In 1986 I got my first paid position on a church staff as an intern in the children's ministry department of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. At that time the church had over 24,000 members with more than 4000 people in worship on Sunday mornings. It was a fantastic experience and I am thankful for all that I learned while in that mega-church. Both of my younger brothers are still active members in that congregation, which has since grown even more in the years since I served there.
Though I enjoyed my time in that church, somewhere along the way I realized I wanted to do more than manage programs in a large church. I wanted to impact individual lives. Following that calling, I moved to Vermont in 1993 and became the pastor of a small church with less than 25 people in worship on Sunday mornings. It was perhaps the hardest job I have ever held, not because of the people, but because of the situation. The building was in need of significant repairs. The community was small and had little resources. The church had been in decline for some time and there had been quiet talk behind the scenes of closing the doors. It was so much easier in a big church with a big budget, great facilities and lots of volunteers. The small church was much more of a challenge.
After nearly 9 years in that church, the congregation had returned to health. The buildings had been renovated; additional property had been bought and paid for. Attendance at the worship services was approaching 90 on a typical day and would exceed 100 on special days. I considered it a great success, but soon learned that many people could not believe I had thrown away my career to serve such a small congregation.
Though I have moved on from that church to another one, I remain in Vermont serving small churches. I remain bivocational, serving both as the administrator for my denomination in Vermont and as the bivocational pastor of a growing congregation in central Vermont. I view bivocational ministry as a wonderful experience, not a negative one. Though bivocational ministry has its challenges, it always had great rewards.
I feel for bivocational pastors because they face not only the additional pressure of working a second job to support their ministry; they also must frequently deal with a perceived second-class status in ministry. Over time, this perception of bivocational ministry being second-class has resulted in a negative social stigma being attached to the concept of bivocational ministry. Some pastors feel a sense of inadequacy when serving in bivocational roles. They may not even want to think of themselves as bivocational because of the perceived stigma attached to the term. I have heard many pastors declare that they are not bivocational, they just work a second job. They deny the reality of what they are because somewhere along the way someone told them that being bivocational was negative. I want to challenge that notion and proclaim to everyone that being bivocational is not a bad thing.
Due to a lack of understanding, people will occasionally refer to bivocational pastors as part-time pastors, a misnomer because all pastors are on call twenty-four hours a day. Therefore, there are no actual part-time pastors. There are a number of full-time pastors who are only being partially compensated for their work and therefore have to seek additional employment in order to support their families. Do not insult a bivocational pastor by referring to him as part-time. He deserves more respect than that from the people he serves and from his fully-funded peers.
Though some people may misunderstand this special calling to bivocational ministry, it is a calling that the early church knew well. The Apostle Paul was bivocational. Down through the centuries there have always been bivocational ministers. Sometimes the percentage of bivocational pastors has been higher, and sometimes lower. This has resulted in many waves of bivocational ministry ebbing and flowing as the situation dictated. The wave of bivocationalism that is currently sweeping North America is a combination of a general weakening economy, a lack of stewardship commitment within the churches and a new understanding of the importance of bivocational ministry.
Small churches need good pastors. Many of those pastors will likely be bivocational. Those bivocational leaders must train the people in the church to assist them in ministry so that they will not burn out. I felt so strongly about this that I wrote a book called, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. The book was published by Crossbooks, a division of Lifeway. Though it is only one tool that might be used to help address this growing need in North America, I believe it is a tool that can be very effective. I hope to develop other tools in the future that might help pastors in small churches be as effective as possible in building the Kingdom of God. We must value and appreciate the pastors of our small churches. If we cannot pay them the money they deserve, let us at least pay them the respect they deserve.