A bivocational minister warns against bivocational ministry

August 23, 2013

I started as a parish associate at Rivermont Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga this week. I’m excited about it, but I have to say, my family is holding their breath. They didn’t allow me to enter into this agreement without a series of promises that outweighed my ordination vows with their urgency. (“Do you promise to take your day off? Will you say ‘no’ when you need to?”)

I write, speak, and consult a lot already, but I had a bit of a lull between now and when my next book comes out, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to jump back into bi-vocational ministry. But, I jump into it with a bit of trepidation, and I think that our churches should have some concern as well.

We know that there’s a crisis right now, as many (perhaps roughly half, and some say 70%) of our congregations can no longer afford a full-time minister. We’ve tried different models—particularly yoking congregations (where two or more congregations stay as a worshiping community and a pastor goes from church to church to lead services and serve them) and merging congregations (When two or more congregations combine into one). Now, it seems that bi-vocational ministry is all the rage… at least in our minds. I have written about this before, but it’s good to keep reflecting on it.

I am bi-vocational. I love it. I feel called to it. I know what people say in support of it. I know that many of our African American and immigrant pastors have been bi-vocational for a long time. But I want to raise a red flag against the model as a path to our vital future, for the following reasons:

There is a bottleneck of ministers, which may soon be a shortage. I have pointed out charts like these before:


I think it’s an important to keep going back to them. They are a few years old now, but the lessons remain. In the next ten years, about 70% of our pastors will be at retirement age. So if we tell our pastors who are entering the ministry that they need to get part-time jobs, it may not be sustainable for them. Many will end up going into the other career, when a full-time position is available.

So what will we do in the next ten years, if we have choked out all of the available pastors in this bottleneck and the shortage comes upon us? Even if we simply plan for 70% of our positions to go away as 70% of our pastors retire, we will still need the 30% who are left.

We will not be able to sustain our educational, internship and ordination requirements. When I went to school, most people who borrowed money were leaving with $40k of debt. That was 15 years ago. The costs have gone up while some seminaries have provided less tuition support. On top of it, we ask our students to do internships and Clinical Pastoral Education, without any consideration of the costs. Often the three-year degree takes four. How can we ask students to go through all of those requirements and expense, and then say that they are only going to get a part-time job at the end of it?

Part-time work has a different sort of commitment level. Part-time pastors love to say, “There is no such thing as a part-time pastorate!” Our calling is to serve God and serve people, and so most of us would do it, no matter what the check looked like at the end of the week. I understand the sentiment. It’s not as if we’re going to be on the phone with Margaret, listening to how she found her husband without a pulse on the bathroom floor, and interrupt her with “I would love to be there with you, but it’s time to punch the clock. My hours are up this week.”

But if you’re expected to make a living doing something else, then there should be a different commitment level with part time. Your other job will need some energy.

Your family and your personal life outside of church need nurturing. I am part of a Red Letter Christians group--people who work and speak about social justice issues. Tony Campolo reminds us that there are only so many hours in a day, “You’re going to have to steal from your family or steal from God,” Campolo told us, “So you better learn how to steal from God, because God can handle it.”

We have enough. I know that we cry about not having enough money, and we certainly don’t have enough money to be doing things in the same way, but our denominations have great abundance. We have property, assets, and foundations. We have wealthy members. In many denominations (like the PCUSA), there are great income disparities among our clergy. One pastor is living off food stamps while her neighbor makes six figures. Sometimes they’re on the staff of the same church.

To be starving off our leadership seems like a determination to dwindle. We can do without a lot of things, but it would be difficult for us to thrive without our pastors. We have enough, can’t we learn to be creative and support our clergy?


Love this article

I am also bivocational - in my case I work half time in ministry and half time as a consultant for IBM.  This means that IBM covers things like retirement savings (allowing me to fully engage in their 401K plan) and health care.  I love it, and I feel called to it.  I can serve a small congregation that is deeply faithful, and there would be no mainline presence in our rural valley at all were it not for part-timers.   If you are part time, you have to be part time.  There have to be boundaries.  In my case, I regularly travel for my other work, sometimes 2 or 3 days in a couple weeks running.  That means laypeople have to step in and do ministry. This is a good thing.  I also am pretty miilitant about my day off, which is Saturday, because that is the only day I can reliably get off from both jobs.  This sometimes means not engaging in things offered by my conference because they are on Saturdays.  I also try to take time during the week, and make sure to find some time for my husband (who is the real hero here) every day.    I agree that we need to realize the needs of many of the folks graduating from seminaries, and the difficulties that they are experiencing.  And I think in places where there are many churches, we need to close some, and to work ecumenically, in order to serve the folks in the pews.  But I also think that the divide between professional clergy and the ministry of lay people has to come down - for the good of all. After all, we're called not to lead, but to enable others, right?

Bi-vocational ministry

I'm a 3/4 time interim pastor, and in my experience a major part of making this work is having clear boundaries.  My church knows they have first call on my time on Sun/Mon/Tues/Thurs, but on the other days, I have other obligations.  We talked about that during the interview process.  In many ways, having other jobs (as I have) also helps maintain those boundaries, and strong boundaries are making ministry much more effective.  Looking forward, tho, I worry about people who have seminary educations and end up having to patch two or three jobs together to make a living.  I also worry about how much time pastors in those situations will have to serve on committees or volunteer for the denomination, become active in their church's community and so on.  How will this change the face of ministry and the work of denominations?

Bivocational life has been a gift to ministry

I've learned much from my year of being bivocational. First, how isolating from the world ministry can be. I think I was lulled into believing I learned so much about people just because I am given a pass to be present in life's sacred moments--birth, life, death, baptism, tragedy, etc. I have been startled in relation to how people guard their speech and lives around pastors. My bagel delivery job has revealed this contrast to me (most people in my other job don't know I'm a pastor). It's not just the apologies for swearing. People put what they perceive is their best foot forward toward me as a pastor, and what I often see is a facade. I often hear more from people listening as their bagel guy than I do as a pastor (which also says something about the gift of listening in the world). The isolation is extended when the church is ensconced in its own stuff--committee meetings, coffee klatches, carpet colors, memorial funds, membership has its privileges kind of stuff. In full time ministry, I have operated with a sense of entitlement. Being bivocational has made me more aware of what a gift it is do be able to do ministry in the world. Bivocational ministry may have demographic, financial, and justice consequences and implications, but the insights I have gained doing minimum wage labor (albeit with free day old bagels and coffee) are invaluable.

the challenges

Our system [PCUSA] is not thinking creatively about how to use the gifts and human resources it has. At 59, forced out of a position by a younger new head of staff, I have found it impossible to get a call. No blemish on my record. Doesn't matter. It's a connundrum. 

Seeing with Kingdom glasses

It occurs to me how often we preach the radical breaking in of the Kingdom, but how seldom we accept its potential appearing. The crisis is not that our pastors will disappear, but that we may have trouble recognizing them with our old eyes. This evokes the excitement, and the fear, of the Early Church about its mission -  and brings the Gospels into vibrancy in our ministry today. Let's not be afraid to re-imagine even the very structure of clergy status, compensation, mission location, and clergy-lay work division. As we are now looking at overhauling our overarching structures of the Church, this, too, should bear fresh eyes and new expression. Walking onto the dry seabed, passing walls of walls of water with the wilderness ahead is scary. But we must make our exodus - traditions retained, belief firmly in place, new ground before us.

The Rev. Ashley Cook, deacon

The Episcopal Diocese of Texas

Equalizing Salaries?

Carol, I've been in a number of conversations with clergy friends recently who have talked openly about the need to equalize clergy salaries. I support it.

We inhabit a denomination of tiered churches and clergy, haves and have-nots. We foster a Darwinian culture of churches and clergy who serve them.

There are ways that we could be more strategic--and more faithful--with the way we conceive of our shared calling. In Atlanta, we have huge churches in wealthy areas and small churches in poor areas. Why would we not bring resources from the rich churches to build up the smaller ones? Why would we not collectivize the costs of clergy training and ordination? Why would we not create incentives for young clergy to go where the church needs them, instead of where the salary and benefits packages are the best?

Thanks for opening these conversations.

Clergy are NOT the problem

Clergy I know and speak with are either prepared - or preparing themselves - for the creative adaptive ways and means we are going to need to use for the realities of congregational life. The typical person in the pew - or even in a seat of congregational leadership - doesn't seem to have a clue. Or, if they do, they are resisting it with everything they have. I think bishops or other judicatory leaders ought to be preparing congregations for what this means. And then themselves for being bivocational bishops or judicatory leaders who are no longer feeding at the trough which is supplied primarily by the money of dead people.

Not so sure

I'm not so sure we have "great abundance," and if we do, I'm not sure it is clear where that abundance needs to go first.

Honestly, I'd like to see statistics about how many mainline pastors are making 6 figures. Maybe in large cities, maybe in monied suburbs somewhere, (Atlanta, as mentioned above)  But in the districts I've served, full of declining industry and rural poverty, that sort of pay sounds as plausible as a unicorn. Foundations? Property? Those of us reading this should be thinking about where those big pockets of money are in our conferences. Do they in fact exist? And how big are they-- once liquidated, how long will they last.

And while we're at it, I think we probably need to consider the other needs that are in line if that money does appear. Camping programs, seminaries, campus ministires, ministries in immigrant communties-- all the sort of stuff that is supposed to produce the next generation of Christians and their leaders,--and all of which are desperate for money -- not to mention ongoing hunger and disaster relief and support for the church universal.

My conclusion is that we can't afford to have everybody who graduated from seminary in a full time paid call. That may have been the assumption, but much as we don't need a lot of philosophy phds, so too, we may have too many pastors. The philosophy phds who end up working at Starbucks don't feel that others have betrayed their call from God though. So, double the disappointment. We may have boom and bust years, just like other professions -- but at the moment, there just don't seem to be enough jobs for everybody. I think the lay people in our congregations experience this in their professions as well -- and may not immediately feel a sense of responsibility for the unemployed and underemployed. They might be sold on possibilities for solid ministry, but not merely on the idea of full employment.





Most people do not know what

Most people do not know what is going on in congregations. Also, the cost of living in an area should have some effect on the pay. If the pastor is starving and living like a graduate student, that is no way for him or her to live. I can see why the 59 year pastor can't get a call. The 59-year old may be stuck in the 1980s and only preach to and help those over 55. Yet, Some at 59,  understand and have kept up with the times and are willing to help those younger people instead of throwing them out, 

I think the continual learning of how to relate to people and  An understanding of the problems faced by the younger generations helps keep one relevant and employed.

Tentmaker Supports So-Called "Bi-Vocational" Ministry

Where to start?  I find the article somewhat short-sighted and distorted in its vision.  First off, in the Presbyterian [USA] denomination, almost all Tentmakers [TM's] I know prefer the term "Tentmaking" to "Bi-Vocational," because of the misleading notion that one is an ordained clergyperson primarily, and only secondarily and by necessity in secular employment, to "make ends meet," because we are "in crisis."  Phooey.  During the time of my pre-retirement career I was always a TM.  In retirement I eventually ceased to be a congregational Pastor, but I have continued to teach Philosophy in the community college because that is MY VOCATION still, as it always was while pastoring.  In the Association of Presbyterian Tentmakers, the Episcopal group NASSAM [National Association for the Self-supporting Active Ministry], and the British group Chrism [Christians in Secular Ministry], the general view is that there is a VOCATION to TM, and that the traditionally "clerical" vocation does not take precedence over the secular.  In fact Chrism has a rule that one does not cancel secular work commitments in order attend to ecclesiastical duties!  For far too long, we have assumed the fully-funded "full-time" minister as the standard model and only grudgingly tolerated the TM; I rejoice in a future that embraces TM as the standard model and allows fully salaried & benefitted ministry only where circumstances really call for it.