Adaptive Leadership

One Promise of Bi-Vocational Ministry is an Integrated Life.

For the past fifteen years, I have been involved in bi-vocational ministry. I work full-time as a ministry professor at Milligan University. I also work as a “part-time” minister at Crossroads Christian Church in Gray, TN. For the past five years, I have been the lead minister at the church. The strange thing is that I have never considered myself a bi-vocational minister. I was taken by surprise when asked to write about my experience in bi-vocational ministry. Yet, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Serving bi-vocationally has led to an integrated understanding of God’s promises revealed in community.

For longevity and contentment, I am convinced that an integrated view of life, work, and self is important. A person in bi-vocational ministry can easily be pulled in two very opposite directions. When there are two competing employers, two competing sets of expectations, two competing demands on your time, two competing loyalties, then it is very likely that you will eventually be pulled apart. In the prophetic words of George Costanza, “A George divided against itself cannot stand.” If you are discerning a call to bi-vocational ministry, it might be helpful to consider whether the two vocations would allow you to remain an integrated person. The term “co-vocational” is being used in some church planting circles as an attempt to consider both occupations as a part of the same calling. It is this view of vocation that helps me now reflect on my experience in bi-vocational ministry as an integrated life.

I haven’t had time to do a deep dive into the research (because I am working two jobs). Yet, anecdotal evidence and a quick scan of the digital literature suggests that bi-vocational ministry is becoming a more prevalent consideration for churches and for people discerning their unique calling from God. This is especially true in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The financial impact of the past eighteen months has left many churches wondering how they will be able to survive financially. Since ministerial staff is the largest expense in the typical church budget, many are predicting that more churches will be moving toward bi-vocational ministers in the future. The pandemic aside, there has been a growing trend among emerging ministers to consider bi-vocational ministry. As one young ministry leader stated, they “don’t want to put all their financial eggs in one basket.” In a 2017 report entitled “Shifting Vocational Identity in Theological Education,” the Association of Theological Schools reported that 30 percent of seminary grads expect to be bi-vocational. This growing trend seems to be especially true among female and single ministers.

It’s more than financial considerations alone that is driving the growth in bi-vocational ministry. An increasing number of voices are making the case that co-vocational ministry is the preferred model. This idea of a minister or a ministry team working marketplace jobs by choice, regardless of a church’s ability to pay for full-time work, is being propagated by the church-planting and multi-site movements. The choice makes sense for ministers who view their workplace as just one of their primary mission fields. These ministers also find their marketplace job to be a useful tool to build relationships and share their faith.

Bi-vocational ministry means more family conversations.

As I attempt to give honest reflection to my time in co-vocational ministry, I am reminded that there have been parts of it that have been really hard. Whether you pursue this path by choice or by necessity, it is a difficult road to walk. My wife had the freedom to tell me at any point that this ministry approach was doing damage to our relationship and I would stop immediately. She never asked me to stop, but we did have conversations that caused me to make numerous adjustments. I am certain that I would not have been able to maintain this season of co-vocational ministry when my daughters were younger. There were too many parts of their lives that I considered a vocational calling all their own. Tri-vocational ministry seems unrealistic.

There are only so many hours in the day and ministry takes time. One of the more difficult challenges is understanding that two part-time jobs often need full-time attention. The problem, however, is that you are often unable to give your full attention to either job because time does not allow. Bi-vocational ministry does not acknowledge our carefully planned calendars. It can create some serious frustration when there is a ministry emergency but you are working the other job and can’t get free to attend to the need.

Bi-vocational ministry means staff relationships have to be centered on trust.

Leading a large church staff and being bi-vocational  brought adjustments in staff culture and development.  In my case, I participate in weekly staff meetings just like everyone else on our staff.  However, I do not lead our staff meetings even though the title “lead minister” would suggest otherwise.  Being a bi-vocational lead on a larger staff only works when there is a healthy relationship with a ministry equal that can be present and empowered for the day-to-day life of ministry in the church.  Our Executive Minister, runs our staff meetings, helps guide me toward crucial conversations, points me toward lunches with people that could use a sounding board or a word of encouragement, and keeps me informed of stuff that I would miss otherwise. This type of relationship requires a great deal of investment, trust, and humility on the part of both people.

I am a part of a pastoral care team, but I do not lead that team and often it will be another staff person or a volunteer that will minister to people at their most urgent and personal time of need.  It requires that I find ways to show personal care to people even if I am unable to be there in the moment.  It also requires that I be okay with people in the church thinking of other staff and volunteers as the ones who were there to minister to them when they needed them most.

Bi-vocational ministry means “only do what only you can do.” 

When I was only involved in full-time ministry, I found that I was spinning a lot of semi-related plates in my professional and personal life. When I began my bi-vocational adventure, I had to cut out some of the more peripheral activities and be alright with spinning fewer plates. I actually found that life as a bi-vocational minister forced me to become more focused on those activities I deemed most important. Time is a scarce commodity in this rhythm of life and the old adage, “only do what only you can do,” is a guiding principle for prioritization. It is important to learn how to become ruthless in cutting activity that doesn’t rise to the level of priority.

Still, this challenge presents an important opportunity. Skilled bi-vocational ministers know their time is limited, so they develop and deploy leaders from within the church to carry out the work of the ministry. You need a “priesthood of all believers” approach. It is hard to be bi-vocational if you’re a control freak. Ephesians 4 indicates that the job of the minister is not to do all the work of ministry alone, but to “equip the saints” for this work. It requires that you create a ministry that can run without you. This aspiration for the full-time minister is essential for the bi-vocational minister.

If you are discerning a call to bi-vocational ministry, finding the right marketplace job makes a difference. A job that allows you some flexibility for ministry interruptions is preferable. If the marketplace job can help build relationships and credibility within the same community, then it helps your ministry. It should offer necessary flexibility, connection with a lot of people, a good match for your skills and abilities, and fair pay for the hours. If these are present, then it might be the right kind of job to consider. In that case, the counterpart job can open a lot of doors into the community. You often have the chance to work with people who would not come to your church. It allows you to be a part of the community in a very real way. You are afforded moments to interact with people outside the church in ways that are more natural than forced.

The impact on family, staff and ministry teams, and personal wellbeing are all important to consider when discerning a call to bi-vocational ministry. In my perspective, the most important consideration is your ability to foster an integrated life in the midst of divided worlds. The possibilities of being pulled apart are very real. The ministry opportunities are just as plentiful.