As part of my commitment to a couple of book projects, this spring I am taking a personal blogging hiatus and have invited some folks to blog in my stead. It is my intention help share some new voices and perspectives with a larger audience and keep my blog active during my break. If you are interested in guest blogging, feel free to submit an idea. Today I welcome my friend, Rev. Teresa Blythe to the guest blogging crew and thinking about the economics of Christian Ministry. Teresa is an ordained United Church of Christ minister and full-time spiritual director in Tucson, AZ. She is author of 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times from Abingdon Press. Find her on facebook at blythespirit2.

The economics of Christian ministry is rapidly changing, no matter what the tradition, denomination or sect. People graduating from seminaries today are being told there is a good chance that they will have to be bi-vocational, like Paul, who made tents to support his preaching. Ministries and new churches are expected to be self-sustaining almost from the start. Many of us are being encouraged to move to a “fee-for-service” pay structure rather than receiving the traditional full-time salary with benefits.

I am one of those who has gladly chosen the itinerant fee-for-service ministry life. I’m a seminary trained, ordained United Church of Christ minister working as a freelance, full-time spiritual director. I do a lot of public speaking, mostly to churches and religious organizations, on the topic of prayer, spiritual growth and discernment. To make a living, I seek contract jobs with churches to supplement income from my spiritual direction practice.

Some institutional church leaders point to my work as an example of how ministry in the future will be done. Well, this is not the future. It is now. And if the institutional church is going to encourage ministers to work “fee-for-service,” it has to be willing to pay the fee because I can’t work for free.

Given that my livelihood is spiritual formation with individuals and churches, and I have expenses like all other working people, I can only accept offers that compensate me for my time and effort. I take a financial loss every time I take on important regional or national projects for travel expenses only—which is all that is usually offered. Retreats are the biggest conundrum. Frequently I’m asked to do a retreat “in exchange for a free trip.” It’s not a retreat for me, nor is it free—I work very hard to create programming and experiential practices that help you and your church deepen in relationship with God. It’s fun and enriching, but it’s also a lot of work. A “free trip” in order to work means I leave behind other work, block out days that I could be meeting in spiritual direction with clients or time I could be writing and developing new programming. So when you seem shocked that I charge $400 a day for a retreat (a pretty low fee, actually), keep in mind that much like consultants in other fields, my hourly rate is a bit higher than an employee’s because I foot the bill for my own benefits and self-employment tax.

Don’t get me wrong. I do my share of pro bono work, especially with spiritual direction clients who are unemployed or otherwise unable to pay. I sometimes speak for free to an organization that has no budget or to a small, struggling church as an act of charity. That’s one reason I am charging mid-sized to larger churches and judicatory bodies a fee—so that I can have the financial sustainability to take on the occasional and exceptional pro bono request.

You may also be thinking, well, what about Rev. Joe Blow down the road who will do a retreat for free? Certainly there are people in ministry who have the energy and desire to do exactly the same work I do for no compensation, kind of like a hobby. You are most welcome to invite him to do the work for free. (It’s not the first time I’ve lost work to him.) I’d simply ask you to keep in mind that Rev. Joe Blow probably already has a job that pays benefits and a pension. And even so, I’d prefer you paid him because that helps all of us in the long run. Actually, I’d prefer he start asking for compensation. That would help freelancers everywhere.

Here’s the bigger question for you. What message does it send the world when you want content, leadership and experience for free? What does it say about how much you value that work? You most likely do not expect your janitor to work for free. You certainly pay your plumber, the phone company and other utilities for service. You pay an enormous amount for insurance.

I know churches are facing hard times. We’re all in this economic recession and “new reformation” together. We are on your side and want to say yes to your offers. It’s just that healthy boundaries require us to ask for what we need in fair compensation. We aren’t trying to get rich. We’re just like you—seeking quality of life and financial sustainability. With that in mind, let’s negotiate a price that is fair and just for both of us.

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