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Don’t be afraid of a future with more bivocational ministers

A pastor confides his frustrations to me in my office — not about church drama or a capital campaign, but about the stress of being a bivocational minister.

He works a full-time job in information technology and must be on call a few nights a week in addition to the 40 hours he spends at the office. On Wednesdays, he often works 15 hours. He goes directly from work to church for Bible study, often finalizing his lesson plans while scarfing down his lunch at work. Saturdays are filled with meetings or various members’ events, and then he locks himself in his downstairs office to prepare the Sunday sermon. On Sundays, he gets up early, spends the morning at church and then tries to have an unhurried Sunday meal with his family before crashing on the couch. Too soon, it’s time to go to bed and start it all again.

He’s tired, and his family is as well. His wife has expressed that she’s not getting enough of his time or attention. His kids are complaining that he misses their sports games more than he makes them. He feels committed to his call, and he needs his job, but he can’t seem to figure out how to make everything fit.

This narrative is common in my conversations with clergy as a professor and counselor for ministers. We work hard to discern Niebuhr’s “providential call” — what specific work am I to do in the world? In 2019, this question is not easily answered.

Many seminaries train clergy for full-time ministry, often in a parish context. However, in reality, fewer and fewer clergy will end up with full-time ministry jobs. Bivocational ministry is becoming the norm rather than the exception. As we adjust to this new way of doing ministry, it’s helpful to frame the changing landscape as an opportunity rather than a tragedy.

A 2017 survey by The Association of Theological Schools revealed that about 30% of graduating seminarians anticipated bivocational ministry. When these numbers were broken down by race, people of color were much more likely to believe that this was their track: almost 60% of black seminarians and over 40% of Hispanic/Latinx seminarians noted preparing for bivocational ministry.

In denominations across the globe, attendance at traditional churches is declining, leaving them less able to pay ministers a living wage. To fill the gap, ministers are finding that they need to juggle their ministry work with other forms of employment.

The natural reaction is fear. But if we prepare for a future with more bivocational ministers, we can equip both ministers and congregations to thrive in it.

Bivocational ministry requires us to be open to the multiplicity of gifts in the body of Christ and the unlimited ways that God can call us to service. Some of us are called to do work in communities, in business and even in governmental agencies. Rather than thinking about a dichotomy of sacred and secular, we can focus on a simple assessment of whether we are living out our purpose and operating in ways that leave us feeling connected to God.

There is still the very real possibility that a second job feels disconnected from our calling but is necessary to pay the bills. In such cases, we can focus on what human resources professionals call “transferrable skills.” A minister with an accounting job might provide valuable insights in the area of church administration. An IT professional might help ensure that the church’s technology is effective and up to date.

Bivocational clergy must maximize efficiency by focusing their efforts on their particular areas of giftedness and seeking support for other tasks. This requires communicating clearly with ministry partners and managing the expectations of both minister and congregation. One pastor with a background in training and development engaged in intensive education of lay leaders to help manage the pastoral care needs of the congregation, including requests related to bereavement and pastoral visitation. Those leaders became so engaged during the process that a new ministry was formed.

Another major key to success in bivocational ministry is time management. There is no standard, one-size-fits-all strategy; each person must examine his or her life tasks and devise a plan for making things work. This might mean, for example, dedicating certain time blocks to ministry work. But it will definitely mean setting aside time to reflect, engage in self-care and be present with family to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

One minister told his church that he was not available for Saturday morning meetings because his son’s soccer games were at that time. Another blocked out Friday nights as nonnegotiable play/relaxation time, whether with friends or family or by herself. While this may take an adjustment, being upfront about unavailability helps all involved to set healthy expectations for each other.

Bivocational ministry requires both ministers and congregations to be flexible, to collaborate and use everyone’s skills to accomplish tasks. It also requires clear communication of expectations and time management.

I have often heard bivocational clergy wonder whether they misunderstood their call: “If I can’t find a full-time ministry placement, did I get it wrong?”

The answer is firmly no. Bivocational ministry is increasingly the norm, and while it is a challenge, it also presents an opportunity to understand God’s work in us in new and exciting ways.

When I graduated from seminary in 2003, I was sent by the United Methodist Church to serve two small congregations in rural western North Carolina. At the time, every conversation I had with denominational leaders or judicatory committees about my ordination or my work as a clergyperson presumed that I would serve as a full-time congregational leader until retirement.

In 2010, I left the United Methodist Church. Five years later, after a lengthy discernment process, I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church.

As I went through that second ordination process, the conversations about my work as a priest were markedly different from what they’d been 12 years before. I was regularly asked, “What’s your second vocation?” or, “What’s your other job besides ministry?”

Even though my diocese is strong and has thriving urban, suburban and rural congregations, I still faced the assumption that future church jobs would be mostly part time and I ought to prepare myself for that eventuality.

This was not a bad assumption, of course. Study after study seemed to point in that direction.

The National Congregations Study in 2012 showed that more than one-third of clergy across denominations were already working more than one job. Within the Episcopal Church, we learned in 2014 that almost half (48%) of congregations nationwide had no full-time paid clergy, an increase of 5% in just five years. Denominational gatherings focused on the rise and indeed necessity of the bivocational clergyperson for the work, witness and sustainability of the church. The prevailing prognosis was that a significant number of congregations would simply not be able to afford a full-time clergyperson.

A colleague objects strongly to this language of “bivocational” clergy when invoked as if the phenomenon were new. She points to biblical and historical models of tentmaker ministry; moreover, she reminds us that most mainline Protestant clergy (together with most of their parishioners) have long been at least bivocational, balancing their work commitments with the commitments inherent in family life — as partners, parents, children of aging parents. Juggling competing commitments has long been part of clergy life.

How well this juggling has happened over the years, of course, has been different for male and female clergy, which is a topic worthy of exploration, lamentation and probably no small amount of repentance. The stories of poor juggling are commonplace among adult “PKs” (preachers’ kids). By working long hours and after hours, their clergy parents — mostly fathers — became virtual strangers in their own families. It’s pretty typical to hear adult PKs say they resent the church for the ceaseless demands it put on their parents, and resent their parents for acquiescing to those demands.

In every one of those stories, there is a cautionary tale for this season in the church’s life. If the future of congregational life means that in many places clergy will have to hold their congregational jobs alongside other paying work and family obligations, can we imagine a different way of being multivocational? Can we imagine a way that is life-giving for clergy, their families and their congregations alike?

A judicatory leader friend says yes and calls it the “life-giving side hustle.” She tells her part-time clergy not to make ends meet by driving for Uber or Lyft. She tells them not to become baristas at Starbucks or cashiers at Kroger.

Instead, she invites them to find side hustles that enable them to pursue passions, engage creativity and reconnect with who they were as people before they were pastors. She tells them to use their side hustles to make themselves more interesting and well-rounded. She asks that they find a way to include their partners and kids, if they have them, so that their loved ones might see a different side of them.

We know what such a life-giving side hustle looks like when we hear about a clergyperson who has found one. I think about the priest-potter throwing clay and making communion ware for congregations. As her life-giving side hustle grows, there’s probably an Etsy shop somewhere in her future. I think about the clergyperson who had always been fascinated with beekeeping and worked with members of his congregation to build hives. They made the operation as child-friendly as possible and now teach children about beekeeping and honey gathering. They sell their honey, too.

Gail Godwin, in her novel “Evensong,” famously observed that something is your vocation if it keeps making more of you. If the future of congregational ministry in many places will require clergy to be multivocational, the least we can hope for is that each and every vocation we pursue will make more of us.

The church needs that. Our families need that. We need that.

Editor’s note: This is adapted from a talk given to the Association of Presbyterian Tentmakers at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 2, 2012.

Bivocational ministry was once seen as a sort of niche ministry, confined to rural and underfunded parishes, out in the wilderness. But surprise! — it now looks as if some form of bivocational ministry is the future of the church of Jesus Christ as a whole. We may all be headed to bivocational ministry, like it or not.

So what can the wisdom of the ages of bivocational ministry teach us about faithful missional forms of church life in the future? In the ancient church, so many monks and nuns fled to the desert that, it was said, “the desert became a city.” What if the desert of bivocational ministry is becoming the city of God?

I want to distinguish such ministry very sharply from multitasking, our age’s great distraction. I am arguing that the church as a whole, not just individuals, must recover our gift of founding institutions, generating entrepreneurship, innovating in ways that are faithful to the gospel and fund ministry. I don’t have a magic bullet, but the church is very old and very wise and has resources we can draw on.

There are hints in the prophets and Jesus of a miraculous crop — God’s doing, but the people still have to work for it. Irenaeus looks forward to vines of 10,000 tendrils, each with 10,000 bunches of 10,000 grapes, each producing oceans of wine, which would make for quite a Eucharist. Work is a basic human good, original to Eden, continuing in the eschaton, dependent on God’s blessing. Human work is a reflection of God, the first worker.

Psalm 104 describes in detail God’s work of creation:

You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers. (Psalm 104:2-4 NRSV)

Looks here like God is the original tentmaker, stretching out the heavens like a tent. The ancient church would have read the winds, fire and flame as references to the Holy Spirit; God always works as Father, Son and Spirit, not as a cumbersome committee, but as a communion of persons in perfect mutual regard.

Every imaginable human act of ingenuity is taken up in the Old Testament to be blessed. They’re all used to describe God as a worker. God purifies Israel like a refiner, like a fuller. David is so bold as to think he’ll build a house for God, but God says, “No no no, I’ll be building the house for you.”

So God’s a builder, a temple maker, a priest houser. And amidst all this work God also rests. God is not ceaseless labor; God is also useless delight, seen most clearly in practices of sabbath. The sharpest patristic scholarship these days points to the importance of the Son’s working wherever the Father is. “Whenever my Father is working, I am also working,” Jesus says over and over in John 5. Who can do the works of God? Only one who is himself divine.

David Jensen, a theologian at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, writes that “isolation in work is foreign to the triune God.” But our human work is not foreign to the triune God. Jesus joins our labors. Then he works on our behalf in salvation in a way we could never work. In salvation, God is like an artist in the zone, creating beauty, all her media responding to her desires, making something beautiful of God’s world.

Only God really works. He lets us join in, blesses our labors, takes them up into his saving work. Because God works, we can work, too.

Here’s the thing: that portrait of God working in creation and redemption, of our joining in by grace, of a city of God at the eschaton that’s a hum of human activity, can, like all theological portraits, be misused.

My fear is that it presents an image of ceaseless human work, frenzied work, without sabbath or grace. And my fear is that bivocational work can do that, too. Ah, just work more, and we’ll turn this negative (not having parishes for you graduates) into a positive and claim your exhaustion is because you’re being like God!

Matthew 6:22 is translated in the King James, “If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” How do we work bivocationally with a single eye, not with diffused or exhausting labor, but with multiple forms of the same work?

At Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, where I have worked for some years, we’ve noticed a need to reclaim entrepreneurship as a gift from the Holy Spirit. Our institutions have to become more nimble, more entrepreneurial, more missional, if you like, if they’re going to have futures.

It’s not the worst thing in the world to close, but if our heritage still has gifts to bear to the world, so that we need to stay open for a bit, how do we make space for that?

I don’t know. But I know it can be done. We’ve done it before in our history. And some people do it now. So I want to tell some stories of folks who have. Here are some folks whose work is double but whose eye is single, as Jesus commands.

I want to tell you about the world’s best church member. Bobby Sharp is his name. He’s an economist by training; runs the office at our local university that develops long-term strategy. He’s the kind of man at Appalachian State University that’s behind anything that actually gets done, and he’s the same way at our church, serving as lay leader, teaching a Sunday school class, chairing our worship committee, chairing our capital campaign exploratory committee. We vastly overuse him, because he’s so capable.

While he was in seminary, he worked at Duke’s Ormond Center on a sociological project on the changing nature of the church. That bore fruit, as he became a demographer in real life. He studies how our town and state are changing and how App ought to change in strategy to meet those changes.

Can you see why his day job is so valuable to us as a church? App employs him full time. He pays us to come to church. And that’s why he’s a treasure. You can’t have a church without women and men like this.

Being a strategist, Bobby thinks that more bivocational ministry is coming. It offers freedom. In his sector, state funding for public education is not going to come back. Drawing security from elsewhere means one can follow a strong calling. And it allows us, the church, to help people find their passion. “Folks will stay up at night and pursue a passion,” he says. As he has.

I want to tell you about another innovator in my town, named Carson Coatney, better known locally as Stick Boy. Carson grew up as a member of a group of sectarian Christians, first in Kentucky and then in the North Carolina mountains. The group has a peculiar genius for innovation. In our town, Boone, they run several profitable fast food and dessert places. Carson was put in management positions early on as the group noticed his energy and intelligence. They even blessed him as he gained admission to and went off to Duke University as an undergraduate.

There he noticed a business opportunity: students hate doing laundry. So for a fee, Carson and his multiplying business partners would pick up laundry and go sit at the laundromat, doing their homework as it cycled, before returning it to the dorms, folded and bundled, at a handsome profit. He made a killing.

He also broadened his religious views and realized he had to leave the group. He left without their blessing and without a dime to his name. He borrowed on credit cards to open the Stick Boy Bread Company, a bakery, in Boone. Not because he knew how to bake — he didn’t. But he knew he could learn that, so he took courses, practiced and mastered it.

And Carson gives generously to his church, to the Christian school his kids attend, to his community. Stick Boy stickers adorn cars all over Boone. He has paid that initial slew of credit cards off and expanded. The store is a hodgepodge of local Booniana — books by local authors, locally made pasta, a signed drawing by Eric Carle, who has a house in the mountains (“Eric Carle is the very hungry caterpillar,” Carson says). Stick Boy has a second store now in Apex, N.C.

I admire these initiatives, obviously. Christians applying their gifts, utilizing virtues of wisdom and hard work, banking on a little serendipity. Their ideas and partnerships often originate in the church. Their financial success certainly goes back and benefits the church. I’m also struck by their singleness of purpose. Their entrepreneurial efforts are not a matter of multitasking; their efforts are not diffused. They have to concentrate to get good at what they’re doing. Even though they’re doing multiple things, they do them with Jesus’ single eye.

Christians have, deep in our bones, a memory of practices of entrepreneurship. This can be used for good or for ill. But it’s a sign of our creation in the image of a triune God who is forever working; of our descent from Adam and Eve, for whom work became a curse; of our lineage with the prophets, who promised a day of rewarded work; and of our formation in the body of Jesus, whose work is for our salvation.