“But I don’t want to be bivocational.” That was the declaration of a young man whom I recently talked to. He was nearing graduation from seminary and felt led to do ministry in a lesser reached area of the nation. Vermont, which is the least churched state in America, definitely fits the bill for being lesser reached. As the Vermont director for the efforts of my denomination, I have plenty of openings in which he could fulfill his calling to a lesser reached area. But when he found out that most evangelical churches in Vermont have less than 100 people in worship on a typical Sunday morning and that few could sustain a fully-funded pastor, he was discouraged.
I can certainly understand his frustration. After all, he had invested a significant amount of time and money in seven years of schooling in order to gain his Master of Divinity degree from an accredited seminary. In any other field, such an investment of time and money would likely produce a lucrative career. But if a person feels a calling to ministry, and wants to do that ministry outside the Bible belt, the likelihood of finding a fully-funded position drops significantly.
Young people who enter the ministry today are simply going to have to come to grips with the reality that most of them will spend a portion of their career in a bivocational situation. For those who may not be familiar with that term, it simply means that the minister must work a second job in addition to serving a church. It does not mean that the minister is “part-time,” it simply means his ministry position is not fully-funded and therefore he must find additional income from some other source.
The reasons that people want to avoid this situation are numerous, but the most obvious is that it is a lot of hard work. Balancing two jobs and a family is a challenge. Pastoral burn-out among bivocational pastors is notoriously high. Unfortunately, bivocational ministry is a reality that is not going away anytime soon. Both the current economic situation in the nation, as well as the giving trends of younger generations, indicate that churches will continue to struggle to fully-fund pastoral positions for some time.
However, just because there are challenges to bivocational ministry does not mean that such situations should be viewed in a negative light. There are actually a number of advantages that bivocational pastors have over their fully-funded counterparts. Before dismissing bivocational ministry, pastors should consider these advantages:
1. Bivocational pastors are not as dependent on the church for their financial support as fully-funded pastors. This relieves them of the stress of what might happen to their families if they were dismissed from the churches they serve. In some situations, bivocational pastors actually have more personal resources than fully-funded pastors because they have two sources of income.
2. Bivocational pastors often find more opportunities to witness to the lost than fully-funded pastors because they spend more time with non-Christians through their secular employment.
3. Bivocational pastors seldom live in a “pious bubble” that only church people inhabit. Their secular employment requires them to interact with and understand better the needs of non-Christians. Therefore, they frequently feel they relate to the people in their congregations better than fully-funded pastors because they “work” just like the laypeople do. These frequent interactions and the increased sense of relating to laypeople often help bivocational pastors have more realistic sermon illustrations and greater credibility in the pulpit.
4. Bivocational pastors have the ability to serve a larger number of churches because they can serve churches that cannot fully-fund pastors. They also get to experience the joy of allowing churches to fund other needed ministries instead of so much of the churches’ funding going to support their own salaries.
5. Bivocational pastors feel they are better able to encourage the churches they serve to create a culture of the laity using their gifts and the laity devoting more time for ministry since there were no fully-funded pastors “paid” to do “everything” for congregations. Most bivocational pastors feel this creates healthy churches over the long term, though it sometimes creates more stress in the short term.
6. Bivocational pastors often feel it is easier to teach about financial stewardship and/or to solicit contributions from church members. This is because so little of the churches’ funds are spent on the pastors’ salaries that the pastors asking for money is not perceived as being “self-serving.”
7. Bivocational pastors frequently express that they feel more dependent on the Holy Spirit in their sermon preparation and less dependent on their formal theological training or on their elocution or research skills. This greater sense of dependence on the Spirit is perceived as a positive thing by most bivocational pastors. It is interesting to note that the bivocational pastors who expressed this the most strongly had often previously served larger churches in which they had been fully-funded.
8. Bivocational pastors sometimes say that being bivocational gives them valid excuses not to attend denominational meetings that they perceived as irrelevant, uninteresting, and/or promoting things that are not helpful to their own ministry. This does not mean they never attend meetings, but that their bivocational status makes them feel more comfortable attending only the meetings that they perceive as being more applicable to their situation. If those same pastors had been fully-funded, they would have felt a greater obligation to attend meetings that they did not think would be beneficial anyway.
While bivocational ministry has many challenges, it also has many advantages. Learning what the advantages are can help bivocational pastors, or those considering bivocational ministry, feel better about their ministry. When bivocational pastors feel more confident about their roles, they tend to be more effective in their ministries. Churches and denominational leaders need to look for ways to help bivocational pastors celebrate the advantages of bivocational ministries since it is a growing reality in North American church life.
Dr. Terry Dorsett serves as the Director of the Green Mountain Baptist Association and is the bivocational pastor of Faith Community Church in Barre, VT. He is the author of Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church, as well as numerous church growth articles, and is a frequent contributor to Baptist Press. His blog, Next Generation Evangelistic Network, is read by over 1500 people a month.