There is a great deal of practical and pastoral wisdom in this article. Let us attend.
by Fr. Ernesto Obregon
Bivocational ministry is on the increase. There are many people who see this as a positive thing. And, many of those people are not pastors. Bivocational ministry raises many challenges to those who are involved in it. On the one hand, it sounds great. What is not to love about bivocational ministry, particularly if you are a small church that is trying to maintain itself, or a mission that is trying to grow?
There are various books written about bivocational ministry, such as the one above. However, equally, there are articles written that warn about the perils of bivocational ministry. Frankly, the church is not sure what to do about bivocational ministry. On the one hand, it points to the example of Saint Paul, who worked as a tentmaker. On the other hand, most jurisdictional and denominational structures are set up to support the full-time minister and have little to say or little with which to support the bivocational minister.
So, what are some of the challenges with the bivocational minister? Well, there is something called margin. At least one author speaks of margin as being the space between living comfortably with yourself and reaching a burnout of epic proportions. This can occur in various areas of one’s life. However, for the bivocational minister, time is one of the largest areas in which margin is lost. Most bivocational ministers work the standard 40-50 hours a week, plus are expected to put in an additional 10-20 hours a week into the ministry. They are left with no time margin should anything come up which requires extra time from them. But, more than this loss of time margin is happening.
A modern minister is expected to be well-trained. Almost every congregation, regardless of its size, expects that its minister will have that appropriate Master’s degree from seminary. The modern pastor is expected to not only know theology, but some psychology, and some significant theory of group dynamics and church management. But, I have never heard of any church that felt any responsibility to help that minister out in repaying any loans that they may have outstanding. Nor, do I hear that from any jurisdictional or denominational structure. This, perhaps, would not be unexpected, after all physicians, lawyers, and other professionals are expected to pay for their own degree. However, when that is coupled with what is a regular desire by congregations to low-ball any reimbursement toward a minister, then this leads to a situation in which a congregation expects a highly trained bivocational ministry for the price of a fast-food worker. That the bivocational minister may be struggling with how to pay off their loan while working full-time along with a pittance from the church is not their problem.
Most jurisdictional and denominational authorities do not realize the regular loss of margin that a bivocational minister experiences. Retreats, leadership meetings, etc., for pastors are always set up in the middle of the week. After all, this makes sense, for this allows the minister to attend a meeting when it is least likely that the congregation will want their attention, and to return home in time for the weekend activities. But, for the bivocational pastor, this presents a deadly choice. Should the minister decide to attend the meeting, then they will lose vacation time that will have to be used to attend the meeting. But, if they lose vacation time, they will have less time to spend on themselves and on their family. Remember the concept of margin about which I spoke earlier? They lose their family time and personal margin some more in order to attend what may–or may not–be an important meeting.
But, let’s say the bivocational minister wishes to meet with one of their authorities in order to consult. Again, they run into a problem. Most church authorities work during the week, then go visit a church on Sunday. This is very true in the case of bishops. So, again, should the minister wish to consult with the denominational authority, they must take vacation time from their schedule in order to go speak to their authority. They have eaten up personal and family time yet again. In fact, the bivocational minister can end up either being one of the more isolated people around, or one of the ones with least margin, with the least ability to cope with any unexpected event in their life or the life of their church.
Bivocational ministry is a temptation to a hierarchy, because it solves the problem of fund-raising for missions or of having to shut moribund churches that have little to no hope of growth. There is at least one jurisdiction in which there is an unusual percentage of bivocational priests. Provided that this is an understood mission strategy and that adequate support is given to the bivocational priest, then that is not an issue.
But, if the hierarchy sees that merely as an opportunity to avoid the fund-raising and the full taking of responsibility necessary to fully support domestic missions, then that is a failure to pastor their own priests. Please note that I am not saying, or implying, that this is a conscious decisions. Often, we all make subconscious decisions that we have not fully evaluated. I suspect that this is the actual dynamic in that jurisdiction. Nevertheless, bivocational ministry can be a good missionary strategy, providing that adequate planning is done to ensure that the bivocational minister receives pastoral care without destroying the margin that all need in order to avoid burnout. It is unplanned or unthought-through bivocational ministry that trouble me.
The place where it is not commendable to use bivocational ministry is in the case of moribund churches that are awaiting death. I would say that it is also not commendable to use retired ministers to care for them. Let’s admit that it is very difficult for jurisdictional or denominational authorities to close existing congregations. If it were full-time ministers or closing, there are many USA congregations that would have to shut their doors. There are some denominations, such as the Methodist (among a few others), that have developed a way to manage this. They will join churches together into a shared ministry. The churches in the cluster know that they will be sharing one (rarely more) minister. That minister may be present on Sunday morning at the largest congregation in the cluster, while traveling Sunday night or late Sunday morning to a worship at another congregation. Sometimes, there is even a third congregation that will meet on a Saturday night. This arrangement allows the cluster to pool their resources and hire one full-time minister between themselves.
But, it is tempting to simply use a bivocational or a retired minister in those moribund situations. Particularly in a jurisdiction or denomination with a hierarchical structure, it is tempting to simply send a bivocational or retired minister to cover the situation. This appears ideal in that the congregation can pay the vastly lesser amount of a supply minister while retaining some identity. For the headquarters, this prevents them from having to make the difficult decision to close a congregation.
But, for the bivocational or retired minister, this can be a soul-sucking assignment. Particularly, if the congregation is an older congregation that is dying out, then the minister knows that they are simply providing palliative care until finally there are too few people there to even pay the supply minister. For the bivocational minister who wishes to serve the Lord in a more mission endeavor, this is the opposite of the mission endeavor, for this is congregational hospice care. Their mission calling is drowned in the reality of those who may (or may not) wish to grow, but certainly have no energy to devote to outreach, yet want someone there to provide chapel services. The congregation is no longer a church; it is merely a chapel providing some comfort. For the bivocational minister, in particular, this makes the loss of margin (the loss of personal and family time that is common to bivocational ministry) to become a near intolerable drain on their resources. What one can put up with for the sake of a growing congregation becomes nigh unto unbearable when it is merely for the sake of palliative care of the dying congregation. Even the retired minister can be affected by this climate.
But, this brings us back full circle. “Frankly, the church is not sure what to do with bivocational ministry.” Any jurisdiction or denomination that uses and/or encourages bivocational ministry needs to have a clear set of plans in place to deal with the following issues: how will they care for the bivocational minister?; how will they discern where to encourage bivocational ministry?; how will they know when it is time to deny a bivocational placement and to simply shut down a moribund congregation?; how will they know whether to cluster some congregations in a shared ministry or whether to not do so? Bivocational ministry is growing in many parts of the USA. But, what also needs to happen is some intentional planning to ensure that the bivocational minister is placed correctly and cared for in the place to which they are placed.