What’s So Wrong About Being A Bivocational Pastor?

The longer I walk in church circles, the more I find pastors who are allergic to a certain turn of phrase:

Bivocational clergy.

bivocational pastorThe mere mention of this option curdles the face of most pastors I’ve known and read.  It’s certainly viewed in a less favorable light than full-time ministry.  People look at you funny when you say you pastor part-time.  The tone tells you that they don’t consider what you are doing real ministry.

As I was finishing up seminary 10 years ago, I remember going to a seminarians conference in Nashville and hearing a Regional Minister in the Disciples talk about ministry, especially in his region.  He went on and on about full time ministry and how much starting salaries were.  When I asked him what the salaries were for part-time clergy, he started to look like he swallowed a whole lemon.  He answered the question quickly and went on.

What got me thinking about bivocational ministry is a recent blog post by Morgan Guyton on Millenials and Methodism.  He doesn’t look kindly when a Methodist Bishop suggest pastors start looking into bivocational ministry:

I saw an interesting juxtaposition of articles today that made me wonder why in the world anyone graduating from college right now would want to go into ordained ministry. Cynthia Astle reflected on a meeting of bishops to discuss the alarming decline of clergy under 35 going into the ministry. Then I saw an article by Bishop Ken Carter promoting volunteer pastoring (a.k.a. “bi-vocational ministry,” let’s call it what it really is) as a solution to the Methodist church’s financial crunch.

It seems like the closer Methodist pastors are to retirement, the less bothered they are by the future “inevitability” of “bi-vocational ministry.” It seems like a pretty nice gig for the Methodist church to continue to pay their pensions while the next generation of pastors volunteer to collect the offerings that pay them. I know that’s snarky, but think about how it would feel to be at the beginning of your career and hear glib pronouncements from people at the end of their careers about the “creative solutions” for future ministry that involve my not being able to support my family. If I were a twentysomething contemplating a call to ordained ministry, then reading most of what comes out of the Methodist blogosphere these days would completely depress me.

To which I responded:

Just one point: I happen to be a bivocational minister and I’m only a few years older than you; solidly in Generation X. I do get paid for my work, but I also work full time as a communications specialist. I don’t understand why people are so aghast at bivocational ministry. It’s not perfect and it’s not for everyone, but I would note that many African American churches have been pastored by folks who had a day job outside the church. The same goes for Latino churches. I guess I just wished full time pastors would be more open to bivocational ministry instead of seeing at a lesser ministry.

And Morgan responded:

I hear and respect what you’re saying. And I realize that there’s a white privilege dimension to this stuff. What sets me off are older clergy close to retiring and drawing their pension who are very happy to lecture younger clergy about how we’re entitled, spoiled brats unless we’re willing to do something they didn’t have to do. If I had to be bi-vocational, I suppose I would make it work, although there’s a small part of me that wonders if ministry isn’t a professional career at all, then why not just be a lay leader among other lay leaders in a house church movement? Why have a special building at all? The original churches were all house churches. So I think if Methodism is going to go to bivocational clergy, it should also sell off its real estate.

Now, Morgan might be right about older pastors talking about bivocational ministry when they are on the way to retirement.  But even if that’s true, we are left with the cold reality that pastors are facing a far different world.  We face smaller congregations that can’t necessarily pay the going rates for a pastor.  Add into the mix is that most pastors leave seminary with tens of thousands in debt and need to have a high paying job in order make the student loan payments.

Morgan is right that being bivocational does make one wonder about seminary.  I don’t think we need to chuck theological training, but the current system of seminary education is geared for an age that has long since passed.  Seminary is going to have to be less like law school and more like a vocational school in order to face the new age of the church.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post in response to another post by Tony Jones.  Jones shares my dismay at why mainline pastors turn their noses up at part time ministry.  I wrote the following:

The future of mainline churches are that they will be smaller and probably won’t be able to afford a full-time pastor, which means that we are going to see more and more folks like me: tentmaking pastors who have a job outside of the church on top of their duties in the congregation.

A lot of folks, including people in seminary and current pastors, aren’t ready for this future.  Mainline Protestants are used to having full-time pastors.  Persons who are pastors or are going to be pastors, expect that they will have a nice full-time job.  But let’s look at reality: churches are shrinking, which means budgets are shrinking.  Do people really expect that a church should use a big percentage of its budget to sustain a full time pastor?

I’m not saying churches should stiff clergy.  If a congregation can afford to pay someone full time then it damn well better.  I’m also not saying clergy have to live at or near poverty. But the reality is, more and more churches can’t afford a full-time pastor.  So, pastors have to have a little come-to-Jesus moment and decide what matters: discipleship or security.  If we truly believe that we are called by God and that this whole Jesus thing is worth it, then we will find ways to make things work creatively, and learn to balance two jobs to make financial ends meet.  If what we want is steady paycheck, then I would suggest finding another line of work.

In evangelical or ethnic churches, it’s not unusual for pastors to work another job while they pastor a church or even plant a church.  Why are they so willing to work for nothing, while we protest?

I think part of the problem is how we have trained pastors.  We have trained them to serve established churches and in most cases to take care of the people that attend those churches.  We have trained scores of folk to be chaplains, but not evangelists.  Now, there is nothing wrong with chaplains.  I know a lot of pastors who work in hospitals and nursing homes tending to those who are broken in more ways than one.  The problem is that we really don’t need chaplains in our churches and in most cases that’s what we have done.

But what if we trained pastors to be pioneers, to be evangelists?  In that case we will end up with pastors that are far more enterpenural and willing to take risks for the Gospel.  We talk a lot about missional when it refers to our churches.  It’s easy to tell our members that they need to be willing to go out into the world and be the church.  But shouldn’t seminaries be training pastors to be missional themselves; not just in word but in deed?  If we had pastors who were more open to not just having a job, but to be a servant for Christ; if they were willing to take risks that might mean working at Starbucks for the sake of the gospel, we might see a different church.

I think bivocational ministry is going to need to be a bigger part of the picture in mainline churches.  But for pastors to be open to that, it might mean that seminaries have to be overhauled to craft pastors geared more towards mission instead of maintainence.


3 thoughts on “What’s So Wrong About Being A Bivocational Pastor?

Add yours

  1. I wasn’t trained to do either. I was trained to be a theologian. A trade school seminary would probably have to skip out on the Hebrew and Greek. Some of the most thriving evangelical churches are headed by very charismatic pastors educated in the manner you’re prescribing who also tell their flocks that tornadoes are God’s punishment for feminism and homosexuality. There’s no reason why reading Karl Barth or James Cone makes one a chaplain and not an evangelist. I don’t think we should be too quick to say that theological education is a waste of resources. I could probably teach high school and pastor a church at the same time. The difference would be that I wouldn’t have any time to read and grow in my own theological knowledge which of course doesn’t seem to be too relevant to what most people think my job is.

  2. Hey I didn’t mean to be so grumpy. I guess I just remember in my days when I was teaching, I was exhausted all the time and didn’t have any time for my family and I can’t imagine doing that on top of ministry and have any time to breathe.

  3. It seems to me that we need to train more laity to be bi-vocational too. Often laity believes that their vocation is teaching, nursing, plumbing, car sales, garbage collecting or whatever and fails to recognize that ministry is possible in all those situations. Laity is afraid that they don’t know enough to do ministry….. tho why one needs to study Greek or Hebrew to do ministry is beyond me!

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