5 Tips on Keeping Bi-Vocational Ministry from Imploding

imagesBi-vocational ministry has a bad name.

This bad name was bequeathed upon it by Christendom. Because within this Christianized world, where every body is a Christian, the pastor is looked upon as a professional carrying out all of the numerous tasks of the church to offer services to Christians to sustain them in their Christian life. This model of ministry (I call it the Superman/woman model) is ordered for efficiency. It is a top down chain of command that gets things done. One person basically does all the gifts of the body, including preaching once a week, pastoral care, visiting the sick, running the business end of things, managing conflict resolution, and engaging the community with new and innovative ways to get people to come into church. Frankly this job is impossible even under the best of circumstances. But as a bi-vocational pastor? It will kill you. Yet the “Superman” pastor is an image of leadership seared deep in the consciousness of the Christendom Christians. These are the expectations of people who have been part of the established church. My pastor does a.,b. and c. and my job as parishioner is to go to church, receive some of this good pastoral care, donate some volunteer hours and then give a tithe. Rarely can bi-vocational pastors live up to this model of church.

So here’s 5 tips for avoiding Bi-Vocational Ministry from imploding.

  1. Teach your small community different expectations for the pastor. When they ask questions, seek goods and services, according to the old model, redirect.
  2. NEVER (and I mean NEVER!) enter bi-vocational ministry alone. Bi-vocational ministry is meant to be a shared leadership with 2 to 4 other pastors, all bi-vocational, who know their giftings and complement one another.
  3. Do not look at ministry as a job. You may get some compensation as bi-vocational pastor to relieve having to work over time etc., but ministry is a life style into which all people participate. You just happen to be a leader at your church.
  4. Keep your existing secular job within boundaries, recognizing there will be seasons, when you will have to work more. But by faith, keep your job limited to 40-50 hours a week, and as you grow with it, begin to pare back, to 35 hours, as the church can supplement your wages and your value as a skilled employee increases and becomes more valuable and flexible in your employment. For most bi-vocational pastors this takes 3–5 years.
  5. Stay flexible. Navigate your job. Look for ways for God to provide more flexibility. And as the church grows, look for ways to change and manage your secular job. This may mean you become full time at the church at some time in the life of this mission. But you will be forever changed in the way you lead ministry and see understand ministry because you started out bi-vocational.

And a few last things. Despite everything I said above, bi-vocational ministry is not for everybody. There is a place for the professional clergy in shepherding the large masses of Christians still left in the West into Mission.. Bi-vocational ministry is the vocation of a missionary. It takes a kind of imagination to see ministry beyond the boundaries of traditionally received ministry and the 4 walls of the church.  In N. America, there is a great need for both missionaries and professional clergy that can lead churches into the mission fields of post Christendom.

Also, bi-vocational ministry is not always permanent. Many pastor/missionaries I know start out bi-vocational and 15 years into it, they are full time paid from their churches out of necessity. I was bi-vocational for almost 15 years. Bi-vocational ministry is a journey not a permanent static ‘position.’ Blessings to all on this journey.

Posted in Church Planting, Incarnational, Missional Leadership
10 comments on “5 Tips on Keeping Bi-Vocational Ministry from Imploding
  1. Seth says:

    Dave,
    It seems to me that the posture/model of ministry inherent(?) in the bi-vocationalism you describe here is also possible in full-time ministry positions. I do not see the inevitable vortex of full-time-ness that you do. This is hope for us who are (stuck) in full-time ministry positions.

    It’s possible when we learn to enter our full-time positions with the same non-superhuman posture you describe. I suggest that it’s actually possible to enter full-time ministry with bi-vocational dispositions.

    Us full-timers have to learn to treat all the “stuff” that comes with full time ministry AS our part-time job. We have to learn to distinguish the expression of our vocational identity from what we get paid to do as professional minister. Yes, there is overlap, but learning to distinguish these two things frees us to be fully present in our vocational identity, get the “stuff” done that we need to in the church, and then not freak out when our church jobs fail to fulfill our vocational desires.

    So am I out of my mind here?

    • David Fitch says:

      I have one word for you Seth: Genius !!! But I don’t think it’s as easy as maybe some might think reading your comment. Once you get caught into the vortex, it does things to you :)

      • Seth says:

        Right – not easy. It feels like death some days. And the process involves my willingness to die to a lot of things – a lot of my ego – that would otherwise go unchecked in full-time ministry.

      • Seth says:

        And the vortex is very real. Just not inevitable. We must be constantly vigilant to avoid it – by entering ever-more fully into a place of surrender and trust in regard to our work.

  2. Juliet says:

    Do you think it’s possible to do bi-vocational ministry and yet also offer a counter-cultural vision of a non-frenzied, overfilled, hectically busy life that is filled with sabbath and rest? The “rat race” is very real in the culture around us…from preschool, parents are raising their kids into this kind of life, where more work equals more success equals more supposed fulfillment. If a bivocational minister works 40-50 hours/week, ministers 15-20 hours a week in the church/neighborhood, tries to spend at least 2 hours a day with their spouse/children, how do we also speak prophetically against the frenzied pace of our surrounding culture when our lives are potentially just as frenzied? Not challenging you…just earnestly seeking some wisdom on this.

    • Ryan Jantzi says:

      Yes! It is possible. I am a bi-vocational pastor and many (but not all) days I feel like I can do this while having a reasonably restful rhythm to life.

      However, I do have a pretty good split between the two jobs… 20 hours/week dedicated to church leadership and 25 hours/week devoted to my ‘secular’ job. But, it has taken me almost three years of shifting through four jobs to find part-time work in a rural area that pays well, uses my skills well and allows me the flexibility I need. I have been a cabinet maker, construction labourer, FedEx courier and am now a literacy practitioner. All the while leading in a 6 year old church plant of approximately 40 folks.

  3. Dan Jr. says:

    David,
    I know not all contexts are the same but there are two missiological questions we’ve had to ask: First – “Does full-time ministry fly in hyper suspicious, Post-Christian contexts?” and Second – “Is it financially appropriate in poorer urban neighborhoods?”

    When we discuss “full-time ministry” from the vantage point of a missionary, we’re challenged to creatively renegotiate infrastructural dependencies.

  4. joe manafo says:

    David,

    I think the second last line of your post deserves to be teased out a little further (“Bi-vocational ministry is a journey not a permanent static ‘position.’”) especially since some of us see bi-vocationalilty either as a ‘life sentence’ or as a more ‘legitimate’ way of doing pastoral work.

    • David Fitch says:

      Joe, to tease that out a bit …
      I believe that even when a ‘bi-vocational’ missionary pastor becomes a full time ‘employee of the local church, still at his/her heart she always remains bi-vocational, never seeing the salary as permanent w/ benefits but rather carrying out the ministry as if he/she could get fired at any moment. I sometimes tend to romanticize the revolutionary’s attitude/ subversive bent that lies at the core of bi-vocational. But, having said that, there will be times, when such a pastor will need to and should take a full time salary at the request of the church body in order to more fully use his/her gifts for the flourishing of the Kingdom.

  5. Kristel says:

    Now that my husband is bi-vocational, I enjoy living with him more! He was always so stressed when working full time in a church setting because everyone was expecting him to be someone he is not (personality wise) and his perspective became so narrow. I have observed gifts come to the surface in the last couple years as we work as missionaries in our town. We actually have more time to spend with those in our neighbourhood and we are able to help others financially with a greater income. This posture in ministry has also given me a place of partnership rather than the “wife of the pastor”. It works well for us.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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