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

Bi-Vocational Seminary Grads Should Be Trained Bi-Vocationally! (Future of Seminary) October 28, 2011

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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