I ran into a young minister friend of mine during Easter week in the checkout line at Target. His name is Isaac Villegas, and he is pastor of a small Mennonite congregation in Chapel Hill, N.C. Isaac told me he had gotten up early to finish his Maundy Thursday homily, and now he was waiting to pay for two large plastic tubs to be used in the foot-washing ritual that evening. Not an untypical swing of duties for him or any small-church minister — from the solitary study of Scripture to the public drama of a high holy day, with the running of errands in between.
Isaac’s congregation cannot afford to pay him a full salary. He and his wife tithe much of what they do get back to the church. Despite eight years of higher education, including a degree from Duke Divinity School, he has always had to supplement his income with other work. He assists in teaching theology courses at Duke, including one of mine. Before that he combined ministry with carpentry (for which there is precedent in Christianity).
Mostly he works for his church. When he is not preparing Bible studies and sermons, he is in the jails and hospitals counseling the troubled or praying with the dying. Like the duties of most pastors, Isaac’s touch every notch on the life cycle, from baptism to last rites. Some of his best pastoral care is delivered on park benches in verdant Chapel Hill. And since Isaac’s congregation prefers renting space, he doesn’t have an office. This is OK: The ministry itself is called an “office,” giving the office-holder a privileged place in the lives of those who accept him as their shepherd. And all the shepherd has to do in return is model a life of service and apply the assorted symbols of God to every occasion or dilemma known to humankind.
Isaac’s improvisational ministry reflects the realities of a shrinking Protestant church in America.