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Part-Time Preaching: Few Churches Can Fully Support Their Ministers Today

On a typical Sunday, Alan Henderson shares God’s word with 100 to 110 souls at the Newnan Church of Christ, about 35 miles southwest of Atlanta.

The rest of the week, the part-time preacher lives out his faith from a different vantage point: high above the clouds as a flight attendant for Frontier Airlines.

“Even in my announcements, I take some liberties,” Henderson, 60, said of reflecting his love for Jesus in the air.

“I’ll do the spiel I’m supposed to,” the father of two explained, “but in the end, I’ll add something like, ‘And until we see you next time, we remind you to be kind, use your words to bless and encourage people around you, laugh frequently, take care of each other, love your neighbor, and don’t spend too much time watching the news.’”

As a bivocational minister, Henderson serves his home congregation in a vital way while earning additional income and health insurance benefits through a secular profession.

“I’ve been bivocational and trivocational,” said Henderson, who still mows a handful of yards for a lawn care business he and his son Josiah, 20, began several years ago. Alan and Lanita, the preacher’s wife of 38 years, also have an older son, 29-year-old Levi.

Roughly three-quarters of the nation’s nearly 12,000 Churches of Christ have fewer than 100 members, according to a national directory published by 21st Century Christian, based in Nashville, Tennessee.

The fellowship’s median congregational size is 67.

“Many churches are small and can’t afford a full-time preacher,” said John Hobbs, a retired educator who lives in Wylie, Texas, and mixed teaching public school and preaching for most of his career. “There is a need for tentmaking preachers.”

In a presentation at the recent Harding University Bible Lectureship in Searcy, Ark., Hobbs pointed to biblical examples: Paul was a tentmaker. Peter and John were fishermen. Elisha was a farmer. Amos was a herdsman.

The future of ministry in America is part-time, maintains G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a veteran journalist and author of the 2020 book “Part-Time is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy.”

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Supporting a full-time minister requires an average of 130 or more in worship, according to MacDonald, who cited research by the Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation, an Indianapolis-based consultancy that’s worked with hundreds of churches on sustainability issues.

But 65% of American churches count an average of fewer than 100 in worship—up from 49% in 2010, according to the 2020 Faith Communities Today study of more than 15,000 U.S. congregations. Ministers will increasingly serve part-time in multiple settings or work outside the church, MacDonald said.

“All signs point to paid ministry becoming something most practitioners will do on a part-time basis, sort of like the Army Reserves, officiating youth athletics or driving a snow plow,” MacDonald told The Christian Chronicle. “In the case of ministry, it will be a calling but not a standalone livelihood in one local church setting in most cases.”

Wisdom and time management

Anthony Norwood preaches for the Henry Street Church of Christ in Gadsden, Ala., which averages Sunday attendance of about 50.

Norwood balances his work as an insurance claims specialist with preparing and delivering Bible lessons, training church leaders and counseling church members.

“Of course, a minister must be scripturally sound and live as an example for the flock, but he must remember to manage his time well,” said Norwood, a bivocational minister for 14 years. “He cannot forget to love his wife and family and juggle properly the demands of the church and family life at the same time. So he must seek wisdom from God at all times and be mindful of time management.”

During the week, Rob Sparks manages his father’s optometry practice in Crossville, Tennessee.

On Sundays, he drives two-plus hours each way to preach for a small country congregation—the Fernvale Church of Christ in Fairview, Tennessee.

“Not depending on the church for our livelihood makes approaching difficult topics and conversations less fraught,” said Sparks, who formerly worked in full-time ministry. “I also appreciate the fact that the pressures and constraints of my life as a bivocational minister mirror those of my congregation more closely…It’s helped me better relate to people.”

In Illinois, Stephen R. Bradd serves as a shepherd and preacher for the Clinton Church of Christ while working 40 to 50 hours a week as general manager for a trucking company. The church averages Sunday attendance of about 50.

“For me, it was either embrace bivocational ministry, quit preaching or move to a larger congregation that could support me and my large family fully,” said Bradd, whose wife homeschools their eight children. “I love to preach, and God provided a great opportunity for both me and the local body with the bulk of my income through my secular work with the trucking company.”

Joshua Dement, a funeral home director and minister for the Pyburn Street Church of Christ in Pocahontas, Ark., said, “The greatest benefit I’ve seen is in the realm of taxes, retirement and other benefits which most churches do not offer their ministers.”

Time for a new training model?

Brian Simmons, a former longtime bivocational minister for the Metro Church of Christ in Gresham, Ore., teaches communication at Oklahoma Christian University.

As demand for preachers in Churches of Christ exceeds the supply, bivocational ministry likely will be the answer, Simmons said—especially for smaller urban churches and rural churches of any size.

“One implication of this is that churches need to get accustomed to that sort of arrangement,” he said. “Another implication is that whoever is training future preachers might want to rethink how that is done.

“The traditional ‘go to a four-year Christian college or preaching school and get a Bible/preaching credential’ model may need to change,” he added, “or at least be supplemented with another means of preparing people for a vocation…and preparation to preach, too. I know at Oklahoma Christian, where I teach, we are talking about crafting means of doing exactly that.”

But the bivocational approach has drawbacks, caution some part-time ministers.

“From my perspective, numerical growth is going to require a full-time commitment,” said Bradley Davison, who preaches for the Lakeview Church of Christ in Shawnee, Okla., while working 40-plus hours a week for an energy company.

“Some bivocational ministries are a full-time job on a part-time salary,” Davison added. “This can work when the minister has a retirement income and is dedicated to the work of the church and does the outreach. But if ministry is only going on one or two days each week because your bivocational ministers are otherwise engaged, you’re not as likely to reach new people.”

Part-time ministry runs in the family

Back in Georgia, Henderson’s bivocational path follows in the footsteps of his late father, Clay, who was a salesman and preacher, and his late grandfather, Floyd, who was a farmer, postmaster and preacher.

Henderson earned a bachelor’s degree in biblical languages with a minor in accounting from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1984. He has worked with churches—typically on an interim or part-time basis—for 40 years.

After graduating from Lipscomb, he and Lanita served two years as missionaries to Papua New Guinea. They later returned to the U.S., where both completed graduate degrees in theology at Abilene Christian University in Texas.

Henderson has taught Bible at the university and high school levels, including 15 years—in two separate stints—at Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Georgia.

“I really enjoyed all my years of teaching school. I loved the kids and families,” Henderson said in an interview with the Chronicle en route from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to Newnan, a city of 43,000 known as the hometown of country star Alan Jackson. “But I really love what I’m doing now, too.”

When Henderson first started working as a flight attendant in 2015, a trainer warned new employees not to expect weekends off.

But the Lord has worked it out, Henderson said, allowing him to attend church—and preach—most Sundays. Occasionally, making it to worship has required flying early in the morning or even renting a car at an airport hundreds of miles away and driving all night.

“So as you might imagine, I get a little aggravated when people say, ‘I just couldn’t get up for church. I was too tired or stayed up too late,’” he said. “I don’t want to hear it.”

Often, Henderson’s flight schedule means multiple overnight stays at a hotel hundreds of miles from home.

He always brings his laptop so he can work on sermons and Bible lessons during any free time.

Besides preaching for the Newnan church, Henderson serves as one of its six elders. Fellow elder Steve Cooper said the church has a written arrangement with Henderson outlining expectations for his part-time role.

For example, preaching at least three Sundays per month is the priority. Another expectation is that he will help lead and organize the Bible teaching program.

But pastoral duties such as visiting the sick in the hospital or giving the eulogy at funerals are not required.

“We’re trying to be as good as we can to him because we value his service as a minister,” Cooper said. “He gives way more of himself than we compensate him for. Alan is a person with that integrity—it’s his desire to overdeliver in any arrangement that he’s in.”

Cooper recalled that when one member’s husband died, Henderson went with her to the funeral home and helped plan the memorial service.

“He was with her every step of the way,” Cooper said. “He could have taken a step back and said, ‘That’s not my responsibility.’ But he stepped in and helped because he said, ‘I love her. I want to do that.’”

Lanita Henderson said she believes her husband’s airline job helps make him a better minister because he meets people who wouldn’t cross his path otherwise.

“I think because he’s out in the culture…with people that are broken and that are searching and need Jesus, that gives him an outlet,” she said. “Then that helps him to be more fresh when he comes here (to preach)…It keeps him from getting bogged down in what we think of as traditional church work.”

Bringing down the stress level

The COVID-19 pandemic has, in many ways, made flying more stressful, Alan Henderson said.

Many passengers don’t like wearing masks. He said he points out in a friendly way that the flight crew often must wear masks for 15 to 16 hours a day. They don’t like it either, he explains, but they understand why it’s required.

“People get frustrated, aggravated,” Henderson said. “A lot of people aren’t comfortable in airports. It’s nerve-racking. So you help people with their stuff.”

At 38,000 feet above the ground—typically traveling 400 to 500 mph—the preacher enjoys interacting with “congregations” of 186 to 230 passengers. The specific number depends on whether he’s flying an Airbus A320 or A321.

“I love on people, hug on people,” he said of his efforts to bring hope and joy to passengers and fellow crew members.

After one of his in-flight announcements, a lady in the front row proclaimed, “The spirit of God is in you.”

“Well, thank you,” Henderson replied.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted at The Christian Chronicle. Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle. A former religion writer for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman, Ross has reported from all 50 states and 15 nations. He has covered religion since 1999.

Bobby Ross Jr.

A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, he blogs about the intersection of faith and the media for GetReligion.