Free Range Priests, Free Agent Pastors, and Other Emerging Ministry Models

By Jim Papile – Retired Episcopal Priest/Church Starter, and Free-Agent Priest

From time to time, we like invite a different voice to the FaithXperimental blog.
Today’s guest blogger is the Rev. Jim Papile (a classmate of Ken’s from Virginia Theological Seminary).


Although I’m not a real big fan of announcements in the middle of the service, as a freelance supply priest I am aware of what my responsibilities are, and what they are not. I serve two small congregations, one Sunday at a small exurb parish of about 30 congregants per Sunday, and the other an urban parish with about the same numbers. I preside at the Eucharist on alternate Sundays. On the Sundays I am not present, the congregations either hire other supply priests or have licensed lay members read Morning Prayer and preach.

On this particular Sunday, I was heartened to hear of all the projects the congregation was involved in within their community. Time, talent, money—there were more things than much larger parishes I had served got involved in. I took a few moments at the end of the announcements to let them know how impressed I was with all they were doing in the community, and how lovingly they visited and tended to the sick and the shut-ins of their community.

After the service, a member of the church’s vestry thanked me for my words and explained how they were able to do the work they did because they did NOT have a full time priest. “We have not had a rector since 2014,” she told me, ”and without having to pay salary, pension, and health care, we have around forty thousand a year to do ministry, and we get different priests, withdifferent preaching and liturgical styles. We love it!”

I retired  in 2016 from full-time parish ministry as a senior pastor who saw five hundred congregants or so on an average Sunday. At the time I thought serving part time in smallish churches might be interfering with young/new priests. Fresh out of seminary, I assumed they would need those small town parish jobs to get a foothold in a lifetime profession. After observing these congregations for a while, I realized how many of them would not be able to hire a full-time pastor. Furthermore, I felt (and still feel) that faithful dedicated Christians deserved, indeed were “owed,” quality worship. I see my job now, as a pensioned priest, to “give back” to the Church that has given, and continues to give, so much to me and my family.

In her book of the same name, Fr. Cathie Caimano has coined the term “free range priest,” and she accurately and with humor and skill describes just the type of ministry I’m talking about.

Personally, being a huge baseball fan, I like the term “Free Agent Priest” or FAP, which for me, brings together some of the terms used to flesh out this type of ministry. Free Range is a clever description—free to roam from parish to parish, a priest is not tied into one place, one set of congregational issues, one set of group dynamics. I no longer feel responsible for the day to day runnings of the church. If I’m only present one or two Sundays a month, someone else will have to make sure the air conditioning keeps running or the snow is removed from the parking lot (types of things full time clergy feel and are held responsible for).

Another accurate term is Contract Priest. Or as the canon of my diocese expressed it in much more gastronomic terms, “Priest à la Carte.” This has compelled me to think about “Priest off the Chinese Menu,” one from column A, one from B.

There are actually two ways this model can work. A congregation will hire an FAP for a specific function, say a funeral or a hospital visit, for an hourly fee, mutually agreed upon contractually. Another way is to have each function specified: a wedding with premarital counseling is a set fee, teaching an adult education class another. This gives the congregation room to determine what services they want from an ordained person, and what they can provide for themselves or have another qualified person accomplish. For instance, a church might require persons desiring to be wed in their sanctuary to pay for a professional counselor to carry out the premarital work, and pay the priest for the wedding ceremony.

Not only does this model of ministry help a congregation with financial sustainability and encourage lay participation, it also helps congregations in conflict. It’s much easier to act as mediator if your full time job is not at stake. Since many conflicts arise between clergy and congregation, an unhappy church simply doesn’t ask back the pastor with whom they are in contention.

An issue with the Free Agent Priest model is recognizing and honoring the difference between it and priests in non-stipendiary roles. Certainly, performing priestly functions and not requiring payment for them is a prerogative, and many who have outside incomes—either a pension or other employment—sincerely wish to help parishes out without being a financial burden. While this is certainly laudable, I’m not sure its the best thing for the congregations involved. What happens when the volunteer priest can no longer participate, and there isn’t another to take her place? All of a sudden, a parish comfortable with an existing budget must find additional funds to pay a priest, even an FAP.

Several years ago, I was in the lecture hall of an Episcopal Seminary when the speaker, sage church observer Phyllis Tickle, surveyed the audience and declared that in fifteen years many of them were going to have to work outside the Church for half of their income. It was not welcome news. I think she was right. While the culture around the Church has been changing at breakneck speed for the past seventy years, we who care about Her must now acknowledge our need to change, too. Tradition is important to who we are and must be protected, but new models will have to emerge within those traditions to facilitate necessary changes. For a people who have been proud to say “we have always done it that way,” this won’t be easy. Reimagining one of the most important relationships, that between pastor and congregation, is a way to start.


The Rev’d James Papile retired after 17 years as founding rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Reston, VA (West of D.C.). He and his wife Kay moved to Wilmington, NC, in the Episcopal Diocese of East Carolina, to be closer to family, including five of his six grandchildren, who live in North Carolina. Before he was ordained, he was a builder and a carpenter, the tools of which he is picking up again in retirement, first to build his own home on Futch Creek, NC, and then in helping with Hurricane Disaster Relief after the 2013 New Orleans Hurricane. A trained community organizer and EFM Mentor Trainer, he now works as a free agent priest. To contact Jim, click here.