Tentmaking Ministry 2 (Jeff Cook)

Tentmaking Ministry 2 (Jeff Cook) December 20, 2010

Many pastors in our country choose to work a second job in order to help create their churches. Recently this trend of bivocational pastors (or “tentmakers”) has become more popular, specifically for those who believe the church itself is a missionary community entering into a specific culture.

Chris Ridgeway suggested in a previous post that the job of the missional tentmaker should have “some coherence or link to the community the church is reaching”. One might argue that pastors should be out doing life shoulder to shoulder with those they hope to influence, diving into the culture itself through their work, and from that position of experience and encounter leading their community.

Idealistically this seems to me the best argument for tentmaking. It is a pragmatic argument that suggests the most effective ministers in the emerging world will be those that surrender many of their weekly duties to other part-time workers/volunteers so they may get their hands dirty alongside the culture they hope to understand and show Jesus.

Let’s pause and ask: Are there any potential pitfalls here, or is this a model that should be explored by most pastors? Is there any size to a church in which this becomes too difficult? Is there anything a tentmaking pastor simply cannot do that is vital to the health and success of a church community? If not, isn’t this a better model for pastors to assume?

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  • rjs

    Interesting questions.

    I don’t think that there is necessarily a size where this becomes too difficult; but it does require something of a distributed form for church leadership.

    The major pitfall would seem to be time-management and self-discipline. Among other things a teaching pastor should have time to study and prepare in order to teach, teaching is vital to the health and success of a church community, and I fear that this might get short shrift with a tentmaking approach to ministry.

  • smcknight


    Good points.

    I see the pastorate to be a nearly inevitable all-consuming passion and vocation, and so full of urgencies and necessities and spontaneities that it would conflict with a job that required scheduled time. What to do, for instance, if the funeral is during your shift at Starbuck’s?

    But rjs’s point is spot-on: this all-consuming vision of pastoring is connected to centralized leadership and centralized pastoral ministry. If the church’s leadership and pastoring is decentralized, it would not require the “one person” there all the time.

    Is the bi-vocational ministry option actually shifting the gravity away from the center at the practical level?

  • Let me suggest that of first importance is to understand and to do the will of God. Here is the key question: Will the Lord Jesus Christ, the true head of the church, say, “Well done,” or will He say, “I never knew you.”
    When it comes to church leadership, what evidence do we have to show that the Lord is the head of the church?

  • Scot,
    I’ve been ‘bi-vocational’ for the last eight years. It was a very intentional decision on my part, both to provide for my family and to make sure I wasn’t the ‘center’. In our case, it has allowed for a diversity of ministry within our community – I simply don’t have time to meet everyone needs or provide all the necessary equipping and leadership…and that’s a good thing! I get to choose the activities that are the most beneficial and where I am needed the most. But, it also keeps me accountable to the fact that Jesus is ultimately in charge of building his church.

    The downside relates to the ‘coherence’ issue Ridgeway mentions above. I’m an engineer, so there is very little about my job that relates directly to our mission. This is something I’m struggling with now, but I don’t have any good answers yet. I have other friends in the same situation, but with the economy as it is, can we really be all that choosy?

  • Allen Adkins

    Great dialogue!
    I personally think the best argument for tentmaking is Paul’s words to the elders of the church in Acts 20.
    So many of our churches have an unhealthy (non-biblical) view of church leadership… Dialogue today such as this excites me!

  • Rjs (1) and Scot (2). I think bivocation done well will probably lead to decentralized leadership and service. This has been my experience. The church I help pastor has grown from 45 to 90 in the last year, and in order to keep up, our movement has been to decentralize. I find the best work I do now is not teaching, but teaching other teachers to teach; it’s not leading, but creating opportunities for other leaders to lead.

    I don’t know if this will “work” yet, but being idealistic it seems good and healthy for the roles of the church to be spread among many.

    (as a plug – I will ask in coming weeks about rhythms and responsibilities, and how a bivocational pastor chooses what to focus on since it is immensely difficult to pull off full time pastoral work and do a second job and have a family.)

    Robert (3). What evidence would count for you?


  • Mike (4). I wonder if its necessary or simply a benefit for our second job to have missional value? Though I’m sure you have relationships with non-christians in your job as an engineer yeah?

  • Paul

    A couple worries about bi-vocational ministry without changing structures:

    1) How much education does a person need to do this? In today’s world a job that supports a family requires a lot of education. But at the same time, you also would want a pastor to have some sort of biblical/pastoral training. This requires a lot of education (and money)

    2) Parents of young children. I can barely do my job (teacher of middle/high school students) & help take care of my 2 young boys…much less imagine leading/pastoring a church. It would seem that something would have to give if I tried to give more time to my church.

    3) Would the “other job” need to be part-time? If so, how do we get health insurance? How do we provide for a family? Where does the money to live come from?

    I don’t mean the questions above to be unanswerable or even a barrier. Just that in today’s current ways of living, they would provide potential issues. I almost imagine that to do bi-vocational pastoring would require a change in structure of church, life, community, etc to make it really work. Either that or it would be reserved for the few who have money, are very talented, or are single.

  • If the assumption is that “doing life shoulder to shoulder with those they hope to influence” better qualifies a pastor, then the rest of the church community is already abundantly qualified to lead, thus affirming that this approach does shift the gravity away from the center at the practical level.

    However, context must be a determining factor as well. I am bi-vocational in my roles as a pastor, but my other sources of income do not get me out into the community that much more. In fact, by necessity, those sources are such that they can fit in times that do not take away from the regular work hours. This is necessary for me because our inner city context demands dynamics in pastoral ministry that require far more time than a split-time job would allow.

    Finally, this also requires a radical shift in our lifestyles in general. In order to make this work, we also need to learn to simplify our lives- not only for the financial benefits, but more importantly for the time gained to be in relationship & community.

  • Robin

    Couple of thoughts…

    In addition to Paul’s time spent making tents, we have the example of the Apostles in the Church in Jerusalem who didn’t just have time for making tents, they didn’t have time to distribute resources to the widows and declared that their time preaching and praying was too valuable for them to spend time waiting tables.

    That makes it clear to me that the ministry of the word (and prayer) can take precedence over other ministries sometimes, and even over earning a living.

    Secondly, wasn’t Paul serving as a missionary, not a pastor, when he was making tents, and is that a meaningful distinction. Currently, when Americans send missionaries to foreign fields they expect them to be self-supporting. We would never send a missionary to a church in the Dominican Republic and expect that church to support both our missionaries and their own local leadership. So our missionaries either raise support for their entire stay (through IMB, NAMB, or some other missionary agency) or they work a second job while they are on the field.

    Full disclosure: the church I attend has a bi-vocational preaching pastor, but it is also very small. We also have 4 other elders to share the non-preaching duties. Even though I love my church it hasn’t really increased my faith in bi-vocational ministry.

  • Jeff, you ask a very good question; “What evidence would count for you?” The content of our talk, is the Lord Jesus Christ the centerpiece? The result of our efforts, who gets the glory? Our Lord came into this world to glorify His father. Do we show by our ministry that we have the same intent? Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” If Jesus where to ask me or you the same question, what would be our answer? How do we show our love for the Lord? And then, where are the poor in our church? Where are those who are totally destitute? Where are the “least of these”? In the early church, they were very important. In keeping with my own message, if a person has absolutely no money, can that person serve the Lord today?

  • Jason Lee

    While possible with larger churches, it seems the bi-vo ministry model has the most leverage with church planting situations (i.e., new or nascent churches).

    If I’m not mistaken, a lot of the “churching of America” happened in conjunction with local bi-vo pastors. This is part of why the Baptists and Methodists spread so far and wide (they used bi-vo’s) but not the more formal mainline denominations (see stark and finke (1992) THE CHURCHING OF AMERICA).

  • Jeff,
    I think I feel the tension most during times of transition (which we are going through in our church right now). I want to be spending more time on stuff for the community, but we’re also really busy at work. That makes me want to see the two come closer together. I do work around a lot of unbelievers, and that does get fun from time to time:)

    To Paul’s comments (#8):

    First of all, I think you are spot on with your comment about “a change in structure of church, life, community, etc to make it really work”. I believe the transition here has more to do with those structural questions than just how we are earning money.

    1. I had the advantage of getting an engineering degree first then pursuing theological education after. I know a lot of people who have done it the other way around and being bi-vocational is a big struggle.

    2. My wife and I have planted our church while also having three kids. It was very stressful at times, but was another thing that has kept me centered and maintain good relational boundaries.

    3. I think the answer to this one is very contextual. The cost of living in our area is very expensive, so a part-time gig for me just won’t work. Others might be able to get away with it if their spouse works etc.

  • T

    Robin, your own church’s example (and that of the Jerusalem church) reminds me of a question I can’t shake: Why do all elders need to be able to teach if we are generally going to put that task on one person? And further, how do we know that potential elders can teach, anyway?

    I love how Paul tells Timothy to pass Christian truths on to faithful people who can pass them on to others. I honestly doubt if that kind of multiplication of service and role is even remotely in the vision or intention of most pastors, though one would hope it is in the minds of missionaries and pastors alike.

  • The number one pitfall that I see and have experienced is family time.

    I work 40-50 hours a week in ministry…this leaves me little time and energy for my family. If I added a 2nd job I’m not sure I would have anything else left to give.

    I do agree that this helps a pastor understand the context in which he or she wishes to minister. I wonder if there is another way to accomplish the same goal. Maybe…rather than spending hours in an office they spend hours in a certain context (coffee shop, pub, book store, restaurant, homes, ect.

  • Matt K

    It seems to me that financial pressure more than missional philosophy is driving this trend. In my opinion this is unfortunate. If we were actually tithing anywhere near 10%, it should be quite feasible for a congregation of as little as 15 households to support a full-time pastor.

  • Hi Jeff,

    I don’t know what a person couldn’t do if he worked and ministered to a congregation at the same time. But I know one thing he could do. He could resist the urge to compromise Biblical principles for financial reasons, or the fear of losing his “job”.

    Lou Barba

  • DRT

    If the trade off is having a tent maker vs. full time then it seems to me that the church could be more effective if they had 2 tent makers rather than 1 FT. Or, perhaps even 3 if that makes sense.

    I feel it is unhealthy for a church to have its whole identity wrapped up in a single individual. Additional shared leadership should almost always be better.

    As far as size where this is no longer practical, I think it has more to do with the expectations that people in the church have of the church pastorate. If they want someone to manage the whole thing and make it “perfect” then that is one thing. If they expect to all chip in and not have a churchianity then that’s another.

  • Paul (8). Do you think, “requiring a change in structure of church, life, community, etc to make it really work” would be so bad if there were obvious benefits?

    Jamie (9). See posts 4 and 7, they speak to your first two paragraphs. I love the claim, “[Tentmaking] requires a radical shift in our lifestyles in general. In order to make this work, we also need to learn to simplify our lives- not only for the financial benefits, but more importantly for the time gained to be in relationship & community.”

    Paul (10). I think reflecting on your own experience and perceived failure of bivocational ministry in your church is an important one. It seems to me asking the question: “does it work” is an important one.

    Jason Lee (12). I’d be really curious to know if there are any tentmaking ministries that are *not* either new churches or older/dying churches. Any churches out there of over 300 with tentmaker pastors?

  • T

    Justin’s comment reminds me of the typical lists of “hazards” of pastoring, which I think is important to think about as we consider tentmaking. As this post from Mark Roberts echos (http://www.markdroberts.com/?p=203), the crushing thing about the title of “pastor” (bivocational or not) is that it seems to contain about 80% of the ministry of any church (and a different 80% depending on which congregant you ask). As Justin relays in #15, the list is enough to overwhelm someone working overtime at a full time job. If the studies on pastors’ relationships, burn-out, and even addiction prevalence over the last several years ought to tell us anything, it should tell us that our collective job descriptions for “pastor” are in need of fundamental, radical overhaul. I would hope that being bi-vocational would at least be an excuse to do that for many.

    Pastoring, eldering, teaching are all team sports, and we’ve made them into one-man hamlets. Jesus’ command to the 12, to not let anyone call them “teacher” or “father” or what-have-you, is a joke in the “head pastor” era we’re in.

  • Is there any size to a church in which this becomes too difficult?

    Perhaps ironically, I think this becomes less difficult as a church becomes larger. (The reason this is ironic, of course, is because larger churches are more able to pay for full-time pastors. But they also can pay for more help in all those other areas that would free up the pastor to be involved with the surrounding community)

  • Jeff Cook in #19,

    Could you respond more to Paul #8’s question 1 re: education?

  • On 14-18

    T (14). It seems to me “multiplication” needs to become a new buzz word. If we just play addition, we fail.

    Justin (15). Family dynamics are huge for the tentmaker. We will discuss them soon.

    Matt (16). This may not be true in all cases (though certainly in some). For example, my church is on the edge of a local university. If I get 30 college students tithing, we may pay for our space or our utilities or a staff person. So too, churches in poor neighborhoods. Whachathink?

    Lou (17). Of all things, since becoming a tentmaker I have become a much more greedy, envious man. Not sure why, but money has begun mattering a whole lot more when I became a pastor and a solid salary was gone. Not sure if others share that experience.

    DRT (18). Good stuff.

  • Paul

    Jeff (#19)

    I imagine we are both on a similar page. I personally would love to see some changes in the areas I listed above as I believe it would only help us to more fully as a part of Christ’s mission. I clearly see the benefit to making some of these changes.

    One challenge seems to be that change is slow, difficult, and painful for many

  • I’ve been ‘bivo’ for about 6 months now, working at a smaller urban church plant alongside three co-pastors. I work full time at the seminary where I received an MDiv and carve out time for ministry in the time remaining in my schedule.

    I appreciate the conversation here, and think that some of the major pitfalls have been mentioned – the danger in trying to “go alone,” the potential harm it can do to family health, and the increased potential for burnout.

    For me, in this season, the pros outweigh the cons, and I think, in general, bivocational ministry is an important missional approach in a growing number of contexts.

  • T (20). “Pastoring, eldering, teaching are all team sports, and we’ve made them into one-man hamlets. Jesus’ command to the 12, to not let anyone call them “teacher” or “father” or what-have-you, is a joke in the “head pastor” era we’re in.”

    Them fighting words, son. It raises an important question for me though (perhaps off topic). How are full time pastors discipling other in the art of teaching and leading? Or rather, how should they be?

    Mark (21). I agree. If one is leading as bi-vocational minister at a bigger church it is a choice.

    Mark (22). I’m not sure how to answer this. My own story is this. I am not a trained theologian or pastor. I have a grad degree in philosophy from a secular school. But I also have 90 or so friends who gather to do life together on Sundays in a building we own together. “How much education does a person need to do this?” Well… ideally I want people who lead churches to read extensively and not produce the common brain-dead interpretations of scripture many of us hear routinely in churches. But on the flip side, I over-emphasizing the value of the pastor as intellectual. What do you think?

    Paul (24) Yup.

  • Dave (25) What’s the best aspects of tentmaking you have experienced?

  • T

    Jeff (26), I know. But I think they’re true; I think we’ve made those words into a bad joke, but with crushed pastors and their families and weak ecclesiology and spectator/part-time Christians as the real-life cost.

    I’ve seen some good examples, but few. Some churches do teach via teams, some such teams even recruit and train and deploy. But it’s rare. Such teams can and should require/facilitate ongoing training both within and outside of the local community. Teaching itself needs some help, and I like the “Learner Centered Teaching” book to prod in that way along with other things.

  • I’m a grandson of a “bi-vo” who spent thirty years as a pastor of three churches, an engineer, and a father of five. There is far too much for me to say on this in a comment box. When one has lived within a concept such as tentmaking, the pros and cons take on flesh and become real stories of success and failure.

    The key that my grandfather and I spoke of before he passed at this time last year was viewing the pastor as a developer of lay leaders and members of the congregation taking ownership of the church. It only worked for him in an environment of participating membership. Even today, the key leaders of those churches are still in place…some of them nearly 50 years later.

    Additionally, in this conversation, it is essential to include the spouses of the tentmakers. Grandma had lots of unfiltered advice for how I should treat my wife when I spoke of leaving the marketplace and pursuing ministry.

  • rjs

    Jeff and T,

    Even when it hasn’t crushed pastors and their families (and I don’t think as a rule it has) it has enabled so many others to be spectator/part-time Christians as a real-life cost. It puts an uncrossable chasm between leaders and followers with care to retain the distance.

    My father-in-law, for example, took care to have no real friends in any of his churches. His view of ministry was/is not of pastor as part of a community of believers but pastor as a leader of followers. Now this model can achieve great things – and the Spirit has been at work. But I don’t think it is ideal.

    Andy has a great point – bivocational works best when the vision of pastor is as a developer of lay leaders and member-ownership, a model that seeks to create peers not parishoners. Frankly I think this is what we need to be doing in the church today.

  • Jeff, re: 27

    For me, the best part has been having a shared experience with many in our community who struggle between career, vocation, calling, etc. Our church is near Hollywood, and many in our community work part- or full-time in order to pursue their desired vocation (which often, but not always, has something to do with film/stage/entertainment/etc..). They “get” bivocational ministry, because they are also bivocational; in this industry/area (and in this economy), bivocational has grown increasingly normal.

    Also, our church desires to equip and engage people to lead and minister – we don’t want everyone to quit their jobs and become vocational pastors, so we are essentially calling them to recognize ministry as a calling and vocation in the midst of their jobs, workplace, etc. It is easier (for me) to call people to something that I am actually struggling with myself.

  • Jeff in #26,

    I also have 90 or so friends who gather to do life together on Sundays in a building we own together. “How much education does a person need to do this?” Well… ideally I want people who lead churches to read extensively and not produce the common brain-dead interpretations of scripture many of us hear routinely in churches. But on the flip side, I over-emphasizing the value of the pastor as intellectual. What do you think?

    I should be clear, I am by no means suggesting that bivocational ministry is a bad thing, nor do I disagree that churches are moving in a direction where this will be more common. I do, however, have a strong bias against the sentiment I often hear in these conversations that “full-time ministry” is either unimportant or less valuable.

    That on the table, while I think a full seminary education is by no means required for any particular pastor and/or church, I think the church as a whole will suffer greatly if we do not find ways to encourage pastors to get ministerial training (and, quite frankly, to be able to earn enough income doing so to off-set the large investment required to get such). I think this is true especially in two areas: 1) Biblical/Theological depth, and 2) Practical Ministry skills. Especially on point 1, I’ve seen too many churches develop very bad, and often very dangerous, theological stances when having theological education is considered unimportant. But even on point 2, these kinds of practical skills can save churches from tremendous grief if trained before a person is sent to lead a church.

  • 2 Corinthians 11:3 “But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.”
    I wonder if that applies to any of this.

  • T (28). I actually affirm the direction here. The single best thing my community has done in the last year has been to employee whenever possible, team teaching. I’m hoping to publish something on this soon.

    Here’s an exercise for church leaders to experiment with: Pick a passage to hit with characters, say the last day of Jesus’ life, and have people in your community who are bible teachers take 5-8 minutes to teach on a specific character (have say 3 teachers a sunday) and over the course of a few sundays teach through the whole series. Coaching and coordination will be necessary, but we have had outstanding results from sundays like this. Not because it is incredible teaching (though it can be), but because there is real power and connection in a community with lots of voices. (go to http://www.whatisatlas.com/category/message-series/stars for an example).

    Andy (29). Do take a look at the first post of this series. We spent some time talking through bivcocational ministry as a family (not individual) enterprise.

    RJS (30) and Andy (29) “Bivocational works best when the vision of pastor is as a developer of lay leaders and member-ownership, a model that seeks to create peers not parishoners. Frankly I think this is what we need to be doing in the church today.” This leads to a whole new conversation away from tentmaking, but perhaps tentmaking opens us up to the realization that empowerment of others *must* happen.

    Mark (32). On the flip side, some of the worst theology (I am sure you will agree) comes from folks with PhDs. I do agree that when we move from Pastor as an educated leader (in the same category as a Doctor or Lawyer) and allow the pastor to be anybody who can draw a crowd, that may devalue the “office”. Not sure what to do here. I too hold theological depth at a high premium. I too hold speaking skill highly. At the end of the day though, leadership of the church is actually more important to me. Theology at its core isn’t all that complicated. Read the Nicene Creed and tell me what more we really need to know and affirm to bring the Kingdom to others. This is a place that desires more thought.

  • On the flip side, some of the worst theology (I am sure you will agree) comes from folks with PhDs.

    I’ll agree that it happens. I disagree with the implication that’s a danger as (let alone more) prevalent as the danger that comes from churches with uneducated clergy.

    To your main point, “Theology at its core isn’t all that complicated,” I also agree. The problem seems to me to stem from people assuming that they know more than they really do. Honestly (and perhaps ironically?) I see that more from folks who haven’t gone through the academic process than from folks who have. (A good academic institution teaches humility in this respect. The need to “cite your sources,” for example, teaches one not to make assumptions that can’t be demonstrated.)

    One parting bit. You say that “leadership of the church is actually more important to (you).” I agree, but one of the fundamental harmful theologies I see coming out of some churches (which I see more prevalent in traditions that value education less) is the active blocking of large sections of the church (e.g., women) from positions of leadership. Those who know me know that this is an issue I harp on often, and I don’t want to derail the discussion by mentioning it here, but I do want to point out that theology and leadership may have implications for each other.

  • Oh, by the way, I by no means suggest that “academic ministerial training” = PhD’s. The standard (old standard?) for ministry was/is the MDiv, which is a professional degree. The PhD is an academic degree (i.e., intended for educators. Not really for active ministers).

  • T @ 20 is spot on. Bivocational leadership is only a problem if you assume an unbiblical and unhealthy model of what it means to be “pastor”. Yes, it requires shared leadership and greater involvement from all congregants. Why is that a downside again?

    As for it being the emerging model of leadership, i think so. Partly out of conviction that it’s a better model, and partly because in emerging contexts there will be far less resources to pay lots of full-time staff. I’m in seminary right now, and I don’t really ever expect (though I won’t rule it out) working at a church full-time.

  • Jeff, you asked, “What evidence . . .?” Looking at these various posts, do you see what I see, or maybe what I do not see? Something is missing in the content.
    If the topic of your blog was the management of the United States, the name of the leader would be mentioned in almost every post.
    But here, in this blog, a blog that is clearly about a very important part of church management, the leader’s voice remains almost silent.
    Possibly the root problem is much deeper that the surface symptoms revealed here.

  • Scot,

    It’s not technically bivocational, but my pastor volunteers one day a week reading to first-graders at a local elementary school, and in the summer volunteers at the local water park (managed by a church member) as a way to make sure he doesn’t get isolated inside the “Christian bubble.” You can hear him talk about it in an interview with denominational leadership at http://agtv.ag.org/interview-with-rod-loy

  • This post raises excellent points and the thread of comments that follow show that people are really thinking about the issue of bivocationalism and how it impacts both the church and the pastor. I would suggest reading the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. It is published by CrossBooks and also available on Amazon.com in both print and Kindle form. It addresses the biblical basis for bivocationalism, the practical implications of it and then has a six week introductory teaching plan to equip the laity to do the work of the ministry as partners with the pastor. Though the book was written for bivocational pastors, a growing number of fully funded pastors are using the book to train their own leaders. This is an issue that the church needs to talk about more and think deeply about.

  • T


    C’mon, man. The issue is the practice of tentmaking that was modeled by Paul and its relevance and/or wisdom for today. Yes, praise God that Jesus is Lord. Whatever we do, we should do it all in his name. No one is saying that Jesus shouldn’t lead the Church (and it’s pastors and their various employment options). Jesus is relevant to everything. But that doesn’t mean that his name is mentioned a certain number of times in every discussion of every issue. We are all discussing this within the context that Jesus is Lord. But sometimes we are deaf to certain directions by Christ because we’ve never seriously considered them as viable choices. And often Jesus’ voice becomes clear as his people discuss a matter, however many times his name is spoken.

    Your own analogy works against your point: if the issue was whether some workers for the federal government should be permitted and/or encouraged to go part time with another employer, the name of the president may not come up at all.

  • Rom 8:5 “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”
    I am just fascinated by the issue and want to figure out what I think, or, more importantly, what does the Lord think.
    Opportunity: If you are willing to work with your hands and you want to be self-employed, then I am willing to teach you how to do professional window washing. Just contact me and we can explore the choices.