Romanticized: Pulling the Veil Back on Bi-vocational Leadership


There is an interesting shift happening within the world of Church leadership here in the West. More and more there seems to be not only an affirmation of pastors being so-called “bi-vocational leaders” but an overzealous ambition to become just that. This is interesting to me for many reasons, but of particular interest is the high level of romanticism encircling the bi-vocational conversation. (I don’t say this as an expert, but as one who was bi-vocational for years and has many bi-vocational pastor friends). Many seem to be rushing headlong into a position deemed less-than-pastoral a mere generation ago by many church leaders. As a friend of mine – who happens to be bi-vocational – recently said, “it is a badge of honor to wear around in the right circles; a cone of shame in others.” What I hope to do with this post is to begin to pull the veil back a bit on some of the realities inherent to being a bi-vocational pastor/leader.

Where are we?

This paradigm shift is often attributed to the crumbling of Christendom as post-Christendom emerges out of its dust and soot. Study after study has shown the dramatic decline in church attendance often accompanied with the closing of churches. Cultural pluralism and religious agnosticism are on their ascendency making Christianity and the Church an antiquated memory at best and an irrelevant hypocrisy at worst.

Yes, it is true that the Church is becoming more and more marginalized – which, I firmly believe is a good thing. However, this bi-vocational shift is also due in part to factors between churches. I have spoken with many, many pastors whose churches are on the smaller end of the spectrum. Usually they range between 75-150 people and have 1-3 paid staff. Many of these churches are “losing” people to the large churches down the road; those with between 500-1000 people and a host of staff members. Ironically, these small churches are becoming smaller despite their attempts to become more like their larger neighboring churches. Their Christian contingency is on a downward slope as the struggle to keep seats filled and bank accounts black becomes a weekly occurrence. Paychecks and other financial constraints piggyback on attendance and subsequently, the giving that comes along with it resulting in paid staff taking the hit . Rather than grow in numbers and (generally) thus finances, they actually shrink in size and are more akin to the house church or urban church of 25-50 and everything that comes with it.

The Non-majority Church

The above statements are becoming a reality within the white, middle class, majority  church in the West. But for many within this sector, being a bi-vocational pastor of a church conveys that you are not a true pastor. You may be on your way to being a real pastor, but not quite yet. In this imagination, real pastors don’t have need of a second job because we – the white, middle class, majority church – have resources, finances, and education at our disposal. The nonchalant overlooking of these things stemmed directly from the values we imbibed. Detachment, inattention, and abstraction are the fruit of the Majority’s Spirit.

Sushi maker at a grocery store. Educator within the prison system. Public school counselor. These are just a few of the jobs I can list off the top of my head that belong to non-majority pastors I’m acquainted with. For them and many others, having a second job isn’t something they sought out because of its current appeal. No, for them it is life. There is not another way of being rooted in their contexts in true incarnational ways outside of working outside of the church.

For many Majority leaders, this imaginative creativity isn’t part of their register.

And this is partly due to the overriding Superman complex we have within many pastorates. Again, I don’t know how many pastors I have spoken with that feel the weighty burden of their church’s life because they are essentially flying solo. Sure, there may be a board of some kind or an associate pastor or two, but with titles such as Senior Pastor or Lead Pastor, there is often a lone person where the buck stops. As such, it is the end goal of pastoral ministry. It is the achievements of achievements. You don’t go to Bible college or seminary to be a youth pastor; no, shoot for the stars and be the senior pastor.

In many ways, we’ve made CEO and Senior pastor synonymous.

Moreover, there is a destructive notion tied to this Superman complex that floats around Christian circles often going unnamed. It goes something like this: the epitome of Christ-likeness is being a pastor, even more so if one is a senior pastor. There is a presumed level of spirituality tethered to this role, thus making it the end-all for many younger people.

Interestingly, the aspirations of many have turned from established church pastorates to church planting. Being a church planter is the en vogue sugar plum dancing in the heads of many. And this is where I wonder if we haven’t especially romanticized bi-vocational realities. For many, Bible college and seminary prepared them for one specific role with their one specific degree. After all, that is the goal of education in America: prepare people to be money-making, money-spending consumers. Falling back on a second job denotes weakness or inefficiency; within the Church it can often be twisted into being less faithful or even downright sinful. Notwithstanding, many church planters have rightfully pushed these assumptions to the side and have forged ahead.

Regardless, being bi-vocational is not necessarily the panacea to the church’s ills. Many go on without actually seeing it modeled for them. Many go on in manners either unneeded or in unhealthy ways. Others don’t put any intention to the communal, missional, and incarnational considerations at play in a bi-vocational move. In doing so, they often bring death where there could have been life.

Bi-vocation or bi-occupation?

I often wonder if we haven’t mistakenly described these positions as bi-vocational when they should be deemed bi-occupational. Vocation used to denote a spiritual calling from God into “true” Christian leadership, namely pastoral or missions work. Vocation was rarely something tagged onto being a plumber, carpenter, school teacher, or prison guard. These were mere occupations, not vocations.

Yet I wonder what would happen if we began to use language like bi-occupational in the realization that we have all been called. Vocation, after all, is from the same word we get vocal, indicating a vocation as something you are called unto. I wonder what would happen if we began to posture ourselves in a way where our vocations permeated our occupations. This way you’re calling into the family of God and the giftings found therein don’t require you to become a paid church leader (necessarily). Rather, your gifting (vocation) stems from your identity as a son or daughter of God and runs through your job (occupation). Missional practices could flourish under this posture.

Perhaps it would be better if we saw ourselves as bi-occupational leaders with a singular vocation. Of necessity, this would require a team approach.

The Perfect Storm

Our church plant stopped meeting over a year ago, which has given me time to reflect upon things. This I now know: It was much easier for me to say I’m not taking a paycheck than it was to relinquish the control needed to make being bi-occupational work.

During our own church planting, I worked full-time in a local school district (still do) and part-time as Northeastern Seminary’s Syracuse recruiter (still do). These two positions – for better or worse – ate up huge chunks of my time, leaving me exhausted for my family and church. In the words of my wife

Being bi-vocational will necessitate the pastor as superman be put to death.  The Lead pastor mentality will need to be relinquished so that the church can function.  It can work but needs the support of a team given authority to use their gifts.  This paradigm shift will have to be recognized at all levels and will require a reorienting of how the roles of the body and leadership will function.  Bi-vocationalism will require compromise, an allowance for failure in yourself and others, and potentially lowered expectations.  Not addressing these issues from the start may lead to burnout or failure.

My family and I have been a part of variety of church planting models.  Scott opted not to take a paycheck. Things were purposefully kept simple.  Despite our best intentions, the church never grew.  Maybe because we didn’t offer anything overly attractive, maybe because there wasn’t enough time or space for the teaching, training and mobilizing that needed to happen. Or maybe because we had great people but not the right people for this type of venture.  Needless to say our church plant ended because we lost families who moved out of state.  Scott’s abilities as a bi-vocational pastor were limited and it took a toll on our family life and what we were able to accomplish within the church.

Obviously, there is a place for bi-vocationalism.  But not without, creativity, realistic expectations, and an understanding of the people within your congregation – along with their gifts and their ability to employ them. For most to succeed it will require the perfect storm of job opportunities.  If you have a family will you have to work a full time job in order to carry health benefits? Is your spouse able to supplement some of the income? How will it affect your family life? In considering your church family, do you have the right people serving with you?  And for those who boldly declare they won’t take a paycheck – is that a sustainable option for your family? For the long term? Are you able to accomplish what you need to do without any sort of income source coming from the church?

Many of the hardships realized as a bi-occupational pastor came from the lack of discipleship needed within our folks. There is a gulf between the thinking needed to carry out the ins and outs of both being a bi-occupational pastor and a missional member of a church with bi-occupational leadership. For many, their hearts and minds have been conditioned and formed in ways contra all things missional and incarnational. This isn’t finger pointing; blood is not on their hands, it is on mine. What I’m trying to say is that it takes patience and grace in bringing people along as one(s) ahead of them yet leading from in their midst. The questions here are: Are your people prepared for bi-occupational leadership in the same way you are? How are you discipling them to that end?

Nobody Showed Me

One of the biggest things I believe needs to be taken ahold of when dreaming about being bi-occupational is who has shown you or is currently showing you how to do this. Far too often we believe a book being read or a conference being attended equates to actual know-how. Please, please don’t fall for this. As in any area of discipleship, you need to actually learn from someone on the ground.

For me, this was a huge reality check as the pool of church leaders for whom this road was familiar was incredibly small. Again, for many within the white, middle class, majority church these factors don’t play into things. This is why I believe it is time to break down the dividing wall between churches.

We must begin to realize the vast wisdom and experience of the non-majority church. Relationships must be cultivated, not only for the sake of relationship, but for the sake of the gospel. The Majority Church’s deaf ears must be unplugged and blind eyes brought to sight as we push further and further into things known to our brothers and sisters. Our time of the ones being taught is long overdue. The question is: who I can humbly begin to follow, ask questions of, and get the fuller picture on these matters?

So what say you? What am I missing? What else is hid behind the veil?

This is a synchropost with the The Antioch Session blog. See Zach Hoag’s parallel entry, “Rooted: (How Not to) Rage Against the Machine


28 thoughts on “Romanticized: Pulling the Veil Back on Bi-vocational Leadership

  1. Pingback: Rooted: (How Not to) Rage Against the Machine | The Antioch Session

  2. Scott: If I may add my two cents: I spent the last year as pulpit supply at a small Georgia church, worked through an online ministry as a New Church plant, and worked as a server at a local restaurant.
    There are a few points to expand on. Years ago, there was a stigma of bi-vocational (bi-occupational) pastors being pastors who were not educated enough to get jobs at those well paid churches. If you did work at one the well paid churches, and had a second job, it better be something like a paid hobby. (I knew a minister who also taught voice lessons on the side. As a music graduate- I am using voice lessons as a perception of a hobby, not an actuality.)
    Meanwhile, the minister who didn’t have a MDiv worked at a small church and was also a mail person. It was understood in certain circles he had to have a second job because he was too uneducated to work anywhere but that small congregation.
    Today, so many of us come out of seminary with a huge burden of debt. Now, we can’t just take the associate position and hope to pay our loans while bringing money for the family. Also, senior pastor positions are a dwindling field. To fulfill our ministry it requires taking positions other than the ones that are directly pastoral. Many ministers still remember the stigma with bi-occupational ministers and make assumptions before looking into the situation. Conversely, these small churches are raising up bi- ministers because they feel they are getting the full time minister for 1/2 the pay.

    The other point, I wanted to make, there are power structures people don’t want to let go of. It is easier to romanticize a colleagues struggles rather than figure out what the next step is. Romanticizing means the issue isn’t dealt with. The power structure remains intact and the perception is people care for these people called to a specific ministry.

    I appreciated your article. There was so much truth in it.

    • Yes to so much of this. It is a weird stigma stuck in the heads of many. My family and I live on the fringe of a very rural area and have begun attending a small, local UMC church. It is a very interesting thing being within a church of 30-40 people in a context (rural) neither me nor my wife grew up in. Anyways, the pastor is a woman who is spit between two locales. In many ways, she is an anomaly to my former Evangelical imagination (being a woman and split between two churches is doubly perplexing. 😉 ) yet in truth is representative of so many.
      The debt load of TOO MANY pastors is something rarely talked about in my experience. It is stifling in so many ways and has to be dealt with. Denominations wanting pastors with MDiv’s combined with the salaries that don’t begin to make much a dent in the loans for an MDiv make for some troubling realities ahead. Much of this plays into the power structures you mention. Much needs to be said as how we go about educating and training church leaders, what they should be trained in, and the cost.
      Thanks for weighing in.

  3. Great distinction between bi-vocational and bi-occupational. That’s really got me thinking. I’m wondering if some of the difference is: regarding “the other job” (the non-pastor) position — do you consider that an extension of your ministry vs. an extra pay check to make ends meet. For me, web design seems like the former, whereas PI work seems like the latter. Just thinking out loud about the distinction but great food for thought.

    • Thanks Steve. Yes, how our Christian vocation plays out in our daily occupations is worth teasing out. For instance, if you’re a church leader and are gifted as a prophet – as in the APEST type of thinking – how does your prophetic gifting play out in your “secular” job?
      As Wendell Berry has said, There are so secular places or things; only the sacred and the desecrated.

  4. As you wrote this and thought about bi-vocational/occupational paradigm, did you have in your mind for the clergy role — a priest or your generic (evangelical) pastor? I just wonder if you would write it the same way if you were a priest.

    Becoming a priest after 10+ years as an evangelical pastor has really changed my perception of me and how I intend to conduct myself. (Certainly debatable as to whether that has reached into reality!) I feel like being a priest permeates more of my being, whereas being a pastor was more of a role I functioned in. It’s become harder to see myself as bi-vocational/occupational though I have multiple occupations.

    You’ve really got me thinking today. 🙂

    • Quite honestly, more along the lines of a generic pastor. As you read this as an Anglican priest, how did you read this differently than just a generic pastor? Is there a difference? Flesh that out a bit.

  5. Pingback: Three Straw Man Arguments for Bi-Vocational Ministry | Chris Morton

  6. I really appreciate the change of terms Scott offers with bi-occupational. Bi-vocational does send the wrong message.

    Overall, I think you both hit an important tension: In order for a movement of any kind to be sustained, someone at some point is going to have to wake up thinking about it. In other words, there has to be a full-time paid staff. The mental model that needs to shift is what that paid staff does. I believe we are not moving away from the full-time pastor, but we are moving away from the full-time chaplain that most pastors are. That distinction may be faulty, but that is what it feels like. Even the term “pastor” carries with it connotations of shepherding and care rather than teaching in mission.

    What the church needs, in my opinion, are pastors who are “men of Isachar” (1 Chronicles 12:32) and are able to provide teaching on kingdom and missional living. They may still be full-time paid staff, but what they do will be much more an equipping of the saints than a caring for the saints.

    • Love this: “I believe we are not moving away from the full-time pastor, but we are moving away from the full-time chaplain that most pastors are.” So true.

      Any specific thoughts in how this shift from chaplain to equipper can take place?

  7. First off, please take my thoughts with a HUGE grain of salt, fore I am simply a laymen, in every sense of the word…

    In my walk over the last three/four years, having been heavily involved in a tiny church and now trying to find where to go next, I am finding one very interesting thing. All humans, of any belief system, are looking for a family.

    I love the tiny church because it does family really well. The big issue I saw was of the tension between now, but not yet. While the focus wanted to be on the Kingdom and being we need to live in the now. This church still needs to operate within the not yet, which we needed to be doers. What I found in the tiny church is that lots of folks seek out the tiny church for the family, because they want to BE in a family, they don’t want to DO a family, not initially. Pastors are so focused on ‘running’ the family that they don’t take the time to BE with folks.

    So what to do? I guess the real question to you small church pastors is: Why exactly is your calling? To DO church or BE Christ to those God brings into your sphere of influence? If the later, why do you need to be a ‘pastor’/CEO of your own ship? Can you not simply BE Christ on an already established ship?

    For some reason, I have a feeling that if folks coming out of bible college where to focus on being Christ to those they encounter in whatever vocation/occupation suits you at the time, there will be richer ‘pastors’ and a lot more folks meet our savior!

    P.S. Now in my early 40’s, I would love nothing more to return to college and get a BA in something theologically related and then move into higher education. But God keeps bring the most amazing folks into my life that simply need someone to BE with them. I make good money as a software developer and I get to, what I consider, minister to a small group of folks both at work and outside of work, to followers and not yet followers. There is NOTHING prestigious about it to ANYONE (like many, I would love to influence hundreds if not thousands, not just a hand full, the majority of which don’t believe!). But when I stayed focused on Jesus, the rewards are beyond words. And the money is really good, too!

  8. Very interesting post and responses. As we move into the new era of American Christianity, I wonder if expect we’ll see the pastor model change dramatically. It was a product of a specific time, after all. My guess is that for a while longer the megachurches (drawing the affluent suburbanite evangelicals) will continue to thrive, providing jobs for some. But I’m guessing that in the future most Protestants will affiliate with house churches and other forms of Christian community, or will be “unchurched” and incarnate their faith in the world while unhitched to a specific place and time of worship. In such a world there won’t be many opportunities for people to be paid pastors. In other words, if by occupation or vocation we mean the way we get the money to pay the bills, increasingly “bi” will not be an option. Whatever pastoring a person does will be unpaid. I just don’t forsee a reversal of the ongoing paradigm shift.

    The subject of financing seminary with debt really bugs me. I’m almost done with seminary. I’ll graduate this spring. It’s taken me a while but I’ve been fortunate to do it on a “pay as you go” basis. I know plenty of people though he had to borrow their way through (as I did for college and grad school). They’ll come out of school with debts their salaries (assuming they can find a job) can barely pay. Seminaries are complicit in this, actively encouraging students to pay for school with loans. That’s just wrong.

    Just me two cents worth…

    • As always, thanks for chiming in, Bill. Yes, I do foresee a shift in the paid pastorate in the near future. It will be interesting to see how things shape up – megachurches and all.
      And, as I said above, yes, seminaries do need be aware of what is happening and need to be having honest conversations about these realities.

      If I can ask: what are your intentions with seminary? I’d love to hear more.

      • Hey Scott. I attended seminary to get the education, not to train me for a job. At the same time I realize that having the degree on my resume might theoretically help me if I am job searching, but given my skill sets probably not much. I’m glad I went and it has helped form me (mostly in ways I’m sure the school didn’t intend). I’ll continue to play in that space where food and faith intersect and we’ll see what happens. I’m finishing up my masters thesis now…

  9. Pingback: Throwing Out the (Poor) Baby With the Bath Water: Bi-vocational Ministry | Inside This Guys Head

  10. Pingback: How (Not) To Be a Bivocational Pastor | The Burner

  11. I like your term usage of “bi-occupational” instead of “bi-vocational”. I think words are important in this day and age and typically are misused or are outdated…especially in church.

    I work part-time at our church and stay home with my boys 3 days a week. When I started out on this adventure a little over a year ago I was working another job and this summer I will have to go back to working to supplement income. The community that I was a part of that was encouraging me in this process considered being “bi-vocational” a badge of honor and I found myself falling in love with the idea of being celebrated as a hero.

    My wife and I had been discussing it for some time and it so happens the church I was interviewing with could no longer have the position be full time. So we prayed and felt that the Holy Spirit was leading us to do this. We trusted God then and we trust God now. The mistake I made in all of this was allowing anyone to tell me this was a badge of honor and being extremely self centered with the hero junk. I’ve repented and moved on.

    It is an honor to serve God in any ministry vocation, but when we over romanticize it we start treading on dangerous ground. It’s tough being part time. We are fortunate that my wife is a teacher and we have insurance through the school and that she works full time. If we had major debt and she didn’t have this job there’s no way we could survive only on what I make.
    I think we tend to over romanticize many things today in our Christian culture, because for many of us we are sick and tired of the same blah blah blah. Truth is…ministry is tough. It’s not easy and it shouldn’t be. Is the church changing? Yes, but into what…I don’t have an answer. Will there need to be more people willing to be part time in small congregations? Probably. But there always has been. Nothing’s changed on that end.

    One other thought…if you’re going to have a church there has to be a structure. It doesn’t have to be a hierarchy, but it does have to be structured and doing something or going somewhere. Otherwise it’s a small group or house church. Which is fine. However, listen to the stories of Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Bob Russell. They will all tell you that they started off as a small group meeting in their homes. At some point more people wanted in, so they had to start making room. They had to make a decision, either remain as we are and only self serve OR buy a building and become organized. There’s nothing wrong with being a small group and growing together. But if you want to be more at some point you’re going to need a lead pastor and maybe some other staff that you should probably pay.

    • Chris – thanks for stopping by and for commenting. I agree in that we do need structure. There is a tendency to see things as purely organic void of any organization, which, as my friend Ben says leaves us as the blob of Christ, not the body of Christ. The determining question regards what the structure looks like and how it is employed in regards to mission and incarnation.

      • I like that term “blob of Christ”. Regarding structure and where that leaves us with missions and incarnation. I agree. Every community is different and every organization is different. Thanks for writing this piece.

  12. “Perhaps it would be better if we saw ourselves as bi-occupational leaders with a singular vocation.”

    I deeply appreciate your theology of vocation. I think you are on to something here. Perhaps if we posited the issue with this framework we would naturally push back against creating false dichotomies due to fears of perpetuating constantinian christianity and creating a sort of missional-elitism. All are called to join God in His work. Plumbers, electricians, bus drivers, CEO’s, cashiers and pastors.

    I confess that my bi-occupational status began out of necessity and eventually became a true joy and privilege. However I also confess that as we move more deeply into neighborhoods and tent-cities and are seeing folks dwelling there joining us in community, it is straining me, even in the context of beautiful mutual leadership that empowers. At some point I imagine that I will be compelled to let go of the other job and pour all my time into this community of faith.

    Ultimately what I appreciate about this conversation is that it is calling us to a higher ethic and more robust confession: we need not over-react to unhealthy experiences because christian hospitality reminds us that there is room for all. Sadly, the elitism and contradictory postures that have surfaced are creating tribes and camps that are pushing people to the margins simply because of their occupation or ecclesiology. We can argue, fight and flesh these things out in one of two ways, at one another or with one another. Thank you for modeling latter.

  13. Pingback: Missio Alliance | The “Bi-Vocational” Conversation

  14. Pingback: The Pastor and His Pay | thedialecticoftruth

  15. Scott, Sorry it’s taken me awhile to read through this and comment. Great thoughts as always. I think ideally a pastor who splits their time between two occupations would have some correlation between the two. The goal being for the pastor to be immersed in the daily life of the community within which the church community is rooted. It’s my understanding that the Amish and possibly some/or all Mennonites take the approach of only having lay leaders so maybe there is something to be gleaned from the Anabaptists. The pastor as rock star or ‘one man band’ while the rest of the people take the role of audience just makes no sense and is the total opposite of what we are to be as ‘the Body of Christ’. We need leadership in the Church – fathering, mothering, discipling, parenting, mentoring, raising up, empowering. Instead we have a model that cuts off blood flow to both the pastor and the people. And in this paradigm darkness is left to grow. It is the perfect condition for religiosity and hypocrisy to take root. We recently left a small church plant because I was watching this process unfold as attendance ballooned (and marketing increased) and the pastor was pushed higher and higher on the platform. Now they just got a bigger building and I’m shaking my head wondering if there will ever be a church community on the face of the earth that will dare to break the model – the model that places the pastor at the center of a cult of personality while all the people comfortably check off their religious duties checklist and noone ever changes nor takes seriously how in the world we can actually live out the Gospel with one another and in turn the wider community. Our traditions often become idols – this can happen in other models as well -easily. But in America this is the dominating model. We are too self-satisfied and ‘blessed’ and until GOD shakes things up nothing will change. The idol will have to be smashed and pulled out of our hands while we scream all the way.

  16. Pingback: The Unequivocal Reality of Bi-Vocational Church Planting | Missional Church Conversations

  17. Pingback: Rooted: (How Not to) Rage Against the Machine

  18. Pingback: Rooted: (How Not to) Rage Against the Machine | The Antioch Session

  19. Pingback: Saddles | janetkwest

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s