Tentmaking 5 (Jeff Cook)

Tentmaking 5 (Jeff Cook) January 5, 2011

Family: Tentmaking 5

It is commonly pointed out by those who argue for bivocational ministry as a good, even superior, way to be a pastor that Paul was a tentmaker. Yet a primary difference between Paul and most pastors I know, is that he was neither married nor had children.

The rhythms of life for a tentmaker are amazingly different between one who is single, married, married with young children, and married with children post-elementary school. A basic question for many tentmakers is whether or not we can survive the demands of two (potentially full-time) jobs, a spouse (who might also work part or full time), and children.

Can one actually be a *healthy* tentmaker with a family?

This seems different to me than other vocations, though maybe not for other pastors. In my experience, every aspect of church-planting and bivocational ministry has been a total family effort. The sacrifices are clearly experienced by my wife and children as much (if not much more so) than they are by me. As such, who is the real tentmaker: is it an individual, or is it actually the family as a whole? Should the question shift from considering one’s own ambitions and desire to build the Church to the desires and skillset of one’s family as a whole?

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  • Jason Lee

    “Can one actually be a *healthy* tentmaker with a family?”

    This seems to partly depend on an interaction between three variables:

    1. TYPE OF MINISTRY: How time intensive is the particular ministry? This can vary dramatically depending, for example, on how much the tentmaker is a “let me do it all” type person who doesn’t delegate to her church members.

    2. PERSONAL TRAITS: How much capacity does the bivo minister and her family have for staying up late finishing work/ministry tasks and having a lot of non-family join the family in its meals and evenings? This can also vary a lot, for example, some people need much less sleep and some people are better at integrating people into the family’s activities while at the same time engaging their children.

    3. FAMILY SIZE: At some point every parent or spouse is dividing their resources (e.g., time) between work, ministry, spouse, and children. Clearly, singles have less to divide than married people. If you have a child, a significantly greater amount gets divided. But one thing I’ve not heard too many Christians think about is that the more children they have, the more their limited resources must be divided between children–potentially (likely?) negatively impacting their children. Social scientists who study this topic present strong evidence that larger family size negatively impacts a child’s life chances. How much more so for children of a torn bivo minister?

    For those unfamiliar with this research literature, see:

    Downey, Douglas B. 1995. “When Bigger is Not Better: Family Size, Parental Resources, and Children’s Educational Performance.” American Sociological Review 60(October): 746-761.

    Conley, Dalton. 2004. The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why. New York: Random House.

  • Paul

    I like the idea of the “whole family” as a tentmaker. Just as I like the idea of the whole family choosing a church community and actively participating in it.

    I imagine this type of mentality could be used to support the idea that the “pastor” of the family works outside the home and the other parents takes care of the kids (thus each doing their “role”). But it could also be used to create a much more dynamic and beautiful form of ministry as a family using everyone’s giftings in the life of the church. This could be healthier for the kids as well as the parents and ultimately the community.

    You also ask the question: “Can one actually be a healthy tentmaker with a family”

    I imagine that the most healthy tentmakers have access to good education and a good paying job in relation to the cost of living in their area. In addition the church community would (as you have said previously I believe) need to view the pastor more as a facilitator and developer of gifts instead of a person who does most of the work.

  • Not sure that Paul was a “healthy” tentmaker. He was sick, beaten, jailed, etc. I heard a pastor in Uganda tell a story of the assault on himself and his family for their beliefs and his (and their) decision to pray for the assailants and continue to minister in constant threat of a repeat visit from the band of marauders. Even in my own far less threatening and dangerous experience as an adult convert who got her faith and calling in one fell swoop, I can tell you personally that my coming to faith was terrible for my family. My children were bitter and resentful as we followed the call of the Spirit and gave up the trappings of our home, jobs, bank accounts and stability/security when they were in their teens. We’re still working that out today and they are 22 and 20.

    All this to say that I’m not sure that we get to choose comfort and health over serving/earning a living – not for ourselves or our families. I know that is not popular right now. I am often surprised when people (taught by organizations like Focus on the Family et al) say that their first priority is their wife, next their kids, then their service to God. I have yet to find any Biblical support for that hierarchy.

    I grew up in a secular home. My father worked three jobs for most of my formative years. Sometimes he did not come home for days – going straight from the firehouse, to the studio where he was a stagehand to the UPS truck he drove. No one ever wondered about whether or not it was healthy. We were surviving. My parents (rest their souls) were married for 46 years before they died two years ago. Marriages and families can endure stress and hard work if there is commitment. I think we’ve become so frightened of infidelity, broken marriages, wayward children, that we are putting controls in place to try to ensure “healthy”. Meanwhile, as with Paul, healthy just means being so close to God that we can weather the inevitable storms when they come…

  • T

    I think that these questions are good, but that the scope needs to push wider still. Even Paul didn’t go out church planting alone. The frequent “minimum” number of missionaries in the NT seems to be 2. So we routinely cut that in half. Our own wisdom books would tell us that one person alone is much weaker, but on we go. (Related rhetorical/snarky question: What was wrong with NT missionaries, such that God felt that even Paul needed Barnabas and/or Silas or Timothy, and the 12 each needed a partner for missions, as opposed to our modern ones, who are so often “called” solo? Why did the Lord send out 2 by 2 then, but “calls” so many solos now?)

    I don’t think church planting should be a mere “[single] family” endeavor. I think we need to try to get some freedom from the lone-ranger/sola-pastora idea that I still see in in such questions. The NT examples serve as a strong critique to our one-man mission ideas. If the question is “who is the real tentmaker: is it an individual, or is it actually the family as a whole? Should the question shift from considering one’s own ambitions and desire to build the Church to the desires and skillset of one’s family as a whole?”–that question is still too solo, in my opinion, and it’s framing undercuts the strength and health of all involved.

  • T

    To respond, in sum, to the question “Can one actually be a healthy tentmaker with a family?” Not if he’s gonna be the Lone Ranger minus a Tonto or 2 or 3 or 4.

  • Jennifer

    I think the idea of having women church planters – with husbands who work regular jobs to support the family – is a great option.

    I am planting a church that can not yet afford to pay me much. But I dont work outside of the church either. My husband works and supports our family and we live on a single income for now.

  • One of the other differences that Paul had was that tent-making wasn’t a job with set hours or even a set work place. He could take his job with him, setting up shop wherever he was ministering at, working whenever he had the chance. There aren’t a lot of jobs that provide those opportunities anymore. The family tentmaking idea is a good one. But the question remains, can one remain healthy?

  • Jason Lee

    T rightly points out a big issue. Perhaps this is an outgrowth of American individualism. I also wonder to what degree the solo ministry leader approach (what some have called the “MY ministry” approach) is a product of leaders inability to work closely with others. Does the independent/solo (even tentmaker) ministry approach disproportionately draw those who have difficulty cooperating with other (I’m just sayin’)?

    But I’d place this solo/team issue under my variable “TYPE OF MINISTRY.” In this way “team” could significantly buffer the possible negative impact on child(ren)/spouse of the bivo ministry lifestyle.

    Joan (3): I find your comment somewhat one-sided. Yes, there is a tension… we shouldn’t expect a lack of adversity, but your comment sounds a bit like baptizing irresponsibility and how this impact those in our care. To be sure sometimes this will be inevitable due to things beyond our control. But clearly there is also a strong teaching in scripture to honor family and care for the vulnerable (including children). And isn’t people’s greatest ministry sometimes their own family?

  • My wife and I planted a church together ten years ago. We both are on staff and I also work as a video producer. If you asked any of our three children, they would say they had a role in planting the church as well.

    The sacrifices and stresses we have experienced have stemmed more from planting and pastoring a church than they have from being bi-vocational. As I have shared here before, having a second career has made me healthier by making me a more well-rounded person and having experiences outside of a church sub-culture (although our church is well outside the church subculture anyway). So if anything, I think being bi-vocational can make one more spiritually, emotionally and physically healthy. Planting or just pastoring a church is very stressful (as you all know) and often the challenges consume us. Sometimes it’s just good to know there’s a world out there that has nothing to do with your church.

  • I would also add that in order to be a healthy, the role of any pastor has to evolve. As many of you have said, the pastor cannot be a lone ranger around whom the church is centered. We have been blessed that God has formed a community in our church who do ministry together. My role has been to be a sort of theologically-trained coach to the community. Pastoring in that way has given me the freedom to be bi-vocational, and others at the church the freedom to step into leadership roles.

  • Perhaps the definition of church needs to change. You made a comparison to the Apostle Paul, but is there evidence that he practiced church in such a leader dominated way that we have been given in the last 40 years? I think scripture paints a more corporate model of Christianity, where believers live alongside one another. And so my encouragement would be to let your definition of church begin to take a back seat. Bi-vocational ministry will take your time away from things that you may think are more ministry oriented (teaching a lesson) and place it in things that you think are more work related, but that is exactly the place most needed in my experience. Let your integrity guide you (not a preconceived idea of church).
    PS this is a painful process

  • jay

    Is Paul a Valid Equivalent?
    is comparing paul’s role as a “church planter” with the current practice really even apples to apples? it seems that the average modern church planter is planting with the intent of staying in that one locale for a while as the lead elder. it seems that paul’s role included more general oversight of local elders in many areas which required more travel and occupational flexibility.

  • 2 quick thoughts— you have to keep asking the questions “Is this healthy and is this what God wants of me?” All the time, in any ministry or endeavor. I don’t think there is a time when it is a done deal. As He leads at each turn you have to be willing to go where He points. That is very hard to do if you felt called to a ministry but now your family is falling apart. I think folks do need that community and family around them to minister effectively (there is no “one person” bi-vocational ministry when you have a family).

    also, I have to say, going on the last few comments, that things do need to evolve. Both our view of church work and the church itself. I feel that our bi-vocational ministry is okay… for now… although we have been doing it for (6?) years we look to one day funding our ministers so that they can have focus and stability. It is a goal for us not to remain bi-vocational, but to do it while we can/are called to it. If I didn’t think there was a light at the end of this tunnel (2 toddlers, 7 jobs between the two adults and tenuous budgets) I might freak out a little.

  • Being the youngest of six children of a bi-vocational church planter, I resonate deeply on many levels with this conversation and with many of you who have commented.

    1. Church planting is always a family activity — it is just that some make it inclusive and get significant buy-in and others make it a drudgery. I must say that our family experience got more and more the former as we got older and were more capable of contributing our gifts. We always served according to our capacity. Sometimes we were an opportunity for others to serve 😉 ….

    2. My mother played piano/organ and, as we got older, we all sang in the choir, read scripture, taught VBS and Sunday School, led Youth Group … I was the anchor in the nursery ministry until I was 14! I’m sure the picture would change dramatically for a non-musical family.

    3. My mother did not work outside the home until I was in 8th grade … about the time my father turned over the church plant of that era to a full-time minister. We all stayed just as involved … we were just no longer the source of sermon illustrations 😉

    4. There were always a core of families who did this work together. Each family had five or six kids — and we all hung out together. It was very natural — 40 years later, we still keep in touch.

    5. All six of us kids grew up to continue serving the church when we moved away from home and started our own families. One sister is still a choral conductor (and ordained minister) and another is a piano teacher who frequently still plays for church. My brother and two other sisters are public school educators (two of them nearing retirement). We all graduated from college and found ways to use our gifts to serve in the Kingdom. I did not realize that we were “poor” (financially) until I got into high school — those were some of the best times of my life!

    6. The biggest challenge was the lost of availability of my parents. My mother was consumed with running our busy household (in the days when girls wore dresses to school and clothes were NOT permanent press!), and dad was busy at work and at church. Most of our “family” time was “church” time. And most of the time that was okay … but it was very easy for our “personal” needs to get pushed out by church members who needed dad. Hey — I didn’t have another dad! Dad and I worked out that kink when I was 32!

    I realize that was a different era, but I believe it is still possible. But there is nothing better than having all the family involved in ways that make them feel important.

    And I’m with you, Jennifer. When I was pastoring, my husband worked full time and was the Pied Piper to our three young sons. Now I’m doing full-time homemaker and working on discipling our sons (instead of farming that task out to the youth ministers!).

    …sorry for the ramble.

  • T expressed exactly what I couldn’t put my finger on. All I have to say is ditto to T.

  • Being a tentmaking church planter is not easy, but in many situations, it is the only way a new church will be birthed. This is why a person must make sure they are really CALLED to plant a church and not just doing it because it is the newest fad in the church world.

    In addition to being called, tentmaking church planters MUST learn to equip others to help them in ministry. A failure to do that will create an unsustainable senario.

    Sadly, far too many church planters and pastors think they are the only ones who can do “stuff” the “right way.” That arrogance will cost a family and a church dearly. Get over yourself and let someone else preach one Sunday a month and make some of the visits and lead some of the Bible studies and meetings. They may not do it the same way the pastor would do it, but they will get it done.

    Consider using the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway. It is available in both print and Kindle formats.

    Terry Dorsett