Thursday, September 26, 2019

10 Reasons Bivocational Ministry Matters

"10 Reasons Bivocational Ministry Matters" has been reposted again (this time on The Catalog of Good Deeds blog. As a priest who has done bivocational ministry, I have some strident thoughts on the matter.

“I didn’t come to seminary to be a bivocational minister, to have to get another kind of job,” my student told me. I may not have agreed with my student, but I did understand his thinking. Back then (almost 15 years ago), we weren’t talking much about bivocational ministries.

Now, that conversation has shifted. Pastors are beginning to embrace as their primary calling the role of bivocational minister. Some even intend to remain bivocational regardless of the size of their church as it grows. If the Lord were to call me into a bivocational church role, here is why I would gladly follow His leading.

1. Bivocational ministers serve the church without being dependent on them for income. I affirm full-time pastors; in fact, I served full-time for 14 years. Further, I do not want even to hint that being dependent on a congregation for salary somehow leads to compromise. Nevertheless, I do suspect there is some freedom in leading a congregation that does not pay the bulk of your salary. This is true. The sometimes cruel and often ham-handed threat of playing with a priest's pay is not an uncommon story in priest circles. At the same time, not paying a priest for his labor or underpaying him because the congregation knows he has another job just makes being prepared for that man's successor even more difficult. The idea that paying a priest little means the parish can jumpstart its growth often gets institutionalized into "when the church gets X" thinking that is continually kicked like a can down the road. If the congregation can't pay, that's a diocesan concern that needs parish-episcopal discussion and not an open someday-in-the-future item like getting a real baptismal font or blue altar covers.

2. Bivocational ministers are often more connected to non-believers. No full-time pastor I know wants to be disconnected from people who need to hear the gospel, but that separation happens. Unless they intentionally fight against it, full-time pastors can be cocooned in the church world. Bivocational leaders can be equally cocooned, of course, but their work outside the church at least provides a roadblock to that process. This hasn't been my experience at all. A priest in a cassock has a lot more impromptu talks with people in the world than a man in a suit. Also, the learned behavior of not discussing religion with coworkers often bleeds into other aspects of a bivocational priest's life. If your life is evangelism, you will evangelize. If half of it is TPS reports, you only have half of your time for church growth.

3. Bivocational ministers lead churches that often have a higher percentage of funds available for ministry and missions. In most churches with full-time staff, the largest percentage of their budget goes toward personnel. Funds for doing ministry are often lacking. The church that has fewer personnel commitments, though, can free dollars to reach their neighbors and the nations. Building a group of people into a mission and then into a full parish requires a lot of time and effort. It also requires a lot of experience. The Church seems to want to send men right out of seminary into the most challenging scenario imaginable; little money, few materials to perform services, and not a lot of experience dealing with real parishioners in stressful situations. The very people we want  growing the church through missionary efforts - men with lots of experience and a proven record of such growth - are the very people we don't send. You want to use the sharp end of the spear to advance and yet we send untested men into very stressful situations with little oversight.

4. Bivocational ministers make starting more churches possible. To reach North America, we need more churches – healthy, outwardly focused churches. Young churches, however, usually don’t have the funding to support a full-time pastor. A bivocational church planter can provide leadership without straining the church’s budget. This is painting a problem and trying to sell it as a solution. The answer to already constrained budgets is not to put a toe into mission efforts. The diocese should have a plan, fund that plan, articulate a timeline for success or pulling the plug, and stay on top of things. Sink or swim mentality when combined with a man dividing his time across secular employment and his vocation leads to more sinking than making it to the far shore of a successfully founded parish.

5. Bivocational ministry models good missiology. Getting the gospel to the world will require efforts far beyond full-time missionaries. Businessmen and women will need to carry the message as they travel the world. Others will start businesses around the world, and they will use that work as a platform for Great Commission work. Bivocational pastors can model that same general approach in North America. We can remember Paul here. As soon as the local churches could pay for his efforts they did so. He didn't do tent making because it was conducive to church growth. He did it because he had to and quit doing it as soon as the people could fund his evangelism properly.

6. Bivocational ministers must learn how to train workers and delegate ministry. Burnout is always a danger for the bivocational minister unless he learns to share the load. His role should push him toward a 1 Corinthians 12 ministry, recognizing that God puts everyone in the church as He wishes to play a particular role in that body. The bivocational minister realizes he cannot do ministry alone – a lesson I wish I had learned years ago as a full-time minister. You don't need to be bivocational to learn this. Actually, a man who is already spending half his time dealing with non-church issues is just as likely to have difficulty organizing all the tasks that need to be done as he is to have an epiphany about sharing the load.

7. Bivocational leadership affirms vocation as ministry. Pastors speak the language (“Every member is a minister”), but we don’t always help our members understand this truth. We still too often promote a clergy/laity divide that lacks biblical warrant. The bivocational minister, however, brings these worlds together. His workplace is his mission field. Or, just as often, the priest who also sells insurance during the week feels like less of a priest and reinforces his rule by "being priestly" and exacerbating clericalism instead of being comfortable in his role and encouraging empowerment.

8. Bivocational ministers likely better understand the struggles of laypersons. Bivocational pastors know what it’s like to work in the secular world for eight hours, run home to have dinner, and then spend the evening at church. They understand the pull of a world that daily beckons church members to live like that world. They know the struggle of trying to be a tentmaker and an evangelist at the same time. If we ordain men with life experience you accomplish the same thing. Trust me, parishioners remind priests they have "real lives" all the time. It's one of the first explanations priests get when they approach a parishioner about a missed service or a promise that falls through. 

9. Bivocational ministers can now get theological training without leaving their place of ministry. Via online education, bivocational ministers can now earn fully accredited undergraduate and graduate degrees while keeping their lives planted among the people they seek to reach. That approach is educationally solid and practically relevant. Some denominations, in fact, are providing funds for their bivocational pastors to get this training. We need seminaries. It's not the brick and mortar of it that makes it essential. It's the rubbing down of sharp edges, the winnowing of kooks, the expanded experience of parishes beyond ones own, and the essential understanding of how the jurisdiction works that online education doesn't provide in equal measure. The drop-everything-and-have-faith method of seminary education has brought a lot of families to bankruptcy, but the problems that accompany distance education as a replacement for seminary are filled with problems too.

10. Bivocational opportunities invite us to challenge all our church members to consider God’s calling. Following God’s calling does not always mean leaving home and occupation. It might mean staying where you are and doing what you do as a base for ministry. Indeed, it may mean recognizing that God has given you your job so that you might lead His church. There are lots of opportunities for such in the Church; serving in the altar, being a reader, exploring the diaconate, and more help in this discernment process. Jumping to pastorship when those steps are skipped has - in my experience - had disastrous results.


  1. i know many bishops who need a bivocational ministry,,,, for the past 50 years i have yet to meet one who understands their flock and how to organically increase it. excellent perspective,,,,,,this is why, in his brilliance met antony bashir brought a circle of former protestants around him as advisors and why the russian mission was involved with americans -- they needed to survive in america,,,,pragmatic experiences are needed to grow the church.

    1. There is a difference between filling a need with an ad hoc response and pretending like bivocational ministry is an actual solution.

    2. Bishops are a different thing altogether. Their only vocation is being single full time. They need a task more than most people who actually work. That is in addition to having somebody else dress them.

  2. “You pay peanuts, you get a monkey”.
    The ROCOR status quo on the west coast cripples Church life in the OCA as well: the overqualified-underpaid clergy-as-saintly-professional became a cultural norm in the emergency years of Russian forced expatriation but has metastasized beyond even the Mission Deanery.
    Reliance on nil payment to priests as a way of increasing viability of missions has only created an entire Deanery of parishes unwilling to ever man up to being full-fledged. And the succession of clergy to replace retired ‘bivocational’ Clergy into such parishes inured of constitutional flakiness poses an existential threat to the future of OCA mission in the West.

  3. You had me at "TPS reports".

    Oh, and regarding point 10, I can assure you that into my second decade of parish council membership (including warden), reading and serving in the altar (first as a reader and now as a subdeacon), and having seen close up and personal how priests and deacons are treated, there is no way that you would find me seeking the priesthood.

    I speak only for myself here. I will say that I agree with your sentiment totally; it takes a special kind of man to serve as a pastor, and you don't know if you're ready for it unless you get to see it from the inside.

    1. If I might add, I think we need to observe Canon law and make NO ONE under age 30 a priest. Let younger, qualified seminary graduates remain deacons under the tutalege of older, experienced priests. The OCA and ROCOR seem to have a good supply of deacons, and the services certainly call for them.
      As for all this complaining about bishops, I wouldn't want their position for anything. You get a bishop like the late Metropolitan Philip Saliba, who would walk around clean shaven, with a suit and Roman collar. People complain,"Oh, a man of this world, well fed, well clothed, and well groomed." You get a bishop of traditional appearance, like ROCOR Metropolitan Filaret or Archbishop Dimitri of Dallas. Then people squawk,"Where does he think he is, 19th century Russia?" Yet the remains of those two Hierarchs are incorrupt.

  4. "You had me at "TPS reports"."

    Me too. One of handful of movies I own