SALEM, W.Va. — For Danny Fleming, Sunday is no day of rest.
It starts before dawn, when the United Methodist pastor rises from slumber and gets ready for services. Some Sundays, he travels to two churches. On others, it’s three. Every week, he spends 20 hours preparing his sermons and logs nearly 100 miles on his truck traveling to services.
And that’s all before Monday morning, when he gets up for his full-time job with the U.S. Army in Clarksburg, where he supervises the maintenance and repairs of Army Reserve vehicles and equipment in northern West Virginia.
“I decided a long time ago you get out of it what you put into it,” says the soft-spoken 58-year-old, after leading a small rural congregation in worship on a recent Sunday.
For many of the millions of Americans who depend on their pastors, ministers and spiritual leaders, a full-time minister is becoming an out-of-reach luxury. To keep small churches open — and to provide individual care at big churches — religious groups are increasingly relying on part-time, or bivocational pastors.
Being there for believers
Worship is just one of the many expectations being placed on these part-timers. There are church council meetings, Bible studies, suppers and other gatherings, and — most important — being there for believers.
“A bivocational minister can be a lot of things, but he can’t be lazy,” says Ray Gilder, national coordinator of the Southern Baptist Bivocational Ministers Association.
When such a hectic schedule is added to the demands of work and family, the results can tax even the hardiest person.
“Sometimes it means I don’t sleep,” the Rev. Alton Dillard says with a laugh, “but I make myself available.”
Dillard, the married father of two teenagers, is the pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Allen Chapel in Charleston’s east side. He also works 12-hour shifts at Columbia Gas Works, sometimes sandwiching Sunday worship and a brief nap in between. On top of that, he presides over Wednesday night Bible classes and always has his cell phone in case his congregants need him.
“It’s not easy, but it works about 90 percent of the time,” Dillard says.
One expert says about a third of the pastors serving large Protestant denominations are part-time, with some — such as the Southern Baptist Convention — nearing 40 percent.
“It’s a growing form of ministry, and I believe it’s going to grow even faster and larger,” says the Rev. Dennis Bickers, a former part-time pastor and now an area minister for the American Baptist Church in Indiana and Kentucky.
In many denominations, bivocational ministers were more common than full-timers up until the middle of the 20th century. Rising prosperity plus a push toward professionalism and seminary graduates meant more congregations employed full-time pastors, but that trend has crested.
Not limited to Christianity
The phenomenon also isn’t limited to Christianity. Part-time rabbis are common, and a study by the Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that most American mosques have volunteer leaders with other jobs.
But the centrality of the pastor in most Christian traditions — and the financial support many congregations generally provide to their ministers — means that for many religious Americans, the resurgence of the part-timer requires some adjustments.
In the Roman Catholic Church, only a priest can perform the majority of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, the centerpiece of Catholic worship. But, as a shortage of ordained clergy strains priests’ schedules, a corps of full-and part-time lay ministers has sprung up to lend assistance.
About 500 parishes in the United States don’t have an assigned priest, but stay open through the efforts of lay ministers and occasional visits by priests for Mass, says Christopher Anderson, executive director of the National Association for Lay Ministry.
Even in parishes with one or two full-time priests it’s common to see dozens of volunteers who oversee everything from religious education to marriage preparation, Anderson says
“It’s really a case of empowering people to keep the parishes open,” he says.
In financial terms, part-time pastors may be the only way for some churches to stay open.
A 2006 study by the Southern Baptist Convention found that the pay and benefits package for a full-time minister in that denomination costs $59,995 a year. A part-time minister costs $17,385. For smaller churches with worshippers living on fixed incomes, the advantages of part-time pastors are obvious.
But financial concerns aren’t the only considerations driving churches to decide that a part-time minister is better than no minister at all.
For the 80 or so people who attend the five churches that Fleming pastors, his presence is a blessing.
In one church, where 21 people gathered on a recent Sunday to hear him preach, some remember what it was like before Fleming arrived, when as few as nine people made it to a service.
By contrast, on this Sunday, as Fleming preaches his sermon, heads nod attentively and yellow pens highlight Bible passages he touches upon. When the service is over, the congregation — from children to grandparents — lines up to shake its pastor’s hand.
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.