The Common Good

The Dangers of Bi-Vocational Ministry

I eat, sleep, and breathe faith and politics; it is my passion and calling. From 9-5 each weekday, I direct communications and advocacy for Sojourners, moving around Washington, D.C. for various meetings, engaging with reporters and the media, and planning advocacy strategies around pressing justice issues. Then I turn off my computer and walk out the door. But instead of going home, I’m usually off to another meeting that has little to do with politics and everything to do with faith.

I’m a bi-vocational pastor, and I spend 15-20 additional hours working in a local congregation alongside several clergy colleagues, who themselves are a mix of full-time and part-time ministers. Serving in a church keeps me rooted. It provides perspective when the dysfunctions of Washington threaten to consume me. Helping people discover faith and integrate it into their lives renews and enlivens my soul.

Part of me pretends that I’d be spending this much time worshiping on Sunday morning and hanging out with my fellow young adults anyway, so I might as well be polishing my ministerial skills. But when I’m honest, I know it isn’t close to the same thing. I am way more invested in people’s lives – their joys and concerns – and the life of a particular community than I otherwise would be as “just a member of the congregation.” It is a demanding role that can be emotional, mentally and spiritually draining at times, but I love every minute of it. This is what I was made to do. Being a pastor is my identity. This calling is fundamental to who I am and how I understand myself in the world.

The number of bi-vocational ministers is increasing rapidly. Many pastors who work full-time jobs and serve in congregations part-time receive little or no pay for their church service. This trend has been described as “the future of the church” and extolled because the model is a return to “the original church” that will “enliven congregations.”

Such thinking appears to be nothing more than trying to put an extremely positive theological spin on a very dire ecclesiastical reality. There are two very significant reasons I’m skeptical of such rosy claims about bi-vocational ministry.

First, ministry is growing more complex. Our society is becoming both more religiously pluralistic and secular (in the sense that religious is often relegated to issues of private belief). The financial and demographic pressures facing congregations are greater than ever. Technological and medical advances have made the moral questions that individuals and families must answer around end-of-life issues even more complicated. The effects of globalization and public policy choices have increased income inequality and economic insecurity for millions of Americans, which contributes to personal and family crises. Educational levels are rising, which both encourages religious literacy but also fosters a culture of critical questioning of established orthodoxy that requires well-developed, thoughtful responses and guidance from faith leaders. All of these factors and so many others result in a spiritually anxious age where people are hungry for meaning but not finding through traditional religious channels.

Second, the growth of bi-vocational ministry degrades ministry as a profession. For better or worse, ministers in our society have come to be perceived by others – and to understand themselves – as religious professionals. Becoming a pastor requires a certification process (usually established by denominations) that involves a formal period of discernment, years of education, and substantial training. There are many aspects of this process that are wieldy and far from ideal. There are reforms that may be needed to expand opportunities and remove obstacles for non-traditional ministry candidates. There are many ministers across the country that have not undergone this type of rigorous vetting and formally submitted themselves to the oversight of a larger religious body. But on the whole, I believe the complexity of ministry and the accountability required of leaders charged with caring for vulnerable people warrants understanding ministry as a profession.

As more and more seminary graduates are unable to find full-time, paying jobs, ministry as a profession will become increasingly unattractive to the most talented, passionate, and dedicated leaders within the church. They’ll become lawyers, doctors, engineers, academics, and everything else under the sun instead of taking the risk of ordination. The church may benefit from their gifts in other ways but the profession of ministry — and thus congregations — will undeniably suffer.

There’s an obvious rejoinder to my argument. How we feel about the situation is irrelevant because basic facts and financial realities dictate it be so. Many churches would love to have five full-time ministers, but their budgets rarely allow for more than one. We can – and should – lament the trend towards bi-vocational ministry as the norm, but there’s no escaping it. All we can do is accept the situation as it is, while looking for ways to make some really good spiritual lemonade out of these lemons. We can improve lay leadership, strengthen communal bonds, and think of new ways to conduct worship that are less dependent on professional clergy.

All of this is true but I don’t think we should take it as the final word.

Our lives are shaped by stories. The narratives we tell about who we are – about the goals we have, the ideals we hold, and the visions we cast – guide and transform us. If we acquiesce to the dominant narrative that bi-vocational ministry is a future we must live into, then it will become a future that cannot be avoided. We should continue to dream about what leadership in healthy, vital congregations looks like and imagine innovative ways of realizing it. These aspirations can help breathe new life into dying churches who have long forgotten how to place hope in the future because they spent too much time reminiscing about the past and lamenting the present.

We profess faith in a God who makes all things possible. When we apathetically accept the status quo as unchangeable, we implicitly demonstrate a lack of faith that tomorrow might be different than today. God should not be mocked in this way. Our faith should be much more steadfast.

Of course imaging and working towards a better future doesn’t immediately alter the present. We must face the challenges of today, even if transformation and revitalization is our ultimate goal. I’m encouraged by innovative forms of ministry where leadership shared is among a group of pastors, especially when each minister has different gifts and talents that can benefit a congregation. Denominations need to focus on equipping pastors for ministry in challenging times, and the financial burdens of obtaining a seminary education need to be addressed for clergy who have little hope of paying back those costs.

But we must not fool ourselves into believing the narratives of decline and scarcity that have dominated too many church conversations of late. The future is undetermined, and God’s ways are not ours.

For myself, bi-vocational ministry is a choice. I'm grateful for the chance to serve in a congregation on a part-time basis while pursuing my work at Sojourners. I've also been blessed to learn from mentors and teaching pastors who also choose bi-vocational ministry. They have taught me ways of establishing boundaries and routines that can make it this form of ministry work for both pastors and congregations. But far too many bi-vocational pastors do not a choice about the direction their career has taken, the wisdom of elders who have gone before, or the luxury of working in a congregation with multiple pastors.

Bi-vocational pastors deserve our support for the incredible work they do in service to God, neighbor, and church but I suspect few would claim this form of ministry was the career they dreamed about when first sensing God's call. I hope there is a way to imagine a future that allows them to realize that dream.

Beau Underwood is Senior Director of Advocacy and Communications for Sojourners.

Image: Overworked illustration, Honza Hruby / Shutterstock.com

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