How the church can support workers in the gig economy

My friend Jason crowned me, “Queen of the Side Hustle.” From the day we met, I had some sort of part-time, freelance work going on the side of being a student or a stay-at-home mom. Now, nearly a decade later, I’ve had to renounce my throne. “Queen of the Side Hustle” no longer describes me because I don’t have any more side hustles. I’ve taken this hustle full-time. I am an independent contractor and currently our family’s primary earner. And that reality has driven me to explore not only how independent workers like me experience our work but also how the church can better support us in it.

The gig economy

The gig economy is the sector of the workforce composed of independent workers. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 20 to 30 percent of people of working age in the U.S. and Europe are engaged in the “gig economy” in some capacity. These researchers have divided independent workers into four categories based on the worker’s choice in pursuing independent work and whether the work serves as a primary or secondary income source.

Free agents make up 30 percent of independent workers. For these individuals, independent work is their first choice and their primary income stream. I recently had a student who falls into this category. Her full-time work consists of driving for DoorDash, UberEats, Uber, and Lyft, and she loves it because she can set her own schedule and be her own boss.

Reluctants, who represent 14 percent of independent workers, do independent work out of necessity and it’s their primary income source. I fit in this category a few months ago. After another months-long unsuccessful job search, I turned what was my part-time consulting gig into my primary source of income. I had three request-for-proposals in my inbox. So, I worked on growing my business by converting those proposals into contracts and generating new leads.

Casual earners (40 percent of independent workers) choose independent work because they want to earn a supplemental income. This is the worship pastor who works full-time at your church and then records albums and plays gigs on Saturday nights. But, honestly, your worship pastor could be doing independent work because they’re financially strapped — a worker who does independent work because they need the secondary income. These individuals make up 16 percent of independent workers.

Precarious and personal work

Scholars rely on empirical research to understand independent workers. One group of researchers interviewed 65 independent workers — including artists, writers, consultants, coaches, and IT workers — in order to explore how their work and how their work shapes their identities. Two themes that emerged from their data were the precariousness and personalization of independent work.

Precariousness has to do with the economic uncertainty and financial instability surrounding independent work. The researchers noted, “Almost everyone expressed socio-economic concerns. Even established participants reported uncertainty about making a living.” Plus, many of these independent workers feel pressure to develop and maintain a network or audience who might buy their services or products.

Independent workers also described their work in deeply personal terms. It’s “an avenue for self-expression.” Their products, their services, their skills and abilities are essentially their brand. Thus, their work can easily become fused with their identities.

Being your own boss

In a little non-scientific data-gathering of my own, I asked 14 independent workers — among whom were a realtor, yoga instructor, Etsy shop owner, executive assistant, social media consultant, and videographer — to tell me about their work. The majority of them love being their own boss because of the freedom that it provides — freedom to set their own schedule, to take command of their time, to be present with their children. They also love the freedom to choose their own projects or develop their own content apart from a company or boss telling them what to do.

But, being their own boss is not always easy. These independent workers noted how their work is different from that of people in more traditional jobs. Independent workers do not receive a salary; they have to generate their own income. No sales equals no pay.

Many independent workers pay self-employment tax which is double the federal income tax paid by traditional employees of an organization. And independent workers rarely receive benefits such as health insurance or retirement contributions.

These individuals also highlighted the precariousness of their independent work. When asked to identify the biggest stressors in their work at present, many pointed to the financial reality that continued work is not guaranteed. One person, who works as a strategy consultant and coach, said his constant stressor is, “Will there be enough business coming in the door?” Others had other weighty financial concerns such as how much to charge for their services or whether or not to risk purchasing inventory.

What independent workers need from the church

I also asked these independent workers what they wish their pastors knew about their work. A few wanted their pastors to know that they work hard at a real job; it’s not a “cute hobby.” Others highlighted that independent work can be solitary and therefore very lonely. Still, another expressed a wish that his pastor had the experience of working in “the real world” before teaching about living like a Christ-follower in it.

I also asked these workers how their church could support them so that they could flourish in their work. Their responses varied as much as the type of work that they did and likely because of the nuances of the churches they attend. Some wished that their church would share their space for them to operate their business (like a fitness class) or for co-working. Others wanted encouragement and support in the form of referrals. One asked for prayer. Another suggested a Bible study or small group for independent workers.

A graphic designer would like her church to help her see how her work fits in with God’s redemptive purposes in the world. She told me, “As an artist, I have struggled with feeling like art and beauty mattered in the real world or to God. God has been gracious to show me they do but I have had some real doubts about how my creative gifts could be useful to the kingdom.”

An invitation for church leaders

I present this scientific and anecdotal evidence as an invitation for pastors and church leaders to learn more about the independent workers in their congregations. To assume the work-lives of independent workers mirror those of the people seated next to us on Sunday morning may cause church leaders to neglect vital opportunities to speak the truth and hope of the gospel that we need to sustain us in our work.

Church leader, chances are you have a few independent workers in your congregation. Gather them together or invite one or two of them out for coffee. Hear their stories. Hear their struggles. Hear how, through their work, they can partner with God’s redemptive work in the world. And then equip them to do their work well; encourage them to put their trust in God, who cares for them; and remind them that they are not their work. They are beloved children of their heavenly father, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph 2:10).

Topics: Issues Facing Workers, Work

About the Author

Meryl Herr lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband and two sons.