A guy who lives in southern California was driving down the freeway with a friend when they saw a strange sight. There were some nuns traveling in a van and they had run out of gas on the freeway. They had searched their van for some kind of container they could use to go get some gas, and all they could find was a bedpan. So, as the two guys drive by, they see these nuns pouring the contents of a bedpan into their gas tank. The one guy looked over at his friend and said, “Now, that’s faith!”
The moral of the story is that anyone who gets anywhere in the kingdom of God has to travel by faith.
Those who are called to serve as pastors know all about traveling by faith – and this is especially true of those who serve as bivocational pastors. Bivocational pastors are those who work a secular job in addition to their work with a local church. They are waitresses, construction workers, sales consultants and teachers, who also feel called to preach. Or said another way, they are pastors who have also chosen to work in the “real world.”
When we think of bivocational pastors, we usually think of missionaries, small town pastors or church planters. But we should broaden our view. I’ve learned to see bivocational ministry in a new light.
Last August, after almost 19 years, I stepped away from full-time ministry. I landed a job in sales to help pay the bills and thought I was done with ministry. God had other plans. A church in town was without a pastor, and they asked me to serve them on an interim basis. Thus, I became a bivocational pastor.
Working a “real job” in addition to serving as a pastor is challenging – but it offers some benefits to ministry that I was unaware of until now. These benefits have brought me to the belief that this arrangement should be the norm instead of the exception.
One benefit is that it helps the pastor to better understand, and connect with his community and culture. We all know the stereotype: pastors live and work in a church bubble. They’re surrounded by candles and crosses. They read church books and talk about church stuff with church people. An exaggeration? Yes – but there is certainly some truth there. Even the pastor who makes a concerted effort to get outside the church walls will not fully understand the surrounding culture. One must actually enter into that world to really see the values and interests of the people all around us. Once there, you begin to grasp their struggles, their hurts, and their joys in a way you just couldn’t have done from a distance.
With better understanding comes better opportunities to minister. It builds credibility and allows the pastor to better connect with those inside and outside the church. When I was a full-time pastor, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what was going on in our culture. I interacted with people in the community, I read widely, I participated in social media, I even occasionally hung out at Starbucks! But it was only when I started working alongside regular people that my eyes were opened. Some of my assumptions about people were blown out of the water. I realized that I had been answering questions that people today aren’t even asking. Some issues that I thought were important to them, weren’t important at all. It was only through working side-by-side with them that I discovered these things. I can’t think of a better way to learn how to become all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22).
A second benefit of bivocational ministry is that it promotes more involvement from church members. When a church has a full-time pastor, the expectation is that he or she will do, well, everything! Does someone need a prayer before surgery? The pastor will be there. Is there someone who has missed church for several weeks? The pastor will be over to encourage them. The ladies quilting ministry needs help deciding on the right color for the center of their quilt? The pastor will be there to save the day!
Of course, a bivocational pastor will still do many of these things, but he will not be able to do all of them. If they are to be done, the members will have to step up. It will allow many of them to discover ministry gifts of which they were unaware, and it will promote a sense of teamwork and accomplishment among them. I don’t have any numbers to back up this claim, but I would assume it would also lead to less pastor burnout, since a bivocational pastor is not expected to be some kind of superhero.
A third benefit of bivocational ministry is that it allows the pastor to preach and teach what he really believes. We’ve all heard the joke about a pastor preaching a “moving” sermon (he will soon be moving after preaching that sermon!), but that joke has been a sad reality for many. A sermon upsets an influential member or steps on the toes of the elders, and just like that, the pastor is sent packing. If he doesn’t have a severance agreement with the church, he is suddenly in a bad spot. (pastors do not receive unemployment benefits from the government.)
Because of this reality, some pastors will temper what they say so as not to upset Mr. So-and-So who gives a lot of money to the church. Or they will simply avoid certain topics that are sure to open a can of worms and raise hackles at the next church business meeting. I hate to admit it, but I have done this very thing. I saw continued employment as more important than being true to my convictions and faithfully preaching what I believed God was saying in the Scriptures.
A bivocational minister is not solely dependent on the church for his income, so he is free to speak. He is free to listen to the direction of the Spirit, wrestle with the text, and share what he has learned with the church – without worrying about losing his job over it. Imagine the powerful, God-honoring, Christ-centered and Spirit-filled preaching we would hear if pastors were free to preach what is really on their heart! Of course, it is never ok to be arrogant, hateful, or offensive. One can be honest and upfront in a sermon, while still being tactful and sensitive to different views. But I believe that if more pastors were truly free to speak, the preaching would improve dramatically.
I'm not claiming it's wrong to minister full-time, or that bivocational ministry is for everyone – many full-time pastors are doing very well in their work. I only know from experience that there are ministerial, missional, and even spiritual benefits that come with it. I would encourage any pastor who can, to give it a try. The apostle Paul thought it was a good idea!