Bi-Vocational Seminary Grads Should Be Trained Bi-Vocationally! (Future of Seminary)

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an online symposium, “Does Seminary Have a Future?” hosted at Patheos this month. Read other perspectives here.

Yesterday, Tony Jones responded to my post called “Seminary is Great… Seminary Loans Suck… Young Pastors are Slaves.”  I appreciated much of what he said in “The Future of Seminary: Training Tentmakers.”

He suggests that seminary graduates should not expect to find a full-time job after their program requirements are completed.  His view is that bi-vocational ministry will become the norm.

After this he goes on to say that grads, especially church planter types, ought to basically –suck it up.  He states:

Further, I often talk to erstwhile church planters who want to figure out how they can get a full-time salary with benefits while they’re planting a church.  Puhleeze.  Let’s put it in other words: I’d like to do something risky, but without any of the risk.

I get where he is coming from on this.  I agree that church planters that strive to be incarnational, missional, and innovative will need to be open to the possibility of bi-vocational work.  But lets not simply assume that such ought to be the norm or that church planters wanting to make a full salary are wearing a pair of sissy pants.

I know a church planter who went into a project with a guarantee of 3 years of support from a denomination (fairly standard).  Part of the assumption going into the project was that he (and his co-pastor) would potentially need to supplement their income in some way.  Not only so, but they recognize that being part of the community in a vocational way opens missional doors as well.  So, he moved to the city / neighborhood and spent the first year getting established and working with the core team.  After a year, his community discerned that he ought to get a part-time job.

So, what did his denominational support team do?  They guaranteed his full-time salary, subtracting each month the exact amount he makes from working at a local store.  In this way, they protect his family from financial disaster while also moving into a bi-vocational rhythm.  This, I think, is one way to balance risk with financial responsibility.  The point being that before we send out debt ridden seminary grads and tell them “work for us, and work out the money,” we need to come up with creative solutions that don’t jeopardize family stability.

This illustrates a larger point about the future of seminary.  It seems to me that Seminaries ought to be training bi-vocationally.  In the case of my friend, he is working at a store for probably a bit more than minimum wage.  This will be the case for the pastor / barista or the pastor / Urban Outfitters sales person or the pastor / (you fill in the _______).  After 90 units of graduate level education, these scenarios seem counter-intuitive (although, depending on context and discernment, they may be good options in certain scenarios).

What if seminaries started taking seriously the idea of bi-vocational training by partnering with university programs? Most seminaries offer “dual degree” options, but they tend to be limited to counseling professions and require 120 units.  What if half of the units in an MDiv program were focused on theology and ministry, but then the other half were devoted to other fields?  With the M.Div standard being about 90 units, splitting them up into 45 units of “divinity work” and 45 units in another field might be worth exploring (that’s just a superficial example of the unit divisions).  Perhaps a dual degree in ancient history would be a natural fit?  Or a dual degree with a teaching credential, since most pastoral types tend to have teaching gifts?  This could be a great bi-vocation that grants immediate access to relationships and community development.

My point is this: If we are going to move toward bi-vocational norms (especially for church planters), then let’s make seminary an opportunity to be trained and certified in dual professions. Otherwise, folks like me who have degrees in Christian Ministry (BA) and an M.Div (as of May) will be stuck searching out low paying jobs that don’t compensate for the investment in seminary education.

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  • Dennis Colunga

    Loved this blog. I’m a Dallas Seminary student, also have my undergrad in Christian (pastoral) ministry, and struggling greatly to move towards church planting; also bearing in mind the reality that I will not be compensated for my investment. I think it would be a great idea for seminaries to move towards equipping seminarians with something they can walk away with. Outside of the church (and even inside), I always describe Christian degrees as ‘radically impractical,’ yet I have one and working on another. Though if we’re truly honest, there is no such degree that will instinctively open doors for jobs, but I really loved the idea of seminaries at least moving towards that. I admit, I struggle with private Christian colleges. Because of the lack of return on investment, I believe it’s a crime to even offer a degree in ‘Christian Education’ or ‘Youth Ministry.’ Interesting thought though, I’ve heard Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, say ‘if the church was doing it’s job, seminary and Bible college shouldn’t exist.’ Thanks for provoking these thoughts, enjoyed this post.

    • Eduardo Ramos

      Hi Dennis,
      I appreciate you comment and find myself in many of the comments mentioned. I used the word Bi-vocational today with an admission director of predominant University. I `m 41 with two young boys and have been in a small church ministering with no salary. Also, I desire to be in seminary, but feel torn by the call and the reality on finances. LORD HELP? A Doctorate or Seminary training? Seeking balance as a father, minister, really seeking direction? Eduardo Miami Florida

  • Hey Kurt,
    Here’s my thoughts 🙂

  • Kurt,

    Long time reader, first time commenter. As someone who is not in a seminary nor on the path towards any sort of seminary/Christian degree, I might seem like an odd person to respond. However, I am presently a graduate student pursing an MA in Literature and Critical Theory so I feel a kinship towards the MDiv. student who is looking at lackluster job prospects.

    I really appreciate the ideas you, Tony and others are putting forth regarding the necessity of finding other  means of income. There was a great series on Jesus Creed by Jeff Cook on tent making, which I think is really applicable. If you haven’t read it, you should.

    I think much of the problem, as you hinted at, deals with a lack of job specific training (I say this knowing next to nothing about seminary education). Those of us who get degrees that are not pragmatically oriented tend to get swept under the rug in the “real world” as most businesses are looking for an immediate investment and immense qualifications. I know that in my own field, there is little training for the role I am hoping to assume, a professor and (hopefully) professional literary critic (albeit on a small scale). Being able to deconstruct “The Great Gatsby” is not something most businesses are looking for.

    I kind of lost where I was going with that comment. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog!

  • I’m a 40-something corporate engineer that followed a call to (non-compensated) bi-vocational ministry 6 years ago and then followed that call to seminary on a part-time basis 2 years ago.  I’m about 1/2 way through my M. Div. work and ordination requirements. 

    For my tradition many congregations worship below 100 people weekly.  The financial reality of these congregations is that the pastor needs to be bi-vocational. 

    I discovered at a seminarian’s retreat this spring that another institution which needs to recognize the increasing trend of bi-vocational ministry is our denominational structures.  From our pension plans to our search and call systems, none anticipate the needs or realities of a bi-vocational pastor.

    I see this institutional barrier as the next step, after rethinking our seminaries, to helping the church cope with this new reality.  We, as seminarians and recent graduates, have the opportunity to help shape church structures for the next generations.

    I look forward to being part of the change!

  • Dan Jr.

    Good post.  This is a hard one for me.  I have an undergrad bible degree (I payed it off).  I’ve been in full-time ministry for 13 years and just 2 years ago planted a church and now I work bi-vocationally.   I probably could have done this if I had debt.

    I’d decided to attempt to get my MDiv through a cohort model while pastoring our church.  After one semester I looked at the debt I was amassing and it made my wife and I sick.   I started to ask myself the questions; why do I want this degree, is the degree really a good investment, do I want that kind of debt, should I be putting money away for my kids education instead of mine and at this point do I really need the credentials.

    I decided I should not go back to school until I can pay for it with cash. 

    • Dan Jr

      I mean “I probably could not have done this if I had debt”

  • The dual degree route is the path I’ve been on for the past three years at Eastern Mennonite University (Mdiv+MA in Conflict Transformation), and I have to say: be careful. Four years of full-time graduate studies in two different programs can be tremendously challenging on a number of levels.

    For my particular MA, the professional field of peacebuilding is much less clearly-defined than, say, counseling, so it wouldn’t necessarily provide me any professional advantages over against my Mdiv.

    Part of my post-graduation vocational/professional discernment has included looking into if/how organizations help with student loans. Surprisingly, it’s been church-affiliated organizations that have such support systems in place.

  • Ugh.  I’m an undergrad degree carrying, full time vocational pastor who, in the midst of discernment into ministry carried the assumption that it was also a full time career.   So figuring out if ministry was for me, I also thought that I was deciding on a career that would feed my future family.  Now I too see the trends pointing to bi-vocational ministry and partly wonder about what the heck I will do with my undergrad bible degree and scoff at the potential of seminary education because of the debt that will be piled up on my job at Best Buy (or wherever).  It is scary stuff to think about.  But if there would be a seminary out there that would lend itself to bi-vocationality (hehe made up words rock) I would be inclined to take a serious look.  Though it would not be wise to overlook the fact that seminaries provide very good education.  Reading, writing, public speaking, collaborative learning etc… are all extremely valuable in many different work places.  It is just hard to get into those workplaces flaunting a seminary degree.

    Wait.  Let’s think about what it would take to plant a seminary 😉

  • This is one reason, I’m quite happy that as a bi-vocational church planter I did my undergrad studies in computer science. It gives me an avenue into a job that I can do bi-vocationally without the need for our plant to put out major $$ to support me doing our work but is also a field that allows enough flexibility to fit around the needs of our community and our projects we’re supporting.

    It seems like the issue you are touching on is particularly important for those who have done both their undergrad and grad studies in religion without anything else to back it up. Unfortunately I believe we need to come up with a model for seminary training that is not nearly as expensive as our current options or come up with creative ways to help reduce the costs of tuition on the students while still being able to support a staff.

    I would say however that the shape of seminary needs to be explored as too many of my classmates were left with only two possibilities: full-time ministry or the academy, neither of which affords the opportunity for the high-risk church planting needed for our communities to find their ways forward.

  • Willhouk

    I got my BA in Bible studies in 2001 and thought I’d go into full time ministry. I ended up going back to school to get my teaching credentials and I now teach high school history full time and do youth ministry as well. I don’t get paid for ministry but I consider this my calling in life, although teaching/coaching coincide with this calling quite well.

    I like your thoughts about dual degrees. It’s tough for churches and para-ministries to support full time staff. If I was to go on staff with the ministry I work with I’d need to raise my salary plus health benefits as well as operational costs. So right now it makes sense to keep my job and do ministry “part time.” Whatever “part time” means. I like the tent-maker model to be honest with you, I think it has a lot of real benefits to it, but you’re right that seminaries could do a better job at helping us prepare for this work.

    I think just recognizing that bi-vocational ministry is a normal and gratifying way to do ministry would be nice. I don’t know how it is where you go to school but I always got this sense that there is a hierarchy within ministry circles that said if you weren’t a full time pastor of a fairly large church then you were lacking something. No one said it out loud, but the heaps of praise that mega-church guys got definitely communicated certain values.

    A dual ministry/teaching degree would be fantastic. You’re right that a lot of people who go into ministry have teaching gifts, this would be a fantastic degree. Computer/tech degrees could be useful as well.  Good luck with your schooling Kurt.  

  • I work with an online school, Christian Leaders Institute, that tries to solve this problem in many ways. 

    First of all, they make the school free.  As in completely free.  They refuse to allow their students to go into debt.  And they are working on making all the classes bookless.

    Secondly, all the professors who teach, even the President and the Provost and the Dean, are bi-vocational.  They are all pastors of active churches.

    Thirdly, everything is online.  So as long as you have access to the Internet, you have access to Christian Leaders Institute.

    Finally, nothing is scheduled.  Even though, they have semesters, they don’t tell you when to turn in assignments or complete a test.  You just have to get it done within about four months.

    Even Calvin Seminary has endorsed Christian Leaders Institute.

    It’s a pretty exciting place.  And as I said, I work with them now.  But I was first a student.

  • hreyenga

    Yes Check out A new approach to seminary education for bi-vocational leaders.