NEW YORK — The Rev. Dominique C. Atchison stood at the lectern in the church fellowship hall, her voice soaring, her body swaying. There were joyful and troubled hearts in the seats before her.
She sang to soothe their spirits. She preached to inspire their faith.
“Beautiful! Beautiful!” the congregants called to her at the Wednesday afternoon service at Brown Memorial Baptist Church in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. “Amen!”
Atchison mingled with the parishioners afterward, exchanging hugs and handshakes, good-to-see-yous and how-are-you-doings, and she took quiet solace in the fact that no one knew.
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To them, she was still a promising young leader, an ordained minister with a master’s degree in divinity and an unpaid position in the church hierarchy. No one knew she had just lost the only paying job she had.
No one knew that she would be searching for work when she walked out of the red brick church, or wondering how long her savings and severance package would cover the bills. When she had urged the faithful to search for growth and possibility, even outside their comfort zones, she might have been talking about herself.
“I’m trusting that there’s some meaning or purpose to all of this,” said Atchison, 34, who had lost her job as a chaplain ministering to patients in nursing homes and clinics. “I don’t think I can let myself worry. I think it would overwhelm me.”
But these days, as she continues along her journey of faith, her steps are less certain. Profound social and economic changes are upending the working lives of many young ministers who feel called to a full-time religious life.
Declining attendance has forced some churches to close or shift to part-time pastors, and the economic turbulence of recent years has made some older ministers reluctant to retire, leaving fewer vacancies for young clergy members to fill, said Daniel O. Aleshire, the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, which is based in Pittsburgh and represents 233 seminaries and religious schools in the United States.
The shifts have led to enormous variation in opportunity, he said: Roman Catholic priests have little difficulty finding parishes, while Presbyterian and United Church of Christ ministers may struggle to find full-time, paid positions.
African-American women, like Atchison, often have it harder still, particularly if they aspire to leadership roles in more conservative congregations. Then, even family support can be hard to come by.
Atchison, who grew up in the Bronx, remembers the day she told her father about her studies at seminary.
“I don’t like black lady preachers,” he told her.
Even now, eight years after her graduation from Union Theological Seminary, four years after her ordination and two years after she became an associate minister at Brown (the pastor’s position at the church is paid; hers is not), congregants sometimes stumble when they address her. Every Sunday, she said, someone calls her by her first name or stammers over her title.
Sometimes she calls them out on it. Sometimes she lets it go. She is a thoughtful woman with a warm, steady presence. She knows that her youthful appearance, her gender, her dreadlocks and her two tattoos seem out of sync with their vision of what a minister should be.
But she has never questioned her calling, even amid a work life that she describes as “up and down and in and out and literally all over the place.”
She has had internships at two churches and a residency as a chaplain at a hospital; a case-management job helping victims of Hurricane Katrina; and then, briefly in 2010, a full-time pastor position at a financially strapped church in Michigan with only 20 members. (Ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ, she earned about $25,000 year.) It was not a good fit, she said.
In 2011, she left that congregation, never imagining that she would struggle for so long to find her footing. It took her nearly two years to find steady work. During that time, though, she found her way back to her Baptist roots.
Her church community at Brown celebrated when she finally found two part-time positions last year: the chaplaincy, which was based in the Bronx, and another in which she helped coordinate community discussions about race for the United Church of Christ in Connecticut. Combined, she earned about $40,000.
Atchison felt so confident in her newfound stability that she quit her job in Connecticut this month, hoping to center her home and spiritual life in Brooklyn. Two days later, she was laid off from her job as a chaplain.
Recently, she couldn’t help but wonder about her future, questioning whether “I’m hearing God right.”
But she was unable to publicly acknowledge that she could use a few blessings herself until after her recent Wednesday sermon, when an older woman rushed over in the mistaken belief that good fortune had come her way.
“I hear you got your own church!” the woman exclaimed.
Atchison shook her head.
“No, not me,” she said, “but pray on that.”