5 Questions the Church Needs to Ask about Bi-vocational Ministry

5 Questions the Church Needs to Ask about Bi-vocational Ministry May 14, 2018

Increasingly the leaders of mainline denominations have been emphasizing the bi-vocational nature of ministry. After centuries of elaborating on models based on Roman Catholic practice and professional training in other disciplines, the church in the United States has begun to back away from the models that inspired both the modern ordination process and the contemporary seminary curriculum.

But the retreat from that model has been ad hoc and indiscriminate. Denominational leaders haven’t discussed what this brave new world might mean for the church, for its seminaries, or for the prospective clergy who are being told to prepare for this kind of future. Without an eye to the larger ecology of preparation, bishops and others are crafting alternative approaches to ordination, and no one is talking candidly about the new fault-lines and challenges that an emphasis on bi-vocational life will create for clergy and their parishes.

Looking ahead, here are some of the questions that seem to be lingering out there that are not receiving much attention:

First, what do we consider absolutely indispensable to effective ministry?

I get that there might be a good deal that creeps into a seminary curriculum that does not have adequate bearing on the preparation of effective clergy. Those of us who have been trained in the modern academy are socialized to develop a research agenda and much of what interests us may be of little immediate relevance to parish clergy. It can also be argued that some seminary faculty lack experience with or active attachment to the church. And those are problems that should be addressed.

But, granted that is the case in some places, the fact remains that ministry in the modern church is complex and demanding. Preparation should include rigorous, basic training in a number of disciplines, ranging across fields as diverse as biblical studies, systematic and historical theology, church history, spirituality, pastoral care, preaching, evangelism, and the formation of pastors as leaders and spiritual guides.

Given the constraints of time and money – and now, opportunity — what do we believe ought to be part of that preparation?

Second, what about the other vocation?

What vocations will actually combine effectively with a vocation to ordained ministry? Does the other vocation need to be portable? Or do we expect clergy to live close enough that he or she can easily commute in order to be of service?

What about time? Time for the other vocation? Time for ministry? Time for family? Time for a balanced life?

The asymmetrical demands that parish ministry makes upon clergy are well known, but combining those demands with a second career increases the complexity of a clergy person’s life, both personal and professional.

Third, how are prospective clergy to go about identifying career opportunities that will provide for their needs and those of their families?

Bi-vocational clergy can be sure that the church will not pay part-time clergy particularly well and that fact has implications for the financial well-being of a prospective clergy person and his or her family.

From that consideration flow a number of other questions: How can we reasonably expect bi-vocational clergy to prepare for two careers? What will that entail in terms of time, money and long-term debt?

A recent survey of 112 American Baptist churches revealed that compensation for bi-vocational clergy “varied widely” and continues to do so: “The average was $9,770 for male pastors and $8,578 for female pastors. The highest salary reported was $26,430 for a male pastor and $24,000 for a female pastor.  A few pastors reported they received no salary. Some churches paid their insurance premiums in lieu of a salary. A couple of pastors were allowed to live in the parsonage rather than receiving a salary.”

Fourth, assuming that we identify a cohort of people who are willing to embrace bi-vocational life, have we seriously anticipated the probable fault-lines that will emerge?

Anyone who has served the Methodist church as a local pastor will tell you that there are formal and informal differences in the way that they are treated, as compared with those on what the church calls “the elder track.” They are likely to serve smaller congregations. They are paid less. They are not guaranteed an appointment to a congregation. And, unlike those on the elder track, they will never serve as bishops or district superintendents. The same up-stairs, down-stairs dynamics are likely to dog bi-vocational clergy in mainline churches.

Local congregations share the same fate. Larger parishes with robust budgets can and do call full-time leaders, and – typically — they grow and benefit from that kind of attention. Smaller, struggling parishes with bi-vocational clergy often don’t. Most of the articles that I have seen describing churches served by bi-vocational clergy talk about the shape of their congregational life, but don’t say much about those parishes growing numerically.

To ask these questions is often identified as a matter of bad faith.

I have read articles that moralize with prospective clergy, questioning their level of dedication. But it is the full-time leadership of the church that is calling for bi-vocational ministry. The question for that leadership is this: Are we being honest with prospective bi-vocational clergy and their congregations about the shape of their future?




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