Take This Job and—

Ponderings in becoming bi-vocational

Lately I’ve been hearing from more and more places that bi-vocational is the way to go for churches that want to be as missional and fully engaged in their broader communities as they can.

(Not to be pedantic, but bi-vocational refers to people in ministry having a second job in addition to their pastoral duties to help pay the bills.)

David Fitch, at rethinkingthemission.com noted last week that:

Leadership must migrate from a paid professional clergy that spends all its time in maintenance functions/ministry of existing Christians, to a bi-vocational flexible clergy that is able to earn (at least some of) its financial support in the marketplace. I believe this new relationship of money between people and leader changes the dynamic of an organization in many many ways that lead to mission.”

Kurt Willems at the Pangea Blog had a guest blogger who offered similar sentiments: Bivocational Ministry Makes a Comeback.

Paying the bills.

I have been thinking about this more and more because for my new venture of starting a church in Washington DC, it looks like I may well need to supplement my income from other sources, as funds are limited, and DC is an expensive place to live.

So far I’ve applied for jobs as an editor, adjunct teacher in religious studies, writer, floor scrubber, and something else I can’t recall… oh yeah, working in a bookstore (how could I forget?).  (And in case you’re wondering if I’m hitting the big-time as an author, I get about $1 for each copy of Pub Theology sold, and the average new author book sells about 1,000 copies – which I have yet to reach.  So if I’m lucky I’ll be able to take my wife out to a nice dinner with my annual cut, but it won’t pay the rent).

I’m hopeful something pans out, but as my resume highlights, I’ve spent the last seven years being a pastor, and I’m not sure many employers know what to do with that.

The argument for bi-vocationalism, as I gather, is that having the pastor have a ‘regular job’ in addition to pastor duties makes him or her ‘more regular,’ it breaks down walls of superiority, it gives natural inroads for relationships in the community, it shows you’re as committed to the community as everyone else, it breaks down the clergy-laity walls, and so on.  Those reasons are very compelling to me as I consider this option.

Yet, as I wait for the phone to ring about a job I’ve applied for (even though I’m moving because I’ve accepted a job that can’t yet pay me), I wonder what others have experienced — and whether or not bi-vocational is mandatory for a community to be considered missional.

Carol Howard Merritt reflected on this issue as well at Christian Century recently.  She asked, “Should bi-vocational ministry be the new norm?”  In that article she ponders:

“As I think about the larger church, I often hear that bivocational ministry will be the reality for pastors entering the ministry. Our economic model is breaking down. It has become more difficult for a church with fifty households to support one pastor. Even when a minister is willing to live frugally, the cost of education and medical benefits keeps getting higher. So, many people jump to bivocational ministry as the answer.

That makes me pause. As someone who has been living in a bivocational reality for a while now, it would be good to have a long discussion about this and ask ourselves some important questions.”

She then asks:

•Are pastors truly nurturing two callings or are we baptizing a shift to part-time ministry? It is one thing to be called to two vocations but it’s another thing to suddenly pay your pastor part-time and expecting her to work bagging groceries on the side.

Will this shift discourage younger pastors? Most mainline denominations have high expectations of their pastors. Which is good. We go through seminary requirements, ordination examinations, psychological testing, congregational internships, and clinical pastoral education. All of these requirements are costly and they made a lot of sense when people were entering a stable 30-year career with health insurance and pension. Does it still make sense to ask people to go through all of this while telling them that they’ll be lucky to get a part-time job at the end of it?

These are good and important questions.

I wonder:

Could it be that bi-vocational allows certain pastors to feel less guilty because they aren’t such a ‘drain on the budget’ of a smaller community?  Definitely.

Could it be that certain people need other outlets for their areas of giftedness, and these other vocations give them deep satisfaction?  Yes.

Could it also be that such outlets give them credibility with others?  I suppose so, though a pastor ought to have enough credibility for his or her clergy commitments.

I’m not sure we have this with other professions – but then again, perhaps the argument is that we shouldn’t have a professional clergy.  But then we ought to change our training model, expectations, and so on.  I do think this is happening at some level, but the kind of communities of faith we will have on the other side of such a shift remains to be seen.  I’m not sure how many are interested in moving to a completely lay model, where no one has theological or ministry training.

I have seen several friends attempt the bi-vocational path while also planting a church.  Neither of these churches exists any more.  There could be many reasons, but I suspect that having a leader who is spending at least half of his best hours working at a hardware store may not be the most ideal path.  In such a setting is he able to give the best he has to his community, which —especially in its embryonic form— relies upon such a leader/facilitator to get things in motion?  I’m sure there are some who can.  But should this be the norm?

Another person noted the personal and professional disaster that a bi-vocational approach created for him:

I was bi-vocational for 12 years. Honestly? I would never do it again. The amount of hours I put in to pastor and work a secular job hurt my family and eventually my health. It was part of the cause of going through divorce, and part of the wounds my children suffered thinking their father didn’t have time for them. Even though the wounds of my children have been healed, the loss of a marriage and the loss of health still remain. So, glamorize it as you will, which I did when I was young, but coming on age 50, as I look back, I would absolutely never do it again nor would I think it was the will of God.

I noted in a discussion of this elsewhere

“Bi-vocational sounds great, but I’ve also seen friends (and their communities) struggle mightily b/c their time, energy and focus is pulled in too many directions.

I’m a little concerned that there is this idea that “pastoring is so easy, why don’t you just get a real job? (And be an amazing speaker/planter/counselor/theologian/spiritual mentor/chaplain on top of it).”

I’m all for a flat ecclesiology—we’re all ministers, no hierarchy, the whole nine yards—but there are some challenges when you don’t have someone theologically educated and ministerially prepared, or, having such a person and expecting them to do it for free or for peanuts.”

We like to think that a genuine community can exist where we are all the same.  But we are not all the same. We have different gifts, and should use them accordingly.  My gift is not carpentry, so it would be silly for me to try to spend time fixing roofs during the week so that I’m not such a drain on the budget.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t options where I do have abilities to earn an income outside of the church, and I certainly am willing to explore those.

Someone posted recently seven jobs with full-time pay for part-time work as something pastors should look for.  I clicked on the link. The jobs included: veterinarian, acupuncturist, master plumber and physical therapist.  Sign me up!  Because I obviously became an expert in Eastern medicine, plumbing, and performing surgery on cats while studying church history and homiletics.

My gifts are in relationships, counseling, writing, thinking deeply about theological issues and creatively about ministry, preaching, studying the text in its original context and helping us make sense of it in our own.  These kinds of things would surely suffer if I spent half of my working hours bartending or accounting, or something else.

The church my wife and I started in Traverse City was the most missional, organic, non-hierarchical, communally-involved and led group I’ve ever been a part of, and it was my full-time job. We had an office inside a multi-use campus of buildings with a yoga studio, art galleries, coffee shops, cafés, wineries, accountants, environmentalists, filmmakers, bakers, and more. My ‘job’ involved hanging out in this place and rubbing shoulders with these people. In some ways I was the guy people could ‘go talk to’ if they had an issue, or the guy who could do your wedding or on-the-spot counseling, or be there simply to listen. Almost a campus-pastor, if you will, even though those people weren’t paying my salary. Yet my community felt it was missional to have someone like me available and present for our own people and the broader community we were naturally a part of. That felt pretty integrative and missional, and if I’d had to have spent half my time elsewhere earning my living, perhaps would have made less connections – and I’m not sure that that would have given me more credibility or made me more of an insider.

Was our faith community too reliant on me to make such connections? Perhaps. I don’t know. I’m simply exploring the question.

It is true that as a smallish community, we struggled to pay the bills, and I was the biggest expense.  But I wonder if we would have been what we were had I divided my time.

Extra hot fudge on that?

I’m willing to be wrong, but I also wonder if its unfair to think that pastors can use all their gifts, maintain a healthy family, healthy relationships, and facilitate a community in which everyone’s gifts are used, worship is communal, and missional involvement in the wider community is expected of everyone » while also making sundaes at Dairy Queen.

Maybe there is such a person.  Perhaps I’m about to find out.

Roots DCBryan is a pastor, writer, and church planter.  If you’re interested in learning about his new church in Washington DC, click here:
Roots DC: an urban faith community.


4 thoughts on “Take This Job and—

  1. Bryan,
    Yes, this is a very well thought out article. You\’ve covered the issues quite thoroughly. My personal experience is such that I believe bi-vocational ministry to be a bust. Pastoral leadership cannot be turned on and off. If one feels called and passionate about leading a church, this concern tends to take up a lot of mental time and energy. So, the second job would have to be particularly mindless, not requiring much thought or energy, as the Pastor will very naturally be mentally and spiritually elsewhere.

    I have a friend was dropped out because he burnt out in bi-vocational ministry. And his second job was driving a bus!

    It may work for some, but I would hate to see bi-vocational ministry become the norm. Look at all the celebrity Christians who left behind a pastoral ministry to concentrate on their speaking/writing…


  2. Bryan, excellent work once again. And what you ponder is not only true in the pastoring world, when i served as a board member for SBA (small business association), we rarely gave loans to people starting businesses if they were planning on being bivocational…why?…because near 100% of them would fail in thr first two years. The same will be true for a church whose leader is not “all-in” with their congregation. Blessing brother. Dave Spoelma


    1. What about serving as a chaplain (police, fire, hospice, etc.) even part-time in the community? That still fits with our calling, allows us to make broader connections, and supplements the income provided by the church. Good thoughts, Brian. I pray God will give you wisdom as you venture forward in His strength!


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