeteria was lined with tables full of cookies and cakes ready to serve families as they enjoyed student performances from the event’s solo and ensemble contest.

Then the school closed for COVID-19, and all the treats were left forlorn. It wasn’t until March of 2022 that the junior high resumed the Extravabandza, the first time in over two years parents and families had the opportunity to spend time together in the same room celebrating their children’s musical accomplishments.

For the past two years, for public health reasons, adult access to our public schools has been limited to school faculty and staff. Before the pandemic, parents like myself would enter the building to tutor, host holiday parties, or even just serve as volunteer hall monitors. During the pandemic, all of that ended.

Those of us with a quasi-National Guard mentality spent the time leaning into the emergencies as they arose. First, fundraising for those out of work to pay bills. Then, fundraising for front-line minority groups most impacted by the pandemic. Later, fights for renter protections, then the organizing of vaccination drives, and so on.

In the meantime, teachers and staff faithfully carried on the work they’d always done, now adapting themselves to pandemic restrictions. But those of us who previously volunteered in the schools found ourselves in an unusual position: we could and did assist our own children with their learning at home, but we no longer entered the school buildings.

As the pandemic entered its second year, staff shortages expanded across the country in public school districts. Bus drivers were in such short supply that some states actually did call in the National Guard. The other great shortage in the fall of 2021 was for substitute teachers.

As a full-time pastor, although the idea of substitute teaching had intrigued me (I’ve also sometimes contemplated picking up extra seasonal employment during the Christmas season, or washing dishes in restaurants just because they’re always in short supply), it wasn’t until this specific moment that all the interests aligned. I could meet a pressing need in our community and simultaneously spend time with youth in our community. It was a win-win, so I went for it.

In Arkansas, you do not need a teaching license to substitute. In fact, you only need a high school diploma. The substitute teaching pool is administered by ESS, which provides daily, long-term, and permanent K-12 substitute teachers, paraprofessionals, and other school support staff in over 900 school districts in 32 states.

Although there are quite a few forms to complete, the process to become a substitute teacher is not onerous. You upload proof of eligibility for employment and a few other documents establishing your educational credentials, get fingerprinted for a background check, participate in a brief onboarding interview, and then watch a series of simple training videos. From start to completion, it took me about four hours to complete all the parts of the application and training, and cost just over $100. Our school district pays substitutes at my level of education $114 per day. Just the basic facts, perhaps helpful for those (clergy and others) considering adding substitute teaching to their ministry repertoire.

I should be clear here at the outset: I am not substitute teaching to “reach” anyone with the gospel. This is not an exercise in stealth proselytization. I do what I do to serve in the community and meet emergency needs. That is enough, and more than enough, and we’ve had far too much Christian “mission” disguised as service to last many lifetimes. I actively discourage readers from substitute teaching if that is your goal.

However, there are some tremendous ministry benefits to substitute teaching. I’ve been only half-joking with friends and neighbors that this is my micro-version of “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich, who as a journalist (with a Ph.D. in in cell biology) took a job as a Wal-Mart checkout clerk. In that book, she both educates readers on how highly skilled such “unskilled” labor is in reality, and also analyzes the injustices related to such low-paid work.

Karl Barth famously said: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” I’d suggest that the newspaper can stand in for many activities that broaden our awareness of the world. We can read a newspaper, yes. But we can also go to the mall and interview people, or put up a table at the farmer’s market, or, as I have, sign up to substitute teach.

Ehrenreich writes, “When someone works for less pay than she can live on … she has made a great sacrifice for you … The ‘working poor’ … are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone.”[i]

I do not get my primary income from substitute teaching (and I don’t know how I would survive if I did), but as a substitute I do gain insight, like Ehrenreich, into the experience of substitutes and the life situation of our students in this present moment.

I have a parishioner, now retired from the poultry industry, who taught me the concept of “management by walking around.” It’s perhaps my favorite metaphor for pastoral ministry: pastoring by walking around. You can’t really know the condition of your community unless you are out in your community.

Some ways of walking around put you into greater contact with cross-sections of that community. Substitute teaching in the public schools is as immersive and broad as almost any kind of work I can think of, especially if you substitute in different schools, with different age groups, or even in different school districts, over the course of a period of time.

I’ve started this journey spreading myself around. I’ve substituted for a senior seminar in anatomy and with a kindergarten class. I’ve been in the elementary my children attended and middle schools all the way across town. If I keep this pattern up, by the time I’ve subbed for a semester, I think I’ll have a rather immersive view of our community and how the youth are doing these days.

Perhaps you’d like to learn at least some of what I’m learning. The first thing, repeated over and over by teachers in various schools, is that our social distancing and pandemic practices, though perhaps necessary for public health, also resulted in widening the equity gap. Under-resourced students are struggling even more. Students with robust relational and economic resources are still thriving and pulling ahead.

Second, public school teachers, as a whole, really are everyday heroes. They’ve stayed the course during over two years of rolling adaptation to school district pivots. They’ve created entire new systems for education so that students can learn in class or at home. They’ve remained faithful to their core calling even while the culture wars have raged, sometimes raging directly at them (think masks and book banning).

I’ve also learned simply how much fun it is to add something like this into the mix. I’m a full-time pastor in a mid-sized congregation with plenty of other things to do, but when I asked my church council if they’d be comfortable with me substitute teaching, they were all in. We all see the benefit, especially simple joys. The youth in my church attend the schools where I sub, so I get to spend a bit of time with my own parishioners. Social media has even allowed the opportunity for me to make connections between parents and their kids during the school day.

I do recommend that clergy consider substitute teaching, especially if you already have experience in youth ministry. Substitute teaching is challenging because you represent a disruption to children who otherwise were looking forward to the regularity of seeing the teacher they have grown to know and love. You can expect a bit of disorganization and testing the limits. But if you have the skills to redirect back to the learning at hand, and if you walk with genuine love and respect for children, they’ll love and respect you back. Many days, I leave the schools with little hand-drawn notes from the kids.

Also, no wonder teachers need and deserve a lot of continuing education, conferences, and summer break. With the kind of schedule they keep, there’s no down time during the school year to let their brain space out and gather ideas for the next approach to education. In elementary it’s literally non-stop, and in upper levels, although they get one prep hour, the reality of back-to-back classes rolling in and out of the classroom all day is still far more exhausting than the pace of work most clergy endure.

As a pastor, one of the great blessings in my chosen career path is space and time for contemplation. I’m often busy, but I can carve out time mid-day to write, think, and pray. By the end of a day of subbing I always think, “whoa, that was a lot. I need a nap.”

Finally, you may ask yourself, “Why should clergy add a secular day job to their work repertoire?” The best answer I can give to you is that famous quote from Karl Barth: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” I’d suggest that the newspaper can stand in for many activities that broaden our awareness of the world. We can read a newspaper, yes. But we can also go to the mall and interview people, or put up a table at the farmer’s market, or, as I have, sign up to substitute teach.

Again, I’m not at the school to bring the gospel to the schools. That’s not my job and I consider that to be a way of taking advantage of others for personal benefit. But I do think as a pastor I can interpret from my Bible, which is to say, my own preaching and teaching is better informed through the experience of substituting in the classroom. And in this particular case, even if substitute teaching doesn’t rub off on you to the benefit of your pastoring and preaching, at the very least you’ve relieved some of the pressure on an otherwise strained system that has done so much of the heavy lifting for us during these “trying times.”

The Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.

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

[i] Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001, p. 221.


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