Bi-vocationalism means having different sources of income rather than one single job.

4 years ago I wrote this blog post on the topic challenging the notion that ministry should be full-time work (proponents are largely unaware what a privilege full-time ministry is).

The Unequivocal Reality of Bi-Vocational Church Planting

With every passing year it becomes more relevant, and not just for church planters. The reason? The church in the West is on unmitigated decline.

You already know that. I also know there are a handful of studies trying hard to suggest evangelicalism (particularly white evangelicalism) is actually growing. (It’s not, and I question some of the data.) As a whole Christianity is declining which is irrefutable.

With disintegration comes the loss of privilege for those who had it. In Christendom the church had inherited place in the day to day lives of people ranging from economics, politics, legislation, and news. People would seek out the church for answers to life’s questions. However, the high watermark in church attendance in the 1950s (around 60% attending a weekly service), has plummeted to under 20% attending a religious service at least one a month today. New ways to survive, let alone thrive, are needed.

Institutions are not built to innovate or accommodate change well. This is why we need more pioneers responding to their calling to fill the growing gaps the institution will not or cannot exist. But how do the pioneers, church planters, para-church, or new ministry leaders survive?

50 years ago, baby boomers could get a job, buy a house, receive a pension, and live happily ever after. That world doesn’t exist. Today, it’s not unusual for Gen X’rs and millennials to switch jobs often, and hold many at the same time. Society expects it, and it assume you likely have a side hustle too.

Full Time Paid Ministry is a Privilege

What does church leadership look like in a post-Christian world? One thing is for certain, full-time ministry employment is a privilege and will soon become the exception rather than the rule.

This is because the inheritance left behind by previous generations is a legacy of fewer churches, unserviceable debt loads, and diminished security. There are fewer pastoral jobs because churches are closing and consolidating. There are fewer Christians too. The old, “build it and they will come” relies on a cultural assumption that the Christian memory is inherent in the average person. This is no longer the norm.

In Canada and the US, immigration has shifted the religious balance permanently. But don’t blame immigrants for the church’s loss. White Protestant baby boomers were the first to leave the church in droves (it wasn’t millennials). The country isn’t full of rapidly growing new religions. Rather, it’s the “no religion” category that’s the growing majority of people today.

Without a “build it (or have it) and they will come”, we have to think of different ways to build security for new ventures. In comes the bi-vocational model.

 

Bi-Vocational Realities

As congregations dwindle, buildings close, and job openings for prospective pastors dwindle, some leaders are keen to try new entrepreneurial activities such as church planting. Yet when done in the traditional way (the singing and preaching Sunday service model), the only planters succeeding are the church transplanters who launch with a critical mass of existing Christians people. Not a bad exercise for churches that can afford it, but certainly not enough to reverse the losses.

New ministries, especially any outside of the box expressions, need to discover ways to maintain longevity without supporting size. I’ll also take this a step further. As demographics shift, and the locus of power moves away from white evangelicalism (Protestantism), minority leaders will need ways to exist in a church system that won’t support them. Groups I’m thinking of specifically,

  • women church planters
  • visible minority church planters
  • single church planters
  • ethnic congregation leaders
  • women ministry leaders
  • and any pioneering movement leader

Bi-Vocational Opportunity

There are few opportunities to find funding and support through institutional ministries for the list above. I know that was my story. And although I was rare in my context, the number of kingdom expressions that are emerging that don’t lineup with institutional paradigms is growing. We need mechanisms to support a new  reality, particularly among minority groups and leaders. A new precedent and expectation that every new venture will necessitate a bi-vocational reality is the way forward for ministry in a post-Christian society. 

In light of this, the ideas you have in mind are closer to reality than you think. What you need to extricate yourself from is having dad’s approval from the sending institution who doesn’t know your model let alone your culture. (Of course, having said that, there are tons of great institutional programs building health in leaders, no models, so that’s something to hang on to.)

The opportunity of bi-vocational also creates a culture in the community that the hired-hand isn’t responsible for the entire mission. Want to do some event or outreach? Whomever’s idea it was is responsible, you don’t have the time in limited hours to do everything. Indeed, the Great Commission and priesthood of all believers, at least in theory, is easier to inherit when you don’t always have the paid minister doing all the work.

What Bi-Vocational Doesn’t Mean

Bi-vocational doesn’t mean two full-time jobs. It’s not a method to supplement full-time ministry. It means half-time (or whatever ratio) in each. Stay safe and healthy, don’t fall trap to the false idol of hardworking (overworked) church minister.

Bi-vocational also opens the door to new opportunities outside of denomination and tradition, but it’s not a replacement or mechanism to operate alone. There are too many long ranger pioneers who opted to strike out by themselves either out of frustration or hurt. Two bad reasons to try something new. Prophetic discontent can fuel your ministry, but there are ways to keep one foot in the door (which you should).

Theory into Practice

I’ve been bi-vocational for my entire ministry. I’ve run my own web marketing consulting business for nearly 15 years. That’s the primary way I pay my bills. I’ve also started other businesses throughout the years, some lucrative, others money losers (book publishing :P).

Actually, technically I’m not bi-vocational. I don’t get anywhere near the money v. hours I put into the church side. I don’t overwork myself, but I’m underpaid and have been for 10 years. That’s an expectation, and frankly a luxury I can take because my other jobs grant me unpaid time for ministry. This may not be your situation, and frankly, it’s not a good model to follow. You should be paid for the time you put into your ministry.

My work gives me space to live out the kingdom ideas in front of me. In fact, most of what I’ve done in the realm of faith has only been possible because of the bi-vocational arrangement. I would not have planted two churches, written two books, or kept up on this blog if I was waiting on affirmation and funding from any form of institutional ministry or denomination.

Steps to Becoming Bi-Vocational

What’s holding your dreams back? If it’s money, then get a job and bankroll the calling. God has always provided the means to test and live out my ideas because they are God’s ideas first.

One approach to the possibility of bi-vocational ministry is found in the TV show Dragon’s Den (Shark Tank in the USA) and how they work with new ideas. On the TV show there is little interest in mere ideas. Ideas are weak. Ideas are worthless. They want proof an idea works–an idea in action being lived out. That suggests pioneers and out-of-the-box thinkers should start with a real job before ministry calling. Once you have committed to place or people, figure out a way to work within your context, and then slowly add ministry and people work into the mix.

Conversely, I know a few pastors who’ve started with full-time pay, a huge gift I remind them, with expectation that soon (within a couple of years or three), they will have to transition. Most don’t pastor communities with large enough revenues to justify full time work. They need to think about ways to supplement and remain viable. Plus, in small communities how much work can you really do? Unless of course you have to have the Sunday morning presentation of songs and preaching, then that’s a lot of time. Without that expectation there is some room to move.

Nonetheless, the reality should set in. Get a job, it’s a normal avenue for ministry in a post-Christian century to work.