A few things I have learned being a “bi-vocational” pastor
For the last 2 years I have been a “bi-vocational” pastor – I work at least 40 hours a week as a substance abuse counselor and pastor a church “part-time.” I have found it rewarding and challenging but it has required me to think about the assumptions, myths and distortions about what constitutes pastoring and ministry.
I began working part time initially because our family needed more income that our small church could not provide. Our family home schools and my wife and I have felt that since that is our priority we have tried to have only one of us employed outside the home. I also needed a different challenge. I have always chaffed at traditional limitations, thinking & expectations in regard to pastoring, the church and ministry when they are limited to Sunday morning building oriented activities or inward focused, pleasing member demands. I’ve seen too much of what God is able to do to limit his power or reduce the Gospel to that.
I was able to dust off some counseling skills and found that I enjoyed my new job and was getting good feedback from my employer, eventually leading to full time employment & certification. I understand a lot better how it feels after working all day and then to try to find the energy for a board meeting. I also have learned a lot about people from all walks of life who have wreaked havoc with their lives from addiction but who would never think about walking into a church building and talk with “the Pastor.” I have listened to the stories of women & women who have been assaulted as well as men and women who have done the assaulting and served time for it; who have stolen medications and money from their family for a fix, who have neglected or abandoned children for another high. I work with parole & probation officers, child protective services and court officials. You could say I ran into life in the raw and not the Sunday morning “put on a happy face to go to church” variety.
I have also seen God work in people’s lives – Holy Spirit directed words of comfort, wisdom and encouragement, the forming of real community as burdens and tears and “breakthroughs” are shared, and the birth of hope – the realization that there is another way to live and a future that is more than a repeat of the past.
However, I as a result of my new official ecclesiastical status, I have run across a number of myths, assumptions and distortions. The first is that a bi- vocational pastor is not a “real” pastor or successful – real and successful defined as compensated fully or employed full time by a congregation. I wanted to go to a retreat years ago and applied for financial assistance but was told by the ministry in charge that I was not eligible for the aid since I worked another job. I guess the Apostle Paul wouldn’t have qualified either since he made tents to support himself!
I have also run into “church shoppers”who look down their nose at a congregation with a bi-vocational pastor. The underlying assumption may be that a real or successful congregation is one that can afford the salary and benefits required for a full time employee who will then take care of member’s needs. However, most pastors, if full time, survive if married, by their spouse working. Despite the claim of “family friendly,” (and unless your Steven Furtick) many congregations provide a low level income that requires extra income to survive and qualifies for food stamps.
Another distortion that usually tags along with the assumption that successful = full time is that the pastor is the only real minister since they are “the professional.” Besides the mistaken belief that a degree alone makes one a capable and godly leader, this undercuts developing the spiritual gifts and ministry of other members of the local body. It prevents the development of quality spiritual leaders whether deacons or elders. It also usually leads to leadership boards that do not lead and do not serve but manage and control. It often joins with the distortion that “real” ministry occurs only on the church property or during Sunday morning or office hours or other stated times of gathering on church real estate. The truth is that real ministry occurs where ever Spirit filled, Christ loving believers go. A truly functioning body requires that all its members exercise their God ordained function – a wonderful opportunity to develop a multi-gifted eldership that can expand and diversify the work and service of a congregation.
There are real benefits for the bi-vocational pastor and the congregation they work with. These include understanding the pressures and demands of people and families instead of becoming myopic about what defines ministry and mission; freedom from control and manipulation when the big givers try to use their financial clout to stop change or control true leadership; freeing up money spent on high cost benefits such as health insurance & the opportunity to influence the community to a higher level by being “salt” in everyday life.
There are also challenges – the most obvious is time. I have less time to study and write. I have to manage my minutes. I have less time to waste. As has been pointed out by numerous spiritual giants of yesteryear, pastoral ministry can provide a temptation for sloth. It is all too easy to confuse and justify “busyness” and a full calendar with genuine spiritual progress. I have to delegate and share the load of caring for people instead of trying to indulge my own need to be needed. I have to challenge my own assumption that “its all up to me” or that ministry doesn’t happen unless I show up. In other words the challenges of being bi-vocational are tough on my own sinful self but good for my sanctification & I pray ultimately good for the mission of the church.
Will I continue serving this way? Only God knows. Some believe”bi-vocational” ministry will become the norm for the future in our post-Christendom age. Its not for everyone. I see fruit in what I am doing. I don’t see think its realistic that society or the church will return to how it used to be 40 or 50 years ago. The missional status of the church is clearer than ever. What is needed is an apostolic spirit to match – and that requires thinking beyond how how pastoral or congregational ministry and success has been defined – by employee status.