Bivocational ministry can’t become an excuse to underpay our ministers
Dana Cassell is looking for a full-time job. I met Dana a decade ago, in her first year as part-time pastor of the Church of the Brethren congregation in our city. Ten years on, she has found that cobbling together full-time pay out of multiple part-time jobs is no longer financially sustainable. Dana, who is single, has also struggled to find a part-time role that will cover her health insurance.
I think of Dana each time I see an emerging consensus among church professionals that bivocational ministry is “the future.” As congregations and their budgets dwindle, I understand why ministry is moving in the direction of a clergyperson with one or more jobs beyond the pulpit. For some pastors, that’s a welcome revision of a role that can be isolating and insular. Ministry “beyond the walls” can offer possibility and hope.
But the turn to bivocational ministry as an answer to clergy shortage and budget woes is often shortsighted. Dana, as a bivocational pastor who directed a program to support people in bivocational roles, saw this firsthand.
In her denomination, many pastors classified as bivocational have supplemented their income with retirement benefits and savings. Others have served churches in a limited capacity while holding full-time jobs outside the church. But what about people with families? And can bivocational ministry support single people sustainably?
Responsible models of bivocational ministry require churches and denominations to consider factors of age, race, family size, location and marital status in policies for salary and health care benefits.
For unmarried people who receive no health care benefits from a spouse’s job, paying full or partial premiums cuts deep into a paycheck. Unlike married bivocational clergy, whose family units often have a second income, single bivocational pastors are on their own to negotiate the shortfalls of their lower salaries. Even in connectional polities, the decision to provide health care benefits to pastors working up to 20 hours a week remains voluntary on the part of the congregation.
And then there’s the issue of debt. The majority of clergy incur graduate school debt from a seminary or divinity school, but for Black pastors, the economics are even more stark.
Black seminary graduates are burdened with significantly more debt than their white colleagues. In congregational polities, Black pastors are less likely than their white peers to receive retirement benefits or health insurance through their congregational roles. For many pastors of color, bivocational ministry isn’t an option but a requirement to make ends meet. That can mean managing a 40-hour work week and a solo pastorate simultaneously.
Another friend, Heidi, reminds me that this scenario of bivocational is different from a call to two vocations. “I would not choose to work in multiple settings,” she tells me, “but I have done it out of necessity.”
This distinction — between bivocational ministry and multiple jobs — is often left out when I hear bivocational ministry lifted up as a model. How can congregations and denominations support clergy in finding meaningful and mission-driven work? If that work requires returning to school for further training, are institutions and churches prepared to offer financial support?
I know the struggles of part-time pastoring firsthand. I once served in a part-time ministry role, cobbling together a full-time salary from other jobs. I received a stipend toward half of my health insurance premiums but nothing for my spouse and children.
My contract included no retirement benefits or dental insurance. During those years, one of my cavities rotted so badly that I eventually had to receive a crown. The cost was astronomical, and the pain was constant. I relied on public dental clinics and dental schools for my care, often waiting months for treatment.
Part-time roles meant absorbing not only financial precarity but also the psychological burden of risk. This reality affected my relationship to the church. If we could not care for the health of our clergy, what did this mean about our commitment to laborers outside the church? How could we proclaim good news for workers when our church workers barely got by?
My denomination, Mennonite Church USA, has recognized the health care inequity for part-time pastors and pastors of color. In response, the Mennonite Church in 2010 launched The Corinthian Plan. Congregations, area conferences and agencies that choose to enroll in The Corinthian Plan contribute to a Fair Balance Fund.
Wealthier congregations and constituents pay more into the fund to support congregations that struggle to pay the full premium. This form of economic redistribution addresses the needs of small churches and of bivocational pastors.
That plan was lifesaving for Pastor Tomas Ramírez of Luz y Vida Mennonite Church in Orlando, Florida. In 2017, he was diagnosed with leukemia. The Fair Balance Fund provided additional financial support for his expensive and extensive cancer care, including a bone marrow transplant. Because the costs were shared across The Corinthian Plan holders, he also did not see a spike in his premiums.
Other denominations are looking for new and innovative ways to provide their part-time pastors secure and healthy futures. My friend Dana’s denomination, the Church of the Brethren, recently announced new guidelines for pastoral compensation. These include a minimum salary suggestion that takes into account inflation. They also look at housing costs with respect to ZIP code as well as calculating hours per week in a contract only after housing and pension costs are covered.
The church can’t turn to bivocational language as an excuse to underpay or underinsure employees. If we aren’t intentional about setting structures to support bivocational ministers, we can anticipate exploitation, exhaustion and failure.
The future of ministry may be bivocational, but it will be healthy, just and whole only if congregations and institutions work creatively and intentionally to redistribute funds, offer robust benefits and attend to the long-term stability of these roles.
By late September 2022, as the senior pastor of Great Hope Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, the Rev. Melvin F. Shearin II had worked every Sunday since the beginning of the year.
Although he was hired as a full-time pastor seven years ago, and he views this work as a calling, he has found that his compensation does not fully cover health care and other essentials.
So in addition to his standing duties as senior pastor, Shearin has taken on additional employment. Over the years, he has worked as a call center manager and at a local gym and has even started his own travel business, to ensure that he can meet his financial obligations.
Bivocationalism is not a modern phenomenon, especially for pastors in historically Black churches and those that serve Latino and immigrant populations. According to the 2021 report of the National Congregations Study, one in three congregational leaders (35%) is bivocational, and one in five (18%) serves multiple congregations. And the number is growing as congregations shrink.
“Seeing pastors doing part-time ministry is nothing new. It goes back, of course, to biblical times and the apostle Paul being a tent-making pastor,” said the Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, the author of “Part-Time Is Plenty: Thriving Without Full-Time Clergy.”
MacDonald, who himself works as a reporter, consultant and United Church of Christ pastor, pointed also to Peter and other disciples — fishermen who left their nets to follow Jesus but still continued to fish.
In fact, even in more affluent countries, it’s only been during the last couple of centuries that it became more common to have one pastor full time in one local setting, MacDonald said. It wasn’t affordable until congregations started to have more wealth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
These days, pastors may choose bivocationalism for personal reasons, such as pursuing a second calling or career by choice, but also for economic reasons, out of necessity. That can be difficult for pastors and congregations that regard bivocationalism as a sign of failure.
“An unstated concern is often stigma. North American churches are shaped by a full-time bias, supported by the beliefs that money equals success and bigger is better,” noted the Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. He is the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Ministry, an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church and the editor of the book “Bivocational and Beyond: Educating for Thriving Multivocational Ministry.”
“Even in traditions in which bivocational pastorates are the norm,” he said, “people often measure themselves and their churches against a full-time ideal.”
Bivocationalism as an economic necessity
The context for decisions to be bivocational can vary, but economic pressure is part of the picture.
In the United States, the mean annual wage for clergy is $57,230, and the mean hourly wage, $27.51, according to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Some mainline denominations set salaries for their clergy, while others do not.)
Pastors’ salaries have remained stagnant or declined compared with those of other helping professionals like social workers and teachers, said Elise Erikson Barrett, the coordination program director for the National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders, an initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc., hosted by the Center for Congregations.
Church membership has continued to slip, and the pandemic has many church leaders feeling uncertain about the economic picture. At the same time, inflation has skyrocketed, with consumer prices seeing their largest increase in 40 years in June 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Some churches have adjusted their budgets, and more pastors may find that a second or even third job is needed. But context for these decisions varies.
Do you think of bivocational ministry as “less than” full-time ministry? If so, what might change your mindset?
For instance, in a setting where divinity school is required for ordination, seminary debt can be the pressing economic issue, Barrett said. While concerted efforts are being made to reduce the cost of a theological education, the U.S. student debt crisis can affect pastors in the same ways it affects the rest of the population, she said.
In a setting where a master’s degree isn’t required but a church’s budget doesn’t offer a benefits program, “it may be medical debt or health care that’s the presenting economic issue,” she said.
And pastors who are female, as well as pastors of color, are more likely to be in low-income, small or rural congregational settings, Barrett said.
How might having a bivocational pastor benefit both the clergyperson and the congregation? What might be the losses?
The Rev. Rochelle S. Andrews is the senior pastor at Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Ijamsville, Maryland, as well as the associate director of the Center for Public Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary.
She said she appreciates both of her jobs, because they appeal to her passions, but acknowledged the economic side of bivocationalism for many Black pastors. Andrews, who is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, noted that redlining and other systemic racism is a reason many Black churches still don’t have the same resources as some of their white counterparts.
Given this history, white churches would do well to look outside themselves for guidance in considering bivocational ministry, MacDonald said. “This is an extremely rich area for predominantly white churches to learn from churches that have a different racial and ethnic mix, because the experience and know-how is largely vested in the Black, Asian and predominantly immigrant churches.”
Many long-term bivocational pastors do consistently manage and balance their roles. But for pastors accustomed to being fully funded through singular positions, bivocationalism can feel like a shock.
These pastors’ challenges can be emotional and psychological when they move from only serving at church to having to clock in elsewhere, said the Rev. Dr. Ira E. Antoine Jr., who works as both an ordained Baptist minister and the director of the Bivocational Pastors Ministry for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Still, people considering bivocationalism should look at what they are gaining, Stephens said, and not regard it as a loss.
“In some ways, [bivocationalism] is liberating. Freeing. I get to set my own schedule in many ways. In other ways, I’m constantly running up against that full-time bias in my own mentality,” Stephens said.
“I have to remind myself that I’m good at what I do, that I’m called to teach — in my case, my ministry is teaching, research and writing — and that I’m not defined by my paycheck. And I have to keep reminding myself of the advantages of being bivocational, the flexibility and things like that.”
And though pastors may sometimes feel “less than” if they are bivocational, or that a congregation is somehow “less than” because its pastor has to have two jobs, “we’re trying to change that course and that mindset,” Antoine said.
The Christian Reformed Church in North America has begun offering one of many experiments in bivocational ministry, in this case providing a yearlong Bivocational Growth Fellowship to folks considering a change. It provides financial support, resources and a peer group to help with the discernment process. The fellowship is part of a larger CRCNA project called Financial Shalom, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.
The first cohort convened in 2021. Thirty-five pastors have taken part so far. Monthly gatherings on Zoom, hosted by a longtime bivocational pastor, offered participants a chance to talk with entrepreneurs, people pursuing a “side hustle” and financial planners, among other guests.
Some participants were already working and planting a church, some were right out of seminary, and others were considering a switch from full-time ministry.
“[Bivocationalism] doesn’t work for everybody, but for those who did it, having the group of peers together was the big win,” said Zach Olson, ministry vocational consultant at the CRCNA.
Who in your life could advise you about managing a transition to bivocational ministry? Are there people within or outside your denomination or tradition who could share their wisdom?
Advice for pastors considering bivocational ministry
For pastors considering bivocationalism, whether it’s by necessity or because they feel called to it, there are key steps to take, experts and practitioners say.
Secure a flexible second vocation. In today’s digital world, where so much work can be done remotely, there is room for bivocationalism for pastors, said MacDonald, the pastor and journalist.
Pastors should understand that carving out a second vocation is possible, but they should also ensure that it fits into their lives. For instance, if a pastor prizes being physically present at church on a regular basis, a second job with a long daily commute may not be a good fit.
In addition, if pastors are seeking an outside job where they would report to a supervisor — as opposed to setting their own tasks or hours by working as an entrepreneur, consultant or freelancer — they should ask questions about expectations, duties and the work schedule during the interview process.
Shearin, the pastor of Great Hope Baptist Church, said this is an important step because there may be tasks that aren’t included in the general job description. Shearin also advises asking whether the job will provide “wiggle room” to do funerals, weddings or other church events.
He said the crucial question for pastors is, “Can you find a job that’s willing to work with you?”
Communicate with the congregation. Oversight of second jobs can vary, with hierarchical churches potentially requiring approval of the bishop if the pastor or priest is to work outside the parish, MacDonald said. But whether or not pastors need this approval, communicating with the congregation about the situation — and getting buy-in — is a good idea.
“So much of this going well relies on a healthy, mutually respectful and mutually caring relationship between a pastor and the congregation, where economic issues can be discussed honestly and openly and without blame and shame,” said Barrett, the coordination program director for the National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders.
There are many ways that bivocationalism can work, but adaptation can be hard, she said. “The thing that can make it life-giving is that healthy relationship and a shared vision for why we’re even doing this in the first place.”
Acceptance from the congregation can be essential to a good experience.
“The success of bivocational pastorates hinges, in large part, on the ability of the congregation to embrace an understanding of ministry that differs from what they may have been taught to expect, at least in predominantly White, mainline Protestant traditions in North America,” Stephens wrote in “Bivocational and Beyond.”
Setting clear boundaries is also a good idea, MacDonald said, noting that churches can confirm expectations by drafting a new contract to describe the responsibilities of both the pastor and the congregation.
“In a church where they really understand that you are their part-time pastor,” Andrews said, “they recognize that you have a life outside, other than them, and you just find a balance.”
How might you approach your congregation about discerning whether to move to bivocational or part-time ministry? Would they embrace an understanding of ministry that differs from what they might have expected?
Plan ahead and practice good time management. When pastors have two (or more) sets of professional obligations, planning and time management are essential — especially since a second job can be exhausting.
To help with organization, Antoine, who has two full-time jobs, said pastors should plan their calendars as much as a year in advance, blocking out key professional and personal events such as vacations, holidays, scheduled commitments (when known) and more.
They should also determine how much time, on average, they need to dedicate to each job to do each one successfully, then plan their days accordingly. And though unexpected events do happen, it can be helpful to talk with church staff and members about their desired schedules, said Antoine, who is with the Baptist General Convention of Texas as well as serving as a pastor.
Embrace remote work, self-care and help from others. All can be important to avoid burnout.
Andrews said a difference for bivocational pastors is that they may not physically be at the church office every weekday. But there are other ways these leaders can show care for their congregations.
For instance, Andrews said her church members can call her cell anytime (she texts back if she can’t answer). She does Bible study Tuesday nights via Zoom, and she continues to preach in person on Sundays.
“As a part-time pastor, find the ways you can be present for them, so that when there may be times you can’t because something comes up, they don’t feel it,” Andrews said. “Hearing them, listening to them, really, really goes a long way.”
Pastors also can do tasks like planning sermons and the order of worship (as Andrews does weekly) while off-site.
Pastors don’t have to be all things to all people, Antoine said, noting that it’s OK to delegate some tasks. After working 40-plus hours per week at his staff job and 32-40 hours per week on the church side, he planned a sabbatical from church this July and synced it with two weeks of leave from his second job.
“Self-care must be intentional, and you have to overcome the guilt,” he said.
Depending on the activity, laypeople, elders or other church staff can pitch in. Perhaps a layperson can do certain outreach activities, or a church elder can select hymns. Some theological or sacramental duties are those of pastors alone, MacDonald said, but clergy certainly don’t have to do everything themselves.
Be open to the joys and benefits of bivocationalism. Of course, this orientation may be easier if the pursuit of bivocationalism is a choice as opposed to a necessity. But either way, benefits can be more than economic. They also can include being in a position to help more people, widening a professional knowledge base and living out a calling — or callings.
For example, MacDonald, who has worked as a pastor and journalist for more than two decades, has been able to both research bivocationalism and practice it, he said. When he learned he could serve a church and continue his prior profession, it was exciting, he said.
“I learn stuff in journalism all the time that I will refer to in a sermon, and it’s a blessing. It’s a benefit to the congregation,” he said. “I’m a more interesting pastor because I move around and interview interesting people.”
Andrews also said that her job offers new chances to connect with community members and leaders. And seeing a pastor with a second job can help community members better relate to these faith leaders, she said.
“This is a real opportunity that’s opening up,” MacDonald said. Instead of limping along, he said, bivocationalism can be a liberating way for laypeople to spread their wings in ministry and for the church to establish community partnerships.
And, he said, it can allow pastors to become “more stable, more stimulated, more creative, have more to offer to your church and really find that this may be a great blessing to the pastor as well as to the congregation.”
Burnout is an issue for pastors, whether they have one job or more. How might you manage bivocational ministry so that you don’t burn out?
Questions to consider
- Do you think of bivocational ministry as “less than” full-time ministry? If so, what might change your mindset?
- How might having a bivocational pastor benefit both the clergyperson and the congregation? What might be the losses?
- Who in your life could advise you about managing a transition to bivocational ministry? Are there people within or outside your denomination or tradition who could share their wisdom?
- How might you approach your congregation about discerning whether to move to bivocational or part-time ministry? Would they embrace an understanding of ministry that differs from what they might have expected?
- Burnout is an issue for pastors, whether they have one job or more. How might you manage bivocational ministry so that you don’t burn out?
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.