Illustration: Neil Webb

Topics: June 2022, UCC in Focus | Religion

The United Church is changing its model of ministry — for better or for worse

Part-time clergy jobs are becoming the norm, and that has huge implications for the wider church


Rev. Eric Lukacs is the minister at St. Andrew’s United in Buckingham, Que., where he works three days a week for the community of faith. During the rest of his time, he runs a kitchen installation business, as well as a small counselling practice. 

He refers to his ministry as a “practice,” which for him changes the nature of the relationship with the community of faith. “The scale of work and expectations are clearly laid out for both parties. This reduces the potential for misunderstandings and conflict,” he says. “The working world for all of us is becoming ever more abstract, and we need to hear and learn from each other. Without this, we will enter a time of catastrophic failure.” 

Part-time ministry is on the rise; in fact, it’s quickly becoming the standard. “Fifty-four percent of church vacancies are part time, and it’s a growing trend,” says Rev. Ross Bartlett, who teaches at the Atlantic School of Theology. “There is a presumption that full-time ministry is the norm in the United Church, but that no longer fits the reality.” 

The numbers are startling: in 2000, The United Church of Canada had a ratio of 326 members to one minister; by 2030, that will drop to 185. This trend, Bartlett says, necessitates a complete rethinking of how we do ministry. Part-time ministry is “a different type of ministry than full-time.…You don’t just try to do a pared-down full-time position. Instead, it requires a different focus. That means doing clearly identified tasks very well and empowering the congregation to do the other parts of ministry.”

Ministry in the United Church, or any church for that matter, has been an institutional experience since the end of the Second World War. Institutions are comforting. They offer clearly defined policies and procedures, they provide secure jobs with pensions and benefits, and they give people a place in the world and help them to define their role in it. But what happens when the world changes so radically that institutions struggle to keep up with the pace of the changes?

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Rev. Alan Hall, executive officer for ministry and employment in the United Church, acknowledges the depth of the challenges that the church faces. “The context of ministry is evolving into a different place,” he says, “but that is not new in the history of the church.” From Hall’s perspective, “we are moving to more co-operative models.” He also acknowledges the post-pandemic reality that many clergy are already experiencing ministry as “precarious employment.”

The United Church is not alone in this. Western Christianity faces some of its greatest changes in recent history. “We are in the midst of a denominational meltdown, and there is so much grief and anxiety,” says Rev. Mandy Smith, a Uniting Church minister in Brisbane, Australia, and the author of Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Without Western Baggage. “The strategies we were taught don’t work anymore, the skills we were given don’t apply, and we need new theologies for the present moment, with new voices.”  

While these changes might push the church to turn to business models, Smith is critical of relying on the business world as a source of wisdom. “We need to learn from other fields, like the arts,” she insists. “The church has become secular. God gives us a glimpse, not a five-year plan.”

There’s no question that the massive economic shifts due to globalization are affecting local congregations and the future of ministry. Incomes have been stagnating since the 1970s, the wealth gap in Canada is growing and we have more precarious employment and a growing gig economy. Real estate prices have spiralled out of control, and whole generations are being priced out of the market. Further, the generations that supported the churches are aging out, and fewer young adults are joining to support the institutional infrastructure. 

Illustration: Neil Webb

The implications for the wider church are enormous. How does the United Church prepare and train ministers if there are no full-time jobs at the end of their training? Can the church still ask candidates to have two degrees before they enter ministry, with all the accompanying debt? Some would argue that this expectation no longer makes sense and that new forms of education and training, and new models of ministry, are required.

Chris Pullenayegem, director of the Congregational Vitality Initiative at the Vancouver School of Theology, is among them. Pullenayegem envisions a shift away from the traditional model of single-person, full-time ministry. Instead, he sees a future of team ministry that serves multiple regional congregations. “If you have two to four ministers with different gifts serving the congregations, you will get a much richer and more balanced ministry,” he says. “It’s no longer about viability; it’s about vitality and a return to more home- and community-based ministries like the early church.” In these teams, he adds, a full-time minister would equip others to do the actual ministry; bivocational clergy and volunteers would use their particular gifts. 

Hall points out that the Atlantic School of Theology has a distance ministry program that has loosened the requirements for an undergraduate degree and is designed for people working in part-time ministry: “If you look at the training models of our partner churches in places like Africa, this type of training and working collaboratively has been the norm for years.” Hall also says that conversations are happening with all United Church educational institutions around future training for clergy and how it will evolve and adapt to a changing context.

The numbers are startling: in 2000, The United Church of Canada had a ratio of 326 members to one minister; by 2030, that will drop to 185.

Rev. Bri-Anne Swan, who is in team ministry with Rev. Norm Seli at Jubilee United in Toronto, agrees that the solo jack-of-all-trades minister is coming to an end. “We are moving to a much more collegial and collective understanding of ministry with a diverse pool of assets and skills,” she observes. Seli adds: “As partners, Bri-Anne and I are discovering new ways of being in ministry. It’s really exciting.” 

Other denominations are grappling with the future of ministry too. Janet Marshall, director of congregational development for the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, also believes that teams of ministers working together is the future. “Ministry is beyond any one person or congregation in this liminal time of ongoing uncertainty,” she says. She sees the church of the future as having a smaller footprint and working together across denominational boundaries. 

This versatility may come easier for some. Rev. Sadekie Lyttle-Forbes, a minister at Sharon Hope United in East Gwillimbury, Ont., was ordained in the United Church of Jamaica in 2007. “I was trained differently than ministers in The United Church of Canada. We were trained to be more agile and change tactics as the Spirit moves and directs,” she says. “We need to adopt a growth mindset.” 

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Emmanuel College master of divinity student Julian Munro is well aware of the employment landscape they’ll face upon ordination. For Munro, repurposing buildings to financially support ministry positions is key to the church’s future. They’re unafraid of decline. “It doesn’t scare me as much as it motivates me to find ways to integrate ministry and expand my horizons into the community,” Munro says.

Rev. Daniel Reed, a third-generation minister ordained in 2019 who serves Kimbourne Park United in Toronto, echoes the need for transformative vision. “The United Church has tried since the 1960s to respond to what’s next and has been incorrect in their response every time,” he asserts. He is uninterested in talking about decline and sees a future that is based on connecting with God and people. “There will be a call for Dorothy Days and Dietrich Bonhoeffers, but at its heart there will be a radical reorientation to the early Apostolic community,” he says. “We need to be praying and asking, ‘Are we genuinely connected to God?’”

When asked about his own future in ministry, Reed replies, “I was never under any illusions about what the Lord was calling me into. I was born in 1992, well into a post-Christendom world. It’s a bit sad, but it’s not like any of my friends have much job security either.”

None of us can predict the future, but it’s clear that the denomination is going to have to face the question of full-time employment for ministry personnel. Will the United Church commit to taking what may be difficult actions, like selling or repurposing buildings, to assist in ensuring stable full-time jobs?  

While “full-time jobs are not coming to an end,” says Hall, “there will be other models of ministry, and people who are starting their ministry in their 20s will cycle through multiple models in their lifetimes.” 

“Ministry has never been more important and exciting than now and remains a great privilege,” he adds. 

Tremendous opportunities lie ahead, but they will take wisdom, compassion and courage to live out.  


Rev. Christopher White is in ministry at Kedron United in Oshawa, Ont.

This story first appeared in Broadview’s June 2022 issue with the title “Precarious and part-time.”

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  • says:

    Certainly things have been changing all along, but now it is so visible we can no longer ignore it.
    I would wonder at calling ministry a 'practice'. That word is taken by medical doctors and health
    We can choose another word that would have a hint of faith based work that we do do.

    It is like the early church... new things and adaptations kept them alert. We may not be as worried about authorities, but that may also come. Keeping Community is the biggest threat for all of us.
    We will likely find food sources in trouble, so Community Gardens will be needed for sure.
    Keeping connections with everyone is crucial.

    Let God lead us forward and be the love for the world is in desperate need of love.
    We can do what is necessary when we leave fear behind and go forward in the Love and Energy God provides.


    • says:

      I think you hit the nail on the head.
      Ministry is a calling, not a job, profession or a career.

      That being said, the world needs Christ, not just love.


      • says:

        Interestingly enough, I just read this comment on Malachi 2:5...
        “The Levites of Moses' day had a belief that behaved. With their fighting faith and the courage of their convictions, they were prepared to make short work of both apathy and apostasy. The priests of Malachi's day were lineal heirs of the Levites, but their ministry had degenerated into a well-paying job with fringe benefits and social security. Professionalism in the things of God nearly always degenerates into dead orthodoxy or faith-denying liberalism.” (John Phillips)

  • says:

    After 40 years in ministry, I have seen a lot of decline. Chris is spot on.

  • says:

    Infrastructure rethink:
    what about UCC Community Centres (likeJudaism, Catholicism), with chapel and multipurpose rooms, gym, Christian Ed, serious Bible learning , etc.

    Christian Ed rethink:
    Churches with full time schools (again look sideways at catholic and Jewish models).

    Mission rethink:
    what does the UCC UNIQUELY provide?

    There should be a lot of discussion here on this topic. Set up a task force on alternate models of ministry. It can’t all be closing churches and social gospel efforts (which in many cases is a duplication of effort).

  • says:

    The real issue is the so-called 'Western Christianity'. And we used to sing, "In Christ there is no east or west,
    in him no south or north,
    but one great fellowship of love
    throughout the whole wide earth". That was deception. It sounds like English tea, imported/stolen from Darjeeling and packaged in Birmingham.