Starbucks barista. Pharmacist. Substitute teacher. Nanny. Animal handler. Roller derby announcer.

These seemingly unrelated professionals have one thing in common—they’re all leading “double lives” as church workers, most as pastors.

While this may seem unusual, working in the church and in another (often secular) role may become the norm in the future. There’s good reason to speculate: The Pew Research Center reported last year that a rising share of Americans is religiously unaffiliated. What has followed is a shrinking share of people in the pews and dollars in offering plates.

The ELCA is no exception: The number of weekly worshipers has declined 38 percent since its inception in 1988. Many small congregations can’t afford full-time pastors.

ELCA pastors are coming out of seminary with an average debt of nearly $46,000, a churchwide organization staff report says. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median wage for full-time pastors is $43,950, and less for other church workers. What are church workers to do?

Well, other things.

A typical weekday for Andrew Tobias Nelson, pastor of Christ our Emmanuel Lutheran Church, Chatham, N.Y., begins at 5:30 a.m. at Starbucks. “To pay for groceries I work [for Starbucks] 20 to 30 hours a week,” he said. “[Being] on my feet and caffeinated as befits an extrovert. My second job pays $10 per hour, plus tips, free coffee while I work and other benefits.”

He balances being a barista with 20 hours a week at Christ our Emmanuel, focusing on sermon and worship preparation, leadership, council meetings, senior high ministry, faith formation and “other duties as assigned.” Some of the traditional tasks a full-time pastor might manage are led by volunteers, including visitation, Sunday school and community outreach activities.

Nelson sees working at Starbucks as a gift to his ministry because it allows him to connect with people outside of the church and keep abreast of the realities of minimum wage work, which he says is “struggling mightily.”

Healing bodies, souls

Liz Retz, pastor of St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Midland, Mich., has similar sentiments about her pharmaceutical job. Working there helps her connect with co-workers and patients alike, as well as “keep a pulse on what it’s like to be working for a company and all the stresses.”

After 10 years as a pharmacist, Retz said she felt called to ministry when a patient came in and “just needed to talk. All the medication in the world wasn’t what this person needed.”

Later Retz studied at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, while continuing to work as a pharmacist.

Today she splits three-fourths of her time as a pastor and one-quarter as a pharmacist for HealthSource Saginaw. But she sees herself in full-time ministry, a vocational vision instilled in her at Wartburg. “The sacrament [of Communion] is in a lot of ways the same thing that I do as a pharmacist,” she said. “It’s administering the life-giving medicine, but for people’s spiritual life.”

The dual roles are also practical—pharmaceutical work is essential to her financial livelihood. They’ve also given way to opportunities for ministry. Once while working at the pharmacy, Retz was called to comfort a patient’s family whose relative was dying.

Being a bi-vocational minister is challenging at times, Retz said. The line between work and personal time can be easily blurred for full- and part-time pastors. She avoids burnout by tracking the time she spends at St. Timothy. “There are weeks that I am way over [at church]. Then I have to back off and balance it,” she said.

Retz also connects with other bi-vocational pastors for support. “We are holding each other accountable,” she said. “It’s awfully easy to put more time into church stuff.”

Bi-vocational calls: Blessing or burden?

Peter Roy understands this well. When his full-time call changed to half-time, he was unsure how he’d supplement the loss of income for his household. A second-career pastor serving St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Saint Johns, Pa., Roy’s background was in community banking. Returning to part-time work in that industry didn’t translate well.

As a part-time solo pastor, Roy needed a flexible position that would allow him to be available to his members when life emergencies came up. That led him to part-time substitute teaching.

“I felt called to serve, and teaching is another vocation of service,” said Roy, who with his wife has four children and is expecting twins. “Yet it has become a struggle, one that has put stress on my prayer life and limited my ability serving as a pastor since I need to supplement my income to feed, clothe and care for my growing family. The sacrifices are great.”

Melinda Alenka, a youth ministry coordinator from Rockford, Ill., has a different take on her dual roles. For nearly 14 years she has been working part-time at St. Mark Lutheran Church. She supplements her income by spending 10 to 15 hours a week as a nanny for a family with two boys, one of whom has cerebral palsy and needs extra assistance.

Although her nanny position began as a part-time job, it quickly “turned into a lifetime commitment to this family in need,” Alenka said. “The relationship to this family is a blessing like nothing I could have ever imagined.”

Though bi-vocational ministry has its strengths, Louise Johnson, president of Wartburg Seminary, said her “hope for our church is that this is an exception and not a rule. By and large we all know too well that ministry is full-time work.”

Since the cost of seminary education doesn’t track with the salary of a pastor or church worker, Johnson said Wartburg is collaborating with other ELCA partners to create a structure for theological education that will reduce student debt.

One thing is certain: Bi-vocational ministry isn’t going away anytime soon. Martin Luther might suggest that we all consider ourselves bi- or multi-vocational or, as Nelson the barista puts it: “Ministry belongs to all of us, and we belong to each other. I’m no less a Christ-bearer behind the coffee counter and neither are you.”


Volunteer work offers inspiration, opportunities for ministry

Even though pastors Margo Peterson and Andrew Tengwall aren’t paid for their volunteer gigs, the satisfaction makes it worth their while.

Whether she is working as a volunteer animal handler or as pastor of St. Martin of Tours Lutheran Church, Mascoutah, Ill., Peterson sees her work as intertwined. Twice a week she volunteers with organizations that use animals as therapeutic tools.

“I really appreciate [Martin] Luther’s understanding that living the faith is in everything that you do,” Peterson said. “I best feel God’s calming, healing presence when alone in our congregation’s sanctuary, and when alone with my horse or dogs. I feel called to share that restorative peace with others by sharing my animals.”

Tengwall, whose day job is pastor of Lutheran Church of the Savior, Kalamazoo, Mich., has a similar zest for his volunteer work. Most Saturday nights you’ll find him in his clerical collar and a pink suit jacket masquerading as “Reverend Killjoy,” announcer for the Killamazoo Derby Darlins of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

The sport allows him to meet people from all walks of life—“engineers and graphic designers and strip-club waitresses and hairdressers.”

“When I first started announcing roller derby I thought it would be a good way to meet people and invite them to be part of the church,” Tengwall said. But he was surprised to find that he inspired three women from a former congregation to join the roller derby league.

A few months later, when a 19-year-old skater from their team returned home to find the grandfather who raised her dead in his chair, Tengwall witnessed the three “church ladies” spring into action. They supported their teammate during this difficult time, bringing her food, giving her rides to work and attending the memorial.

“I realized [then] that my involvement in roller derby would not be about bringing roller derby people into the church but about bringing the church out into the world,” Tengwall said. “Over the years I’ve had many roller derby friends worship in my congregation, but the important ministry has always happened when the church went out to the derby.”


Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago and author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years (Morehouse Publishing, March 2023). Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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