3 Pros and Cons of Bivocational Church Planting

This post originally published on the Seedbed Blog.

Declining attendance numbers, increasing financial pressures, and dying churches across mainline denominations…it’s evident that the church needs a serious ministry makeover. The best way this can happen is through bi-vocational ministry and church planting, which uses a blend of both clergy and lay pastors. Truth be told, this idea is not anything new.

The New Testament’s most famous bi-vocational minister is the Apostle Paul. In fact, Paul’s occupation as a “tent-maker” was the genesis for the term “tent-making”, which is often used in reference to those functioning as bi-vocational ministers. The biblical passage disclosing Paul’s occupation is Acts 18:1-4, which states, “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tent-makers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.”

Paul, as a tent-maker, would not have been too uncommon in the first-century religious context, for rabbis would often have to support themselves apart from the religious institution. Paul was falling in line with the rabbinical custom of combining one’s study of the Torah with a marketable trade such as tent-making. And as he traveled and ministered bi-vocationally, Paul planted churches.

When Paul left Corinth, Priscilla and Aquila, equipped with their tent-making trade and their Christ faith, went with him. Following in Paul’s footsteps, they ministered bi-vocationally in the newly sprouting Christian communities. Their names are only mentioned a few times in Scripture (Acts 18:1-4, 18-26; 2 Timothy 4:19), and I personally wish we knew more about their story. However, whenever you see these characters come on the scene, it’s obvious that alongside of working their profession, their faith was working to impact the community where they lived.

So what would this model of church planting require today? What are the costs and benefits of bi-vocational ministry? In this post, I want to share some of the pros and cons I’ve learned over the years about bi-vocational church planting.

Pro 1: The church saves (a lot of) money

Simply put, it is not sustainable for churches to continue affording full-time ordained elders. Compared to the salary rate of ordained clergy, bi-vocational ministers are paid less than half of what clergy make. More often than not, they aren’t paid anything at all and work a part-time job or hold a career outside the church.

Bi-vocational ministers save the church thousands of dollars. It goes without saying that in a time of budget cuts and financial concerns, this is a major benefit for churches. However, there is also a downside.

Con 1: Financial strife for the pastor

While the church benefits from the little to no pay aspect, bi-vocational leaders (especially those with families) often experience financial tension trying to balance outside work alongside the demands of full-time ministry. This is one reason why bi-vocational ministers must be defined by these three things: a strong sense of call, community, and blessing in order to carry the weight of this kind of leadership.

Pro 2: Close community

The leaders involved in a church planting team maintain a close bond with one another, which fosters spiritual and personal growth among the group. Vulnerability and accountability are essential for church growth because when the core leadership invests in their spiritual growth, the church will experience growth as well. The team community also acts as a support group through the frustrations and spiritual battles these leaders will undoubtedly face during the church planting process.

On another level, bi-vocational church planters are often employed in the very community where they are planting. If identifying with the people is a goal, their jobs offer excellent opportunities to make face-to-face connections, and their homes literally immerse them in the neighborhood.

Con 2: Difficulty setting boundaries

With being in the community, boundary lines can become blurred, and limited time makes setting wise boundaries crucial for success. Bi-vocational Pastor Joshua Wynn explains it this way: “Learning to set boundaries [is a challenge]… . Sometimes [the people I serve] will want to talk to me about the same thing over and over again for two to three hours at a time. Sometimes that can be distracting when there is someone else who really, really is hurting or in really major need or needs to be comforted or needs to be helped.”

Taking time to hear people’s stories without allowing them to drain your time with complaints, discerning when to say “no” to various commitments, and dealing with the opinions and preferences of individuals are some of the most difficult interpersonal pieces of pastoral ministry. When you’re working with people in need, sometimes it’s a job that knows no end. To prevent burnout, guidance from experienced leaders and regular spiritual retreats are two excellent solutions.

Pro 3: Church growth

Under a bi-vocational model, my last church, Embrace Church in Lexington, KY, experienced growth in all areas of ministry: worship attendance, baptisms, and professions of faith. The chart below highlights the growth of the church from 2012 to 2013:

embrace stats

A bi-vocational staff was not, of course, the only driving factor behind these numbers. However, it’s important to note that in one year this church saw more growth than many existing churches in the same denomination (United Methodist) have seen in ten years.

Con 3: Balancing church responsibilities, a full-time career, and family

The reality of a having a majority of the staff at a church as bi-vocational pastors is that their time is limited between family, church, and working additional jobs or raising financial support. For example, Bryan Langlands, Bi-vocational Pastor of a missional community and full-time chaplain for a Christian college, didn’t have an easy time balancing the demands with his family of five:

“[Bi-vocational ministry has] been a blessing overall, but it has been a challenge at times. We have three young children, so time is one of our most precious commodities. There have been moments and weeks where the responsibilities of being in leadership with this missional community have felt like a sacrifice just because we are time-pinched.”

Overwhelmed, burnt-out, drained – unfortunately these are negative effects all pastors experience at some point. As stated before, holding tight to accountability groups, small groups, and weekly check-ins help diffuse these attacks.

A ministry makeover is an increasing necessity in the Church. Whether or not leaders are ready to take on the work of a makeover is a different story. It is work that not only takes commitment and grit, but work that requires first and foremost a heart that’s sold out to Jesus. These pros and cons are not intended to sound like a cure with extremely negative side effects. The “cure” is not based in any one group of people, model, or idea. Makeovers happen when people are willing to be remodeled — it’s uncomfortable, messy, and requires selflessness and sacrifice. It’s a whole-heart ordeal.

I have a strong hope that mainline denominations in the United States can produce once again thriving, healthy churches. Before the makeover can begin, we have to make the risky choice to start the renovation process. What if we were the kind of church that wasn’t afraid to take that risk, to throw our trust into God’s hands, and gather disciples from the very people we want to reach? Now that’s a church I want to be a part of.

What type of growth have you seen as a result of being part of a church with a bi-vocational staff? What challenges of bi-vocational ministry have affected you or your church the most?

Image attribution: Catherine_Nelson / Thinkstock

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