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