A Reply to “Some Thoughts on Bivocational Ministry”
I have been a bi-vocational minister for about seven years. I am fortunate in that I have found a way to earn money by doing something that I really love while still being able to serve the Church as a pastor. This topic has come up more and more in recent years, and it has been interesting to observe the different approaches people take to the question of bi-vocational ministry.Some folks see bi-vocational ministry as the inevitable future of the church. The shrinking value of stagnant wages for most people ensures that churches and other charitable organizations receive less and less money in contributions, and that the contributions they do receive can buy less and less. If we can’t do anything about the economic issue (wage stagnation, income inequality, high unemployment) then fewer and fewer congregations will be able to pay a full-time salary to pastors. In this view, bi-vocational ministry is a thing the church must face as an unpleasant reality.
Others see bi-vocational ministry as something to be fought against; it’s a compromise that devalues the professional education of seminary-trained clergy and contributes to the further decline of the institutional church. Congregations need full-time, seminary-trained pastors more than ever, and rather than accept part-time and under-trained ministers as the new status quo, congregations must dig deeper, renew efforts in evangelism and devote more resources to caring for the ministers who care for them.
Still others see bi-vocational ministry as neither a sad inevitability nor a problem to be avoided. Bi-vocational ministry can be a positive choice even for those who are seminary graduates. It seems to me that the changing nature of the Church may require more people who earn their living doing something other than ministry so that congregations can find their purpose and vision for ministry without money and finances as the primary driver of decision-making. The founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) didn’t desire to designate clergy as a separate class of people; when I was in seminary (Lexington Theological Seminary, class of ’87), most of the professors were ordained clergy, but none of them had the title “The Reverend” on the nameplates of their office doors. I was told that this was because of our tradition of not buying in to the idea of a “clergy class,” which in frontier days was viewed (and justly so) with a fair amount of suspicion. I am a volunteer pastor; it allows me to connect with my parishioners in a direct way (I used to hear fairly often about what I would understand if I actually “worked for a living” as my parishioners did) without fear that my income (already less than that of a seasoned public school teacher) would suffer if I didn’t see things their way. It’s a very liberating thing not to worry about folks in the church using my salary as a lever or a wedge. The emotional systems of congregations can’t seem to resist using money to increase anxiety and lower the challenges of the pastoral vision.
I’m not worried that the Church is dying, as some are…the institutional church may be in decline, but the Church Invisible is not in decline, in my view. It is, however, changing, and if our approach to ministry is dependent on the institutional model of the last few hundred years, and if we see full-time ministry with salary and benefits as the best way to fulfill the calling of the contemporary congregation, then at the very least our congregations and denominations had better make a priority of addressing income inequality, because that’s what is desiccating our institutions.
On the other hand, if we see smaller congregations with greater involvement in the community as the best fulfillment of God’s expectations for the contemporary church, then we should do a few things:
1. Make seminary free. It’s hard to consider part-time or volunteer ministry if there’s an enormous debt-load to worry about.
2. Find a way to make retirement and health insurance for part-time and volunteer pastors a priority. I have had very little opportunity to contribute to my retirement accounts in the last ten years or so, and I suspect other bi-vocational ministers have some trouble with that, too. And don’t even get me started about health insurance.
3. Change the way we label seminary classes so that our 90-hour advanced degree will be recognized as having value to secular employers who don’t know much about the Church or the Master of Divinity. Identify “homiletics” as “public speaking,” “church administration” as “non-profit management,” “church history” as “history,” and so forth. If we are expecting pastors to get secular jobs, then our advanced degree should help, rather than hinder, that effort.