Boundary Lines: Is Part-time Ministry Possible?

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. (Psalm 16:6)

When people hear that I work two-thirds time as a solo pastor, they usually smile knowingly and say, church work is never part-time.

Like most truisms, that one has a grain of truth but also perpetuates a myth. If part-time work were not possible, would I be in my eighth year of doing it? Surely I would have wised up by now and be pulling a larger salary to offset my longer hours.

The truth is, I do work less than full-time. I shoot for 30 hours (two-thirds of 45) by following this rule: if someone other than me can do it, let them.

That rule is enforced by a boundary line: the Potomac River. I live in Sterling, VA, and my church is in Poolesville, MD. As the crow flies, my home and church are five miles apart. But since I cross the river on a ferry (White’s Ferry near Leesburg), not a kayak, it’s a 22 mile commute.

The Potomac River is a powerful boundary line. Did you know that Maryland owns the entire river, right up to the Virginia bank? In the Civil War the Potomac divided north from south. Today it is responsible for the uniquely different cultures that are rural up-county Montgomery, and ever-expanding Loudoun.

As someone who formerly lived in a manse a mere stone’s throw from church, I say this without equivocation: It’s a good thing to have a boundary between home and church.

Here at Poolesville, my congregation never got in the habit of expecting me to do everything. They don’t assume I’ll be able to pick up any slack. Instead, they realize there’s a lot I don’t know about what’s going on locally. They must pay attention to needs, and act on them. Consequently, the congregation is full of strong leaders.

I am very available via email or phone, but not so available in the flesh. To manage, I do a tremendous amount of pastoral care at a distance. The Holy Spirit passes through phone lines, and people appreciate an emailed prayer they can print out and carry with them. If someone is willing to meet on my side of the river, I know they really need to talk.

There are downsides, of course. This schedule puts pressure on Sundays and the one weekday I’m at church. Back-to-back appointments are normal (but aren’t they for you, too?). Occasionally I wish I had more hours at church, and I can imagine the things I would do with more time. But to be left wanting more is a good thing, right? And yes, if someone has a hospital emergency, I drop everything and hop on the Beltway to Shady Grove. But that has happened only a handful of times in 8 years.

There are unexpected upsides: At the grocery store, I put wine in my cart without a second thought. At the gym, I don’t run into elders while I’m soaked with sweat. When I talk about faith with people I meet in Virginia, they don’t feel like I’m drumming up customers, which makes those relationships uniquely powerful. Most importantly, my kids weren’t in the same schools with church kids, so they weren’t labeled as PKs.

With apologies to Robert Frost: Good boundaries make good clergy/congregation relationships.

To clergy out there: What’s the boundary line that separates your church life from your home life? I hope it falls in a pleasant place.

(this was published in NCP Monthly, the monthly newsletter of National Capital Presbytery, Sept 2009)


2 responses to “Boundary Lines: Is Part-time Ministry Possible?”

  1. It is going to be really fun to watch you do this, RM! And yes, your 3 children are “a pleasant place” aren’t they?

  2. AMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    My three small children are my boundary line. My church schedule is part-time, which means they’re in daycare part-time.

    If something urgent happens, I could find a place for them to go, but it’s sufficiently difficult that I will not do it for anything but the most pressing emergency.

    Thanks for this… I really treasure being able to observe how you do it.

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