There’s growing conversation between bi-vocational and full-time vocational ministry proponents. Is one better than the other? Simply put, why should we go about worrying about how leaders are paid in the midst of exodus?

I want to suggest every person looking to enter professional ministry should consider bi-vocational ministry as the best option to successfully turn church plant into church. (This post won’t suggest bi-vocational is the next fad for those railing on conventional church, that’s a different conversation, this is purely about church planting attempts.)

I have made this observation primarily through my context as a church planter, an entrepreneur, and a Canadian. The latter probably the most relevant to American readers.

As a Canadian, observing how the church has lost its prominence over the course of decades foreshadows the unfolding cultural shift taking place in America.

Want to know how well your current church planting strategies will work out? Ask a Canadian doing [did] the same thing.

For example, in my city of Calgary (one of the more traditionally conservative with a million+ people cities in Canada) all the church plants with a full time vocational minster that planted 5 years ago, NOT ONE remains today (I can think of just under a dozen that started). This doesn’t count what I’d call church ‘transplanting’ where a mega church goes off and ‘plants’ with a 120 of their own (not necessarily a bad thing). The number of church plants remaining goes up to ONE (maybe two) if we go back to plants that started ten years ago.

The reason exceptionally few have survived has to do with the longevity of current church planting models. Before, we could ‘build it and they would come’, today we mostly realize this doesn’t work but haven’t had the courage to completely change the expectation, posture, and more importantly, timeframes of church planting.

As an entrepreneur that has started half a dozen different business the failure rate in church planting is normal for something new–especially for planters who’ve never planted before. Entrepreneurs are successful because they’ve failed more times than they’ve succeeded–and yet they keep on trying. That’s the reality of new things–risk is a requirement and failure is a norm. If you’ve ever watched Dragon’s Den (or Shark Tank, the American counterpart), you’d know that ideas are worth zero (or maybe 5% in licensing at most.) Savvy investors care about the sales you’re already making, not the idea of sales. Church planting is similar. Who cares how many strategies you have or how lofty your vision is, the proof is the the proverbial pudding, and here’s the kicker:

this pudding takes 10 years to see returns.

This is why bi-vocational is a necessity to not only succeed, but to simply remain. The ‘ten year test’ of survival is intricately linked to equity built into the neighbourhood which takes time because relationships take time. This assumes you’re interested in being Jesus in the neighbourhood and not just trying to attract and transfer Christians from other churches. In our neighbourhood most have no “religious memory”, there is a growing majority of the ‘nones‘.

Back to vision and strategies. They amount to good planning, but all the effort put into strategic direction will be moot if it does not factor in the crucial element of the ‘ten year test’.

Current church planting strategies generally do not consider the literal decade of longevity required to survive. Put that in money terms, that’s 10 years of full-time salary. Consider that cost, full-time salary for 10 years is in the least half a million dollars of investment required. Add in church rent and sound systems, etc., and you have a cool million for that required decade. That’s not only beyond the realm of possibility for the vast majority of organizations, but it’s also a considerable waste of money. If you are bi-vocational the longevity of a church plant immediately doubles. Conversely, the cost of the plant is reduced in half. Heck, if you don’t take a salary then you could be around forever [not a recommendation]!

Bi-vocational also reflects a necessary theological paradigm. Every church planting conference and denominational planting committee pines for ‘movements’, yet we still exist in continued decline. As such ministry/planting paradigms should be heavily scrutinized. At its most basic level how we approach mission is the starting point: as either the lens we use to understand the function of the entirety of the church, or some off-shoot done by missionaries in Africa. After what you believe is sorted, the most important piece is what you do.

Many who consider themselves “missional” in practice model a form of ministry where only the qualified do all the leading and work. ‘Priesthood of all believers’ is supposed to be dear to the Protestant heart, at least in theory, but if we don’t model ‘everyone gets to play’ then our words fall on deaf ears. In many ways bi-vocational ministry forces the priesthood of all believers into practice. As more people enter the fray our leadership changes with it. It’s easy to call people out when you’re getting paid to do mission, but once you face the same time constraints as everyone else with full time commitments plus mission stuff, all of a sudden your message and expectations change. (I really like the bi-occupational take from Scott here.)  They have to change if you’re going to survive, not just as a plant, but as a person too.

Running multiple businesses and ‘church planting’ leaves me with the option to be unbalanced and work two or three or four full time jobs; or pursue balance. As any good leader will share, build other people to replace you and don’t be afraid to give responsibility and power away. Because I choose to stick to my balance people in our church know I’m not available to do everything. If someone has a great outreach idea, that’s great, go ahead and champion it. If there’s a need the community surrounds the issue and deals with it; they don’t necessarily call the pastor to come over and fix it. If you exist as bi-vocational officially, yet retain the same overworked/underpaid culture of conventional church, then you’re doing it wrong. If you’re carrying full-time hours in two jobs, you’re doing it wrong. Bi-vocation requires balance.

It took me nearly a decade to build supporting income that can pay the bills and enable me to put some time into a church. It won’t always be this way, but I’ll run while I have the opportunity. Thankfully, in my context, I don’t have as much work as the lone-planter since we partnered quickly with three other communities (and thus we have three other primary leaders). That may not be you, but it doesn’t mean you discard balance. It does mean start with a core that holds in their identity the hope and mission of the church for the neighbourhood as their own. Cherish and build into people by taking the normal drawn out time required to love thy neighbour.

Ultimately, success in a post-Christendom context not only relies on the ministry of the Spirit within Kingdom that’s unfolding around us, but the pragmatics of how you’ll pay your way over a ten year plan. If you have a decade lined up the strategies and outreaches and what nots will work itself out as invest into community.

That’s ten years to start and fifty to leave a legacy (or so I’m told).

I could be wrong, but again, the evidence shows no movements in our midst, but perhaps we’re teetering on the edge of one.