This is the first in a series of articles that I am planning to bring to Celestial Lands over the first few months of this New Year, exploring several aspects of the interrelation between professional ministry, congregations, and the current search process. Future articles will include an exploration of the contract-to-call process, the different models of supporting ministry, whether or not an interim ministry should be necessary, and the changing managerial expectations of the professional ministry, among others. The opinions in each article of this series are based upon my own experience, the experience of a few colleagues, and my observations and conversations from the 18 months I was a part of the Central Midwest District Staff.
I want to say at the outset that I believe in contract ministry. Since being fellowshipped and ordained as a Unitarian Universalist Minister, I have only served in contract ministry, and am currently on my third contract (with another signed and waiting) in my second congregation. Contract ministry provides a pathway for many congregations who cannot yet make the financial, spiritual, and communal commitments of calling a minister to receive ministerial support and guidance. It is a great way for congregations to move towards having a multi-ministry team, by hiring a non-called Supporting Minister. It is a great way for developing congregations to gain ministerial preaching, guidance, and support in that development. As contract ministers generally accept a lower compensation for salary and housing, are sometimes employed less than full time, are sometimes shared by several congregations, and do not generally qualify for some of the traditional called minister benefits (such as sabbatical), contract ministry can be a bridge for some congregations who are facing tough financial times on their journey to or back to full time called ministry.
Some congregations are attracted to how contract ministers can be hired through a much shorter and easier search process than the current search process for called ministry. While this is true, I will address in a later article why this should not be a consideration in a congregation’s choice between whether contract ministry or called ministry is the right choice for them.
For a minister serving in contract ministry, there are also a few advantages. You are committed to that congregation only for the time period of the signed contract, allowing you to keep options open as you look towards other ministerial opportunities and your own discernment. Generally, contract ministry specifies a more limited range of responsibilities than a called minister’s Letter of Agreement. While most contracts do include a way for the congregation or the minister to negate the contract, in practice most contracts are served for their full tenure, relieving some of the uncertainty about the future that often accompanies called ministry. If a contract is to be renewed, the minister and the congregation alike have the opportunity to negotiate issues and terms, to include not only the financial aspects but the scope of responsibilities, allowing you to customize your ministry in a way that called ministers often cannot.
The primary disadvantage that I see to contract ministry lies not in its inherent qualities, but in how it is currently being practiced in our congregations, by ministers and congregations alike. I believe that contract ministry needs to be practiced and understood as a distinct and specific kind of congregational ministry. The less distinct it is from called ministry, the greater the disservice we do to congregations, contract ministers, and called ministers alike.
Rightly or wrongly, the ideal we set for ministry in our congregations is that of a called minister. The concept of a congregation calling a minister to their pulpit goes back to the earliest days of the Radical Reformation and the Free Church. It is one of the defining characteristics of congregationalism that only the gathered congregation has the authority to call a minister to preach and serve amongst them. We teach the called minister ideal in our seminaries, and in the seminaries of many of the other traditions that UU seminarians attend. We celebrate the spiritual and sacred commitment that is made between a called minister and a gathered congregation, through holding Installation services that are almost identical to the ceremony in which we first ordain clergy to our ministry. For many a first called and settled ministry, the ordination service is the installation service.
And so, it is understandable that when ministers enter into a contract ministry they often act within that ministry as if it were a called position, for it is what we are taught to do. I did this myself, spending my first two years in contract ministry pretending that I had been called by the two congregations I served, rather than hired by the Board of Trustees or the Senior Minister. I believe that most successful contract-to-call processes happen because the contract minister was acting as a called minister from the beginning. This creates two dynamics that I think are unfortunate: it neglects the understanding of contract ministry as a separate form of congregational ministry, and it sets patterns of expectations within congregations that they can get called ministry service and commitment without having to make the spiritual, cultural, and financial commitments that having a called minister should require.
We also have a very real perception among our clergy and laity that those who serve in contract ministries do so because they are not “good enough” for called ministry. The ways I have seen this perception manifest are varied, from the haughty disdain of some colleagues and laity for anyone in contract ministry, to the heartbreaking colleagues and former congregants who have wished to convince me that, “really David, don’t you think you are good enough for a call of your own? Really, you are!” I have been asked when I will be “promoted” to called ministry, because of the blurred lines we have created between the two.
I could write another article on the way contract ministry is viewed by colleagues and congregants alike, but it would be difficult to separate my feelings from my thoughts on that topic. That perception is, I believe, due in large part to our being unclear about the distinctions between these two types of congregational ministry.
There are some very specific ways that contract ministry is different than called ministry, and several of those are opportunities that are lost when the contract minister acts as if they had been called. The first and most obvious is that a contract minister is not directly responsible to the congregation as a whole. They are hired by the Board of Trustees (or its equivalent) and are primarily responsible to that board in a single minister situation, or to the Senior Minister in a team setting. This change in the center of authority for the minister can allow for greater freedom of action when it comes to addressing many of the structural and systemic issues that occur within a congregation, so long as you have the support of the Board of Trustees. This also occurs in a team ministry setting, with the contracted supporting minister having a greater freedom of action, as long as they have the support of the Senior Minister.
Contract Ministers also bring a very valuable perspective to a congregation, in that they are short-term. A Contract Minister should integrate into the vision of the congregation differently, in that most contracts are for three years or less. While contracts can often be renewed, building in an expectation that said contract will be renewed builds an unhealthy dynamic into the relationship, and it sacrifices one of the primary benefits of Contract Ministry. Contract Ministries are naturally designed to focus on what can be accomplished in the time period of the current contract, which calls our congregations to concrete progress and accomplishments.
Another advantage of contract ministries that is sacrificed when a contract minister or congregation acts as if the ministry were a call is that contract ministry has the ability to be far more flexible than the traditional expectations of a call. As I stated above in the article, this usually manifests in the realm of compensation and contract terms, but I believe it can be so much more. The contract minister and the Board of Trustees or their designated supervisor could, for example, shift ministerial emphases and responsibilities on a regular basis, in order to gauge how the congregation reacts to different forms of ministry. Does the congregation become more engaged when the contract minister spends six months focusing on Social Justice? How does the relationship change when the contract minister hands most regular pastoral care off to a trained team of lay-leaders? What is the effect of the contract minister bringing in more innovative preaching and worship styles? Knowing this will be important when the congregation moves towards calling a new minister.
I believe the central advantage of contract ministry is that, the more limited-term outlook and the shift in the center of ministerial authority and responsibility allows the contract minister and the congregation to be more experimental and entrepreneurial in how they engage and develop ministry. It allows for change on systemic and cultural issues to be engaged more readily and rapidly, and because the end of the contract is known, it can allow a contract minister and a congregation to be willing to take more risks.
All of these advantages are at least blunted, if not negated when the contract ministry is treated as if it were a call. Contract ministry needs to be understood as a separate and distinct form of ministry from called ministry. The more the two are blurred, the greater disservice we do to ministers and congregations alike. This is the basis from which I will begin the next article in this series, on the Contract-to-Call Process.
Yours in faith,