There are some helpful and unhelpful ways to think about bi-vocational ministry in Christ’s church. Traditionally that phrase has been understood as a church leader serving in a parish and having a job or position beyond the church that has issued the call. Let’s first look at the unhelpful ways of thinking:
Bi-vocational ministry for a long time was viewed as a necessary stop along the way for a pastor or deacon to get a full-time call. The unvetted idea was that when you had a full time call you had arrived or you’d made it. Unless the part-time call was of the pastor’s or deacon’s choosing because of caring for young children or elderly parents, the part-time call was a stopping off point to this next position. Congregational members didn’t expect the pastor to stay around a long time because something better with a pension, full-time pay, and benefits would eventually be coming along.
This interpretation is problematic on a number of levels:
1) The ever-present need to negotiate what part-time really means and what fair compensation looks like for part-time work can quickly lead to misunderstandings and resentment. The council or vestry and the clergy person who is called can have very different ideas of what part-time means. The need for clear communication about roles, boundaries, responsibilities and shared ministry need to be ongoing.
2) The “well, we’ll see” mentality—assuming change is coming—stops well intentioned ministry ideas from taking root or getting off the ground. When the lay leaders or the called clergy have in the back of their minds, “They might not be here in 6 months,” or “I might not be here in 6 months,” it is enticing to put initiatives off, and understandably so, because who wants to get a large project going and have a major player leave in the midst of it? The challenge comes when the church’s vision of doing ministry is always in the future; always when and not now.
3) What is our commitment to each other? When congregation members or the clergy have the sense that part-time means temporary, the temptation is to stay on the surface and not to emotionally and relationally invest in each other. This limits the joy of shared ministry and becomes transactional and not transformational. This truncates the creative spontaneous power of the Holy Spirit that is always asking us to step into wonder about what God is up to in our world together.
4) Are we harboring an unspoken view that real ministry only happens when the leader is full-time? This is simply false—Paul provided real ministry and because he also paid his way as a tentmaker, we know he espoused a bi-vocational model of ministry.
As many congregations consider budget shortfalls and what church involvement and attendance looks like after the height of the COVID pandemic, church structures may be different. The pandemic, for many congregations, has accelerated the decline. The need to think about bi-vocational ministry is quickly moving from an interesting concept for an adult education hour to a real response to budgets. Undoubtedly, this is a scary time for full-time clergy and congregational leaders as the landscape keeps shifting and I don’t want to give the impression that the shift from full-time to part-time ministry will be easy for everyone or even what clergy want.
Yet I raise up, God is always creating a way for life-giving, loving, Christ-like ministry to happen and for some congregations and clergy it will look like bi-vocational ministry.
There are so many healthy and helpful ways of thinking about bi-vocational ministry that lift up the gifts it brings.
So, what are gains for a congregation when their pastoral leader is multi-vocational?
- We are invited into holy wonder, holy creativity, and holy vulnerability. To make bi-vocational ministry work well, there needs to be a high level of trust about living into Luther’s interpretation of the 8th Commandment—in business terms, this is referred to as “assuming positive intent.”
- This is an also invitation to re-imagine who does what in congregational life. If someone needs to know, “Where is the warranty for the boiler?” or “When are the sign-up forms due for the youth group trip?” or “How are the flowers arranged for Easter?” and the only possible response is “I don’t know, the pastor takes care of that,” it is a wake-up call. It might be time to hit pause and see bi-vocational ministry as an opportunity to revisit the Letter of Call—what is the pastor called to do? To preach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments. Of course, additional responsibilities are added, but when a congregation is moving to part-time clergy, instead of seeing this as a failure, might it be an invitation for congregational members to step into their own callings with more commitment? What might God be calling others to do in serving God and their neighbor? This discussion can enliven congregational members to see how their efforts, their ideas, and their showing up bless other people.
- Bi-vocational ministry is an opportunity to practice great clarity about logistics. This is always a good skill to be honing. Will the clergy be full-time during certain seasons of the church year, like Advent and Lent? Will the pastoral leader work full-time for 3 weeks out of the month and be away from the church for one week every month? What flexibility does the clergy’s other vocational calling need? Is the clergy a nurse who works shifts? A trucker who has busy seasons? A coach who weaves clients into the everyday schedule? A floral shop assistant who will be busier around prom? These are among the nuts and bolts that need to be sorted through. Don’t shy away from these conversations or wishfully hope everything will just work out. Be clear and communicate, communicate, communicate.
- It is a potential release of some financial pressure. This is often the driver for a congregation moving to calling a bi-vocational clergy person and it can serve as a time of intentional discernment about what God is calling the congregation to be about with its resources, gifts, location, and the needs of the community.
- God’s church needs leaders who are invigorated and hopeful. Instead of thinking of bi-vocational ministry as an unfortunate necessity while waiting for a full-time call, what if we saw the possibility of vitality bi-vocational ministry brings to the church? Bi-vocational ministry gives the church leaders who have their feet firmly planted in many different experiences. It gives the church the clergy trucker who knows the pain of rising gas prices. It gives the church the pastor who also teaches yoga and is very emotionally grounded. It gives the church the pastor who brings a mindset of goals to accomplish quarterly because they also are a consultant for a non-profit board.
In whatever shape and form ministry happens, the main point to remember is that this is Christ’s church and the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and equips all in Christ to use their gifts to love and serve God and their neighbor.
Sarah Ciavarri is again teaching Faith+Lead’s course Bi-Vocational Ministry: An Introduction to Entrepreneurship, Gigs, and Side Hustles beginning in September. Visit the registration page for more information.
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