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Tent-Making Journalism

In today’s church, most pastors are full-time paid employees. This trend toward the professional clergy class peaked in the mid-to-latter part of the 20th century, when ministers briefly assumed equal status to other professionals such as doctors and lawyers.

That trend is slowly changing as the 21st-century unfolds. As attendance and donations decline, many churces can no longer support a full-time pastor. They are turning to what is known as "tent-making" ministry – where the pastor makes his or her living in another occupation and leads the congregation as a volunteer. The term refers to the Apostle Paul, the great evangelist of the 1st century, who earned his living by making canvas tents and who operated his ministry on the side.

In the future, we are likely to see a balance between professional clergy in larger urban and suburban churches, and tent-making leaders in small-town and rural congregations. This balance should prove to be a good thing, as each style of minsitry has its own advantages. Professional clergy have the time and the educational background to develop programs and relationships that volunteers never could, but volunteers have the freedom from professional expectations to do some unique and creative things. 

In an interesting parallel, the field of journalism is facing many of the same issues. In the 1900’s, print journalism peaked, with national news magazines and local newspapers flourishing. The advent of online news, however, has thrown the field into a much-publicized tailspin. Many are concerned that not only are newspapers and magazines dying, but that the entire field of journalism is in danger. In a country where it seems that the public is growing more and more ignorant and misled, the need for strong reporting is greater than ever.

Could part of the solution be "tent-making" journalists? Already, the Internet offers a balance. Traditional newspapers and TV networks have developed online offerings, and a few independent sites such as The Huffington Post have professional-grade reporting.  Elswewhere in the blogosphere is a seemingly infinite array of amateur fare tailored to every perspective and political persuasion under the sun. The widespread availability of this amateur side is a new development in the history of journalism, and it opens up a whole new world of possibilities. 

Take my story, for example. Eighteen months ago, I was plugging away on my own personal blog, and maybe ten people a day were reading it. Then, I stumbled across The Seminal, submitted an article, and within two months had been invited to be a regular contributor. With the recent merger with Firedoglake, my articles are seeing audiences in the thousands and sometimes tens of thousands – all as I maintain my other gig as a full-time professional pastor. 

The majority of writers on The Seminal and on most other political blogs have similar tent-making stories, the advantages of which are many. We have no professional constraints or expectations. We are not trying to please a boss, an audience, or a potential future employer. We carry nobody’s agenda but our own. We write when we feel moved to write on the topics we feel led to address. And although we might harbor some ambitions for greater things in the world of journalism, we are committed to our day jobs and to keeping them as our sources of income.

Obviously, professional journalists can offer many things that a tent-maker cannot, most notably the time and ability to chase down people and facts that are necessary for certain kinds of stories. The great challenge for the field in the coming years is to discover a way that online news outlets can provide these things. But the era when all of our news and commentary is brought to us by professionals is over, and the age of the amateur is dawning. It promises to be an exciting ride!

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Jim Moss

Jim Moss