Church-goers: is it appropriate for one man to pastor three congregations?

A couple of things here:

I am not trying to start the usual atheists-versus-Christians thread. Though I think theists are wrong, metaphysically speaking, I don’t think they are necessarily evil or deluded, and I don’t think that all clergy are corrupt.

Anyway…yesterday at Easter dinner, my father and sisters (who all belong to the same Pentecostoal denomination) mentioned that a bishop in their organization died a few days ago. I don’t know the man in question, so I paid little attention to that part of the conversation; but it did strike me as odd to hear that the son of the deceased bishop is pastor to not one, not two, but three separate congregations. As the denomination in question is quite hierarchal in setup–each church belongs to a district (supervised by a superintendant), and each district is in a territory (supervised by a bishop), I thought perhaps they meant that the minister in question was a superintendant. But no: this fellow is the pastor of three churches in three different neighborhoods, drawing a salary from each.


I wrote “man” rather than “person” on purpose, by the way, as this denomination does not permit women to be pastors or to call themselves ministers. Women preachers are known as missionaries and, as I understand it, may not be put in leadership over any male.

Hey, it’s like juggling. Keep as many balls in the air. Keep the audience amazed and impressed. When you start dropping the balls people will walk away.

There were circuit preachers who made the rounds to various congregations that, for whatever reason, didn’t have a full time preacher of their own. I know some Methodist did this in the 19th century and did Catholics. For all I know there might be circuit preachers in some of the more remote areas of the U.S. I don’t really see this as being all that different.

I know of quite a few catholic priests who minister to 3 or more congregations. The lack of people joining the seminary has caused a shortage especially in rural areas. I don’t think they get a salary for each parish though.

Well, I’m not religious, but it seems reasonable if the congregations are relatively small, and the total salary drawn is more or less the same as you’d get for looking after one congregation (with an extra allowance for the travelling expenses if the churches are significantly separated). It would seem to me about the same level of difficulty to look after one parish of 300 souls, or three parishes with 100 souls each.

Assuming he is being honest about this, I don’t see anything ethically suspect about it. I assume he doesn’t have three different personalities or pastoral styles. In which case, I don’t see how three small congregations is morally different from one big one.

If the hierarchy disallows this, or any of the congregations don’t know about this, then he would be deceitful, and this would an ethical issue. Even if he is drawing more salary than he would with one larger congregations, I don’t see an issue with it if it is all out in the open. There might be legitimate reasons to pay a pastor more if he has to travel between geographically divergent congregations.

They seem more to me like pluralist benefices. Does this pastor hold services in all three of these churches himself, or does he have vicars (or whatever that denomination calls vicars) for two of the churches?

A lot of it depends on what the church leadership and the congregation expect their pastor to do. That can range from someone who only leads the service and officiates at weddings and funerals to what could be called the “chief executive” of the congregation.

In some congregations, the trustees are responsible for taking care of the church property, paying the bills, even establishing and guiding the “mission” and vision for the congregation. In others there’s a paid staff, while in others, the minister does all the day-to-day work.

A lot of small churches don’t have anyone working for them. In some churches, the minister is not only part-time, but he/she only gets a cut of the weekly collection as salary – if a snowstorm keeps everyone home that Sunday, the minister doesn’t get paid.

Also, the bishop may be standing in as an “interim pastor” for one or more of his congregations while they search for a new minister. Having been through several searches, I can tell you it’s not unusual for the process to take at least six months, and sometimes even a year.

The Roman Catholics in the U.S. have actually been a pretty good model for how to deal with a shortage of clergy. It used to be that that a pastor pretty much ran the show. As the shortage of Catholic priests has worsened, more and more churches are being run by administrators, church councils and similar organizations, and taking those responsibilities away from the ordained priests, who then have more time to spend on the “spiritual” part of their jobs.

As to what this minister is getting paid, usually Catholic clergy work directly for the diocese and are assigned duites (which may include teaching, being a hospital chaplain, etc. and also working as a parish priest) while most Protestant ministers are employed directly by an individual congregation and negotiate their pay individually within broad guidelines of that particular denomination.

For small congregations, pastoral circuits may be the only way they can afford a minister. They’re effectively hiring a part-time minister with other congregations taking care of the remaining hours.

In the United Methodist denomination, there’s very little (in terms of rites) that an ordained minister can do that a laymember cannot. What the minister mostly provides is a matter of education and experience.

Also note, that United Methodists are episcopal–while the local congregation pays the pastoral salary, it’s the area bishop that assigns the minister. Even today, Methodists have a tradition of rotating ministers. A minister will not serve a single congregation for more than several years, before they are reassigned to a different one, as a matter of policy.

My father did this for awhile. He was full-time pastor at one church, while also functioning as pastor for a dying congregation (i.e., about a dozen people, almost all elderly) a few towns over. He’d go over there, do a little service for them around 8:30 am, and then come back to our church for the 11 am service.

Throw in the occasional hospital visit, and the second church probably took 5 hours a week of his time.

My brother is currently pastor of three congregations in a rural area: two Lutheran churches and one Presbyterian. Very small congregations without the resources to support a pastor on their own. Between them, they can afford his salary. He does three sermons on Sunday – or, rather, preaches the same one three times. During the summer, when attendance is low, they combine all three congregations into one and take turns meeting at each of the three churches.

Depends on the size of the congregations.

The woman who was in charge of my grandmother’s funeral service was the pastor for that church and a neighboring church, and her husband was the pastor for two more.

I doubt my grandmother’s church had more than 50 regular attendees(most of whom will not see 70 again), and the others were likewise.

Small dying towns, with aging populations, and a long history of a Methodist church in every small town–history of circuit riders, where one preacher with a horse could cover a wide territory–I’m not seeing anything weird or inappropriate about 3 three congregations to a pastor.