(RNS) The 50 members of All Saints Episcopal Church in Hitchcock, Texas, are looking forward to December, when Mark Marmon will be ordained their priest.

Mark Marmon (right) teaches fly fishing at the Fishers of Men retreat at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas. Photo by Emily Krueger, Camp Allen | courtesy The Episcopal Diocese of Texas

Mark Marmon (right) teaches fly fishing at the Fishers of Men retreat at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas. Photo by Emily Krueger, Camp Allen | courtesy The Episcopal Diocese of Texas


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

One reason for the excitement? They won’t have to pay him.

A 57-year-old fly fishing guide, Marmon, whose wife is a lawyer, says he doesn’t want or need a church salary. He belongs to a growing breed of mainline Protestant clergy who serve congregations in exchange for little or no compensation.

“We’re the frontline,” Marmon said. “If it weren’t for us, these churches would just roll up and die.”

Though small evangelical congregations have long relied on unpaid pastors, mainline churches haven’t. They’ve generally paid full-time or nearly full-time salaries, said Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary sociologist of religion.

Jeremiah Griffin (left) and Mark Marmon (right) in procession during Ordination on June 15. They are two of 13 people ordained to the diaconate at Christ Church Cathedral. Photo by Carol Barnwell, Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

Jeremiah Griffin (left) and Mark Marmon (right) in procession during Ordination on June 15. They are two of 13 people ordained to the diaconate at Christ Church Cathedral. Photo by Carol Barnwell, Episcopal Diocese of Texas.


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

That’s changing, however, as churches face declining numbers and look to new ministry models to make ends meet. Thumma sees more mainliners cutting back to halftime or one-quarter-time packages for clergy, who increasingly work second jobs.

The unpaid cleric model is gaining traction among Episcopalians. In the mid-1990s, for example, the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming had few if any unpaid clergy serving its 49 congregations. Now, 20 priests in Wyoming – more than one-third – are unpaid.

Within a few years, the number of unpaid clergy is expected to reach 35, according to Lori Modesitt, ministry developer for the Wyoming diocese. All those unpaid clergy are fully ordained.

Modesitt sees unpaid ministry as “the future of the church” – and a bright future at that. It empowers laypeople to become priests even if they can’t leave other careers, she said. And it ensures that ministry never becomes just a job.

The Rev. Lori Modesitt photo courtesy

The Rev. Lori Modesitt photo courtesy The Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“What we’re talking about is going back to the original church, where people took an active part and used their God-given gifts for the betterment of the community,” Modesitt said. “This is a way to enliven congregations.”

The unpaid trend isn’t confined to remote ranchlands. In the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, which includes Houston, about 25 priests serve without pay after having gone through a $2,000-per-year, part-time training at the 9-year-old Iona School for Ministry.

Iona has attracted candidates for volunteer or nominally compensated priest positions from Northwest Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska and beyond.

“We were never thinking that other dioceses would want to send students to our school,” says Mary MacGregor, executive director of the Iona School for Ministry. “That was not even on our radar.”

So great is the need for unpaid priests that a new distance education program launched by Iona in 2012 will train those who can’t get to Texas 10 times a year.

Participants in the Iona Initiative program keep their day jobs. They gather regularly in their home states with fellow students and mentors. They watch videotaped lectures from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. Currently piloted in Oklahoma, Wyoming and Hawaii, the three-year program will soon be available in eight dioceses where churches now wait for priests who won’t expect paychecks.

Most mainliners still pay their clergy. Only 2 percent are unpaid, according to Hartford Seminary’s 2010 Faith Communities Today survey. Meanwhile, 30 percent of mainline churches have a part-time, paid pastor. The rest have full-time, paid leaders.

But denominations expect more church leaders in years ahead to earn their livings in secular jobs. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for instance, encourages new seminarians to plan for nonchurch employment so they can serve fledgling congregations that can’t afford a full-time salary plus benefits.

Forgoing church pay can have benefits for priests. Marmon, who now serves as an ordained deacon at All Saints, finds that his parishioners appreciate how he serves the church with no expectation of monetary reward.

“They love me,” Marmon said. “They know my degree of dedication is 110 percent.”

But being unpaid has drawbacks, too. Modesitt served without a stipend in her rural Wheatland, Wyo., congregation for 10 years. Now her ministry there is part of her work for the diocese, but congregants still see her as one of them and consequently don’t always confide in her, she said.

“It’s hard for some of them to come to me with a personal issue that they might bring to someone who was paid,” Modesitt said. “I am to them still Lori, the person who sat in the pew” until her volunteering came to include the role of priest.

Marmon observes that some paid clergy “feel threatened” that Iona-trained priests who minister for free “are going to come in and take my job.” Such fears are overblown in his view because the unpaid serve a different niche.

Iona-trained volunteer priests work in a wide range of fields. Their ranks include a hospital administrator, a nurse, a judge, an ExxonMobil executive and an oil industry entrepreneur. Some are also retired, MacGregor said.

Traditional seminaries are adjusting to make sure students can handle the new realities. Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, for instance, is developing an entrepreneurial ministry track for students who plan to do ministry but aren’t counting on church employment after graduation.

“We’re encouraging a new form of ministry where students realize they may not go into congregations in traditional buildings that can pay them full-time salaries,” said Auburn President Katharine Henderson. “So they have to know how to do ministry in entirely new ways.” 

50 Comments

    • No, not “young people not welcome”. Why can’t a young person work a regular job and serve as priest? Many of these people are older and retired, but many are not. I work with many, many part-time or unpaid clergy colleagues and a minority of them are retired. They are working secular jobs and serving as priests. I encourage a tidal wave of young people to do the same.

      • As a young clergy person, I often serve for free however, after completing my Masters of Divinity Degree so that i can preach and teach effectively. I have too much student loan debt to serve for free. No one can live for free in America. I cannot walk in any store wearing my collar and shop for free and its unrealistic to make such a request. The bible is also very clear about how leaders are to be treated. Galatians 6:6 “the one who is taught the Word must share all good things with the one who teaches.” 2 Timothy 3:7-10 1 Corinthians 9:9-14, Luke 10:7. look them up at your leisure, I think you get the point. In addition, if we are working we are unavailable to serve the congregation which is what we have dedicated our lives to. its very sad that many people do not realize our value us until they have a tragedy, death, need hospital visitation, prayer or other such emergency.

  1. I served in a “mutual ministry” Diocese as a chaplain, and was ordained an Episcopal priest while there, but not for local service only. The unpaid priest scenario is fraught with difficulties. In my mind it is not an answer to the financial woes of smaller churches. The two locally ordained priests who served the parish in our town were not even reimbursed for mileage.. Both had small children at home and demanding full-time jobs. Both had major health problems. There was very little accountability or support for them of any kind. They tried hard, but this is a recipe for creating trouble. They were both scions of the church matriarch’s family, so when the church was asked to “do a discernment” to decide who should be their priest, naturally these two guys were chosen. Now there is in-fighting in the family and the two don’t speak to each other.

    If churches would take seriously the responsibility to renew themselves … if Dioceses would invest in this happening ahead of the decline coming to a crashing end … if entrepreneurship were valued in the church…..I could go on.

    Unpaid priests = exploitation. A bad answer to a solvable problem.

    • There is this side of things as well. Exploitation is just waiting to happen. But it’s a relatively new model for some – and what others have been doing for the past 50-100 years. The key is to seriously and honestly discuss expectations up front and then create a well-documented list of those that is held up to the congregation on a regular basis.

      Here’s the deal. There are many problems and abuses in the current full-time, paid clergy model. There are many problems and abuses in the bi-vocational, part-time, or unpaid model. As Christians, we simply need to address these head on and move forward never forgetting it isn’t up to us and our models anyway. It is in all firmly in God’s hands – and God wins in the end.

    • These arguments are facetious, to say the least. What about the people who offer unpaid service to clean churches? What about acolytes? What about choir members? What about all the people in the pews who are also paying off student loans. doing other full-time work to support themselves and their families, including health insurance? What’s wrong with volunteerism all the way “up and down the line?” What’s wrong with a religious community being totally a community, all volunteers? That would seem more appropriate in religion and church than any other venues. It might also avoid some of the many money scandals we learn that have taken place in churches.

      • gilhcan – You wrote, “What’s wrong with a religious community being totally a community, all volunteers?”
        First, if you have never read 1 Corinthians 9:9-14, please do so before commenting further.
        Secondly, you seem to define “community” as group of volunteers. However, we all live in various communities with a mixture of volunteers and paid professionals. The next time your house is on fire, please refuse to allow the paid firefighters to help. Instead, please insist on using only the local volunteer companies. Or is your soul not as important as your house.

        For some odd reason you seem to begrudge your pastor the same respect as you give your auto mechanic. Please be reminded that even Jesus was supported by His followers. (Mark 15:41 & Luke 8:2-3)

        • In our community there are church building everywhere, most are half empty on Sunday and unused the rest of the week. Jesus prayed for unity among Christians, but there are over 250 denomination in the U.S. along. There are about 12 distinct Methodist denominations and over 20 Baptists.
          Why not consolidate facilities, put petty differences aside and work together? Jesus said GO into all the World . . instead we stay and build. No money for missions or caring for widows and orphans. I hope many churches go bankrupt . . . then people will refocus their attention. As for salaried clergy . . . If they were doing their part (Eph 4:11) everyone in the church would be involved in ministry, rather than relying on paid clergy to do it all. The church is in desperate need of another reformation. Everyone should be in ministry, less dependent upon clergy, and less money spent on buildings and fewer church facilities.

    • You are on the mark Connie. The mainline churches are shrinking and therefore can’t pay the salaries necessary for full time pastors. Instead of placing ministers in difficult situations, where their children are neglected by overworked parents and a congregation gets part time shepherding, maybe these denomination should begin to look deep within their souls and ask God to show them the real problems. Decades of a low view of the Bible, man-centered theology and the social gospel is now having its results. Spiritual/moral repentance and a commitment to the biblical mandate to provide for one’s pastor (and for that man to meet the qualifications of 1Tim.3) will do more for those denominations than selfish congregational abuse of the clergy. It’s unbelievable that people will pay a fair wage to a mechanic or dentist but begrudge a well-trained pastor compensation for overseeing the destiny of their eternal souls.

      • Thank you, Calvin. Your words are truth. My prayer is that we explore the larger issues/concerns/needs ahead which have to do with a world that needs authentic communities/families of faith and for these communities to be reflections of God’s love.
        The majority of people I work with and know in the vocation of ministry are not interested in making a fortune in ministry. The desire is to serve others in the calling we have been led to by God. And, to do this as well as we can, there is an expectation of getting the training/education that will serve others as we have been called to do. Having said that, the majority of people I know in ministry have families and households to care for that should not be neglected or short-changed either.
        Your comments regarding what we willing pay other professionals to do for us while taking exception to paying ministers for the work we do are unfortunately correct. I know many professional people who have great passion for the work they do and they serve others well in their vocations. And, they are compensated for that service.
        It is true that we do not live on bread alone. But, some bread is required. This isn’t about being greedy or wanting more than we should expect. It’s about treating others with respect, dignity and providing for those who provide for others in ways that can never be measured in terms of money.

    • I completely agree. The answer isn’t downsizing – the answer is getting serious about bringing new people to Christ! This will only happen when we stop treating churches like “clubs” and start reaching out to those in need of Jesus.

  2. This would seem to be primarialy an issue with larger churches and/or denominational structures. As a pastor of a house church who works full-time, I view my bi-vocational status as a positive witness to a watching world who has often seen corruption and financial abuse within the church. Funds are used almost exclusively to help others in need or for other missional involvements. This also allows the gifts of others to be used in support of our mission and for them to take ownership in our purpose. We see scriptures regarding the preisthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9) and the intention to equip others for the work of the ministry (Eph 4:12) instead of having full-time professionsal do it all as the basis for how we structure ourselves. After all, if we do not have the gifts present in our midst and if people are not willing to help accomplish what needs to be done, then why do it at all, with or without a full-time pastor?

    • John,
      Please read 1Corinthians 9:9-14. You are certainly free to accept no compensation for your ministry. However, the same Apostle Paul, who supported himself at times and received support at other times, is clear that a minister serves best when he is free from worldly concerns. That is also why he chose to remain celibate.
      Your point of not collecting a salary because of various abuses in the church makes me want to ask if you also have remained celibate because the watching world has heard of so many sexual scandals.
      Our church has a full time minister, who preaches, teaches, does visitation and is involved in other activities of the church. Nevertheless, the congregation is also extremely active in all manner of ministry. I fail to see what a advantage we, as a congregation, would have if our pastor neglected the raising of his kids, the nurture of his wife, and the pain-staking preparation of his sermons just so the world would speak well of us (Luke 6:26).

      • Well said, Calvin. One of the authors in a seminary course I took recently pointed out that, “Churches are lousy employers.” They want it all for very little. God will not bless this because it is wrong.

  3. Mainline denominations have institutions called seminaries which provide professional-level theological education and pastoral formation to their graduates. If those who wish to lead congregations can no longer get seminary education because the career will never allow them to repay their education debt, mainline Christianity will become a much poorer place.

  4. If ordained women and unpaid ministers is a return to the practices of the early Jesus communities, why do ordained women feel the need to dress with the white collar, a male development of many thousands of years later, to show everyone they have reached the hitherto forbidden status.

    “You will know them by their works.”

    Who need to prove by special clothing, in or out of church, what their position is? No status clothing is needed, not even for church rituals. Just dress like everyone else. That goes for the highest church as well as the lowest.

    • There are arguments both ways for clerical collars. I personally like the idea because it is a professional uniform like that of the US Army that emphasizes the role the individual is filling, rather than the individual him/herself. It holds the person accountable for his/her behavior while in uniform. It also takes guts to wear it on the streets these days. I actually talked to a pastor who told me he did not wear a collar because he didn’t want to be bothered by beggars. Needless to say my opinion of his willingness to be “set apart” and behave accordingly was pretty low. Also if some stranger is going to pray with me in a hospital room, I like to see that collar.

  5. If ordained women and unpaid ministers is a return to the practices of the early Jesus communities, why do ordained women feel the need to dress with the white collar, a male development of many thousands of years later, to show everyone they have reached the hitherto forbidden status.

    “You will know them by their works.”

    Who needs to prove by special clothing, in or out of church, what their position is? No status clothing is needed, not even for church rituals. Just dress like everyone else. That goes for the highest church as well as the lowest.

  6. Perhaps the real reason for this expansion of unpaid clergy the fact that the churches are dying. The Bible teaches that those who preach and minister are to be taken care of (paid) by those who are taught and ministered to. (Galatians 6:6, 2 Timothy 5:17-18, 1 Corinthians 9:14) While it is noble that someone is willing to minister to free, it is not so noble that some are willing to let them.

  7. If the only clergy we had were those who did not require payment, would we then have only clergy from the wealthy upperclass of society? I fear that some of them would loose empathy and understanding necessary in ministring to those less fortunate. In addtion, if one had two positions, one paid, the other unpaid; the unpaid would eventually become a lower priority for time and engery.invested.

  8. Did a CTRL+F on “Mormon” and got exactly 0 matches. The LDS Church has had unpaid clergy for 183 years now, but then again, we’re not really “mainline” and a lot of people don’t even consider us Christian. And so it goes.

  9. Dumb idea. Pay him and have him donate back to the church if they don’t need the money. Even if it’s only $1,000.

    Gordon Epping, CPA
    Director of Support Services
    First Lutheran Church
    Cedar Rapids, IA

  10. It is wrong for a minister to allow a church not to compensate him. I once felt I should preach “for free,” but God taught me, through the Bible and other pastors, that churches should not “muzzle the ox.” When we allow them to do that we sin by promoting their sin. The ox should always be fed, at least something.

  11. The churches ought to take a closer look at the way the Mormon church runs it’s congregations.The church never has paid any of it’s clergy, it’s leaders and others serve for a specific period of time and the are “released”, we all hold employment outside of our serving in our various positions in our local church. We meet on Saturday here in our local congregation and clean the building top to bottom and it’s all volunteer. It is a congregation effort to keep costs low and within reason, but it works well and it might be something other churches might want to look at and copy.

  12. Unitarian Universalism is the only older, liberal denomination to be growing recently. We have a surplus of ministers (at the denominationally suggested pay scale) due in part to a large influx of ordained clergy from other denominations, our openness to women (over 50% of our ministers) and LGBTQ persons. However, in New England where many of our older churches are declining, the high costs of professional ministry is contributing to the loss of churches and members. They need a cheaper model of ministry to remain viable. alternatively, in many smaller communities of the south and west, our young fellowships have difficulty making the transition from completely lay led, unpaid and generally untrained rotating leadership to professional leadership because our denomination does not make it easy for ministers with innovative training such as the article describes to find jobs because they are not “fellowshipped” and therefore can not use our primary denominationally controlled placement program.
    While each UU congregation can ordain anyone it deems fit, three years of graduate training seems to be the only practical way to serve outside the local congregation that would choose to ordain someone with alternative qualifications.
    UUism would benefit from more flexibility in our ministerial certification processes.

  13. No, I am not a priest, but I am HORRIFIED at the way people are lining up to say that clergy… who typically work 60 to 90 hour weeks… should do so for free.

    “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

    Says a lot about what people REALLY think is important.

    • So, you are OK with a pastor working 60 to 90 hours a week so that all the work gets done?? That says a lot about what you really think is important – your pastor working themselves to death so others can consume what they have to offer on the weekends.

  14. A spiritually impoverished idea in this land of plenty. The pastor/priest rightly earns compensation from the congregation, and it is the duty, a joyful duty, of the congregation to share it with its spiritual leader. For a congregation not to share in that manner encourages them to be lazy in regard to stewardship. An individual’s spiritual health is intertwined with one’s stewardship, and it is likewise with a congregation. The congregation shares. It is the servant’s option to share it witih others, return it to the church, or ocassionaly take a spouse out for dinner (thus employing a cook and a server), or a combination of the three.

  15. I am an ordained ELCA Pastor now serving 32 hours per week as a hospice chaplain in northern California. While I’ve made the commitment of time and finances to become a professional health care chaplain and am happy doing this, the church really doesn’t need my skills as a pastor anymore. I will occasionally drive 70 miles to fill the pulpit at a small church. In 2 years, I can officially retire from active ministry in the church, hang up my stole and be done with it, I guess.

  16. I am an ordained ELCA Pastor now serving 32 hours per week as a hospice chaplain in northern California. While I’ve made the commitment of time and finances to become a professional health care chaplain and am happy doing this, the church really doesn’t desire my skills as a pastor anymore. The bishop is flooded with requests by pastors around the country who want to live in California. I will occasionally drive 70 miles to fill the pulpit at a small church. In 2 years, I can officially retire from active ministry in the church, hang up my stole and be done with it, I guess.

    • Such is the collapse of the system we serve. We were both trained in a church that began sowing seeds of irrelevancy decades ago. Seminary professors, who don’t know how to lead effective ministries because few have actually done so, train future pastor to the same level of expertise. It’s an institution that cannot be turned around. OTOH, there are renewal movements that can reach neighborhoods and create disciples of Christ, but you have to look for them outside denomination ghettos.

      ELCA in Maryland

      • What are you saying-that there are seminary professors who want to deal with training clergy but don’t like dealing with local churches themselves? They don’t like having to do canvassing for money or church maintenance or having to recruit for church activities and leadership? I’m shocked-the next thing you’ll be telling me is that you still want to pretend to be a “prophetic voice” while getting tax breaks and housing allowances from the government.
        But that would be hypocritical, wouldn’t it?

  17. Without the “non-stipendary” clergy many congregations in the ACSA (Anglican Church of Southern Africa) would not function. Many of them are retired people, others still have their “secular” jobs.
    One of the difficulties I experienced since I was ordained and served as non-stipendary deacon at first and as non-stipendary priest later is when do you get your day off? From Monday to Friday you have your regular job (while a stipendary priest would have a day off during the week), but Sunday you have to preach and celebrate…

  18. If a congregation is having to do this, then it’s obviously desperate to survive. This church mentioned in the article likely won’t survive in the long run. Pay the pastors. The shepherds of the flock are worth their wages.

    And I’m not surprised with the fact that the Episcopalians would resort to this. That denomination–and many Anglican churches in general–has sold out on everything it once taught and has been conforming its theology to unbiblical standards for decades. Stuff like this is the natural fruit of what has been decades of preaching social gospel and “diversity” rather than the teachings of the Bible. If you conform your theology to the world, then you do nothing but conform yourself into spiritual irrelevance. Why should you expect anyone to stay if your teachings constantly change and offer no difference than the world around you?

    • Hmmm..it’s interesting that churches are facing this challenge and are responding by doing something the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always done- people serve in every position, whether leadership, teacher, missionary, music leader, or any other position without any compensation aside from the blessings of God. There has never been any question about a Mormon minister putting money before the needs of those he serves because money isn’t even part of the equation. Jesus freely imparted the gospel and taught His disciples to do the same so in my mind it’s a good thing that other Christians are catching on to this idea and serving for the sake of service rather than for profit, prestige, power, or other worldly reasons. Congregations can thrive with a lay ministry- it’s been proven in over 29,000 congregations and counting!

  19. If a person does not have a real job, it seems to me that they lack the perspective necessary to perform their role as a pastor. In Jacksonville, Florida, we have a church led by a pastor who makes in excess of $300,000 per year. It’s disgusting. A person cannot convince me that they do God’s work, yet accept nearly a third of a million dollars or more in compensation – money that could have been spent on church services. The Graham family makes absurd amounts of money, as well. Of course, even among secular organizations, executive compensation is obscene (see Charity Navigator’s article on CEO compensation for 2013).

    I’ve got nothing against wealth, but you earn wealth in private sector commercial endeavors; in other words, business. Be an engineer, a medical doctor, and/or start a business if you want to be wealthy. Don’t do it through your church.

    Where is your reward for serving God? Is it here, or in heaven? Uncompensated serviced to God is the best way.

  1. […] As denominations decline, numbers of unpaid ministers rise (RNS) Though small evangelical congregations have long relied on unpaid pastors, mainline churches haven’t. They’ve generally paid full-time or nearly full-time salaries, said Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary sociologist of religion. Jeremiah Griffin (left) and Mark Marmon (right) in procession during Ordination on June 15. They are two of 13 people ordained to the diaconate at Christ Church Cathedral. Photo by Carol Barnwell, Episcopal Diocese of Texas. That’s changing, however, as churches face declining numbers and look to new ministry models to make ends meet. Thumma sees more mainliners cutting back to halftime or one-quarter-time packages for clergy, who increasingly work second jobs. […]

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