Thursday, November 1, 2012

When a Church Needs a Bivocational Pastor - Guest Post by Dennis Bickers

Many denominational leaders are reporting the same trend: a number of their previously fully-funded churches find they must go to a bivocational pastor. Often, the change is due to decreasing finances or rising insurance costs. One church I serve in our judicatory made that move in 2011 and told me they could afford to pay a good salary, but they could no longer afford to provide medical insurance. So far, the shift has worked fairly well in that church, but that is not always the case.

About a year ago I was asked to speak to a congregation that had told their pastor he would need to become bivocational or seek another place to serve. I was to address the changes the church should expect as they made the transition. A large number of the congregation attended the meeting and asked good questions. The pastor had found other employment and decided to remain at the church in a bivocational role. For several months the transition went well, but recently things are not going so well at the church. I'll explain why in a moment.

There are at least two things that congregations must address when transitioning from having a fully-funded pastor to a bivocational pastor. One is self-esteem. It is not uncommon for a church to wonder what they have done wrong or why God has seemingly abandoned them when they can no longer have a fully-funded pastor. I once spoke at a church out west whose sanctuary seated 600 people. They now had 60 in attendance, and the morale in that church was at rock bottom. Many in the church saw themselves as failures and could do little but speak of "the good old days."

I try to encourage churches to not see themselves as failures or to believe God has abandoned them. God uses small churches to accomplish great things. Rather than focusing on what they have lost these churches would do much better to focus on the new opportunities they now have. Instead of spending the bulk of their offerings on pastoral salary and benefits these churches now often have additional money that can be used for ministry. More resources for ministry means that more people outside the congregation can be touched and introduced to the Kingdom of God. At every workshop I lead for bivocational ministers I remind them that the call to bivocational ministry is not a lesser nor a greater call to ministry; it is the call God has placed on their lives and is equal to every other call. I would say the same to churches that are moving from being fully-funded to bivocational. Your church is not less important to God and His Kingdom and becoming bivocational may mean that new ministry opportunities are about to open up. Look for them.

The second issue deals with expectations. Churches sometimes find it easier to move to a bivocational salary than to shift their expectations of the pastor. It is not fair to ask the pastor to find another job to supplement his or her salary and then continue to expect the same work from the pastor. This is the problem that occurred in the church mentioned above. For the first few months the congregation picked up several of the responsibilities the pastor had been doing, but as the months went by that started happening less and less. That was one of the things I cautioned the church about, and I thought they understood that when I left, but they evidently forgot. The pastor and his wife told me the church was now expecting him to do almost everything he was doing when he was fully-funded. I doubt he will remain at that church much longer.

One of the strengths of bivocational ministry is that church members often become more personally involved in ministry. They understand the pastor has a job just like they do and is not available 24/7, so many of them step in and fill more ministry roles. Actually, this is a scriptural way for the church to operate. Eph. 4 tells us the role of the pastor is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry, and when this model is followed good things often happen. Bivocational churches must move from a pastoral care model to a congregational care model. The pastor may not always be available to minister to someone in need, but there is usually someone in the congregation who can do that if they understand they are called to do so just as much as the pastor.

For more on this and other aspects of bivocational ministry you may want to read:

The Bivocational Pastor: Two Jobs, One Ministry
Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church

Dennis Bickers has authored numerous books on bivocational ministry and is in a key leadership position in the American Baptist Churches, USA.

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