A new bivocationalism

A new generation of ministers is taking a hard look at how to expand their witness in both the church and the public square.

By Bill Leonard

A student friend of mine recently reported that when he graduates from divinity school he intends to go full time with a new company that he helped entrepreneur. This decision, he says, offers his family a stable income while allowing him to pursue volunteer or part-time ministry in churches that may be unable to support full-time ministers.

He knows “church planting” well, having helped found a start-up congregation, recognizing the difficulty of securing sustained funds in those fledgling communities. Certain friends and family believe that he is “leaving the ministry” since he will not pursue a full-time ministerial vocation, but he thinks his decision offers more options for ministry amid the changing realities of American churches — a new ministerial bivocationalism.

He may be onto something. Few students of American Protestantism can deny that churches across the theological and denominational spectrum face daunting financial realities, many already reducing staff or cutting positions from full to part time in response to declining revenues. One congregational consultant is advising like-minded churches to pool their resources in order to share Christian education or youth ministers.

Most of us know of situations in which prominent congregations have laid off longtime staff members or recalculated salaries considerably when they began a search for a new senior minister. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some struggling “big steeple” churches are calling younger ministers they would have never considered before, both for the energy they might bring and for their “entry level” salary packages.

Many older ministers are advising their younger counterparts to develop multiple professional options inside and outside the church, “just in case.” One mountain preacher I know recently admonished a group of seminarians to “learn to do something besides preach,” in case “your church can’t afford you anymore.” Rural churches have long been forced to call bivocational ministers who worked “in the world” in order to continue the care of souls in certain faith communities. Many urban congregations now face such options. As one Episcopal friend remarked, “We have to decide between a full-time music minister or maintaining the pipe organ.”

Bivocational ministers — individuals who support themselves through non-ecclesiastical occupations — are as old as the Church. St. Paul was a “tent maker;” and his female associate Lydia, “a seller of purple.” Peter, James and John may have “left their nets” immediately on hearing Jesus, but they went back from time to time, apparently to make ends meet. (It always helped to have Jesus along ….)

After Martin Luther (the ex-monk) married Katherine von Bora (the ex-nun), the two supported their six children through Luther’s writing and teaching, and the boarding house “Katie” maintained for students. On the American frontier Presbyterian ministers frequently taught school while Baptists benefited from “farmer preachers” who tilled the soil weekly and preached on Sundays. Some made bivocationalism normative, rejecting the idea of a “hireling ministry.” One 19th century Primitive Baptist wrote that “while the ministry received voluntary help from the churches, they were not salaried, but labored themselves, more or less, for their own support.”

Some still require it. Appalachian Pentecostal preacher Arnold Saylor, described in David Kimbrough’s Taking Up Serpents, understood bivocationalism as inseparable from homiletical freedom. “If they pay your salary,” he told me, “then they’ll try to tell you what to preach.” (Leaving Kentucky, Saylor ran two pizza parlors in Fort Wayne, Ind., while pastoring the Highway Holiness Church of God.)

Is a new bivocationalism good or bad for the church? Yes. If it is simply a last gasp response to realities that should have been confronted years ago, then it can be detrimental to congregational cooperation and community. If it is one option for congregations willing to take the long look at their future and shape another kind of identity realistically and creatively, then bivocationalism may provoke renewal rather than resentment.

A new generation of ministers is already taking a hard look at their options, many viewing bivocationalism as an opportunity to expand their gifts and “witness” in the church and the public square. Fortunately, many theological schools are offering dual degrees or special “tracks” that may prepare graduates for multiple venues of work and ministry in counseling, chaplaincy, primary and secondary education, law, business, nonprofits, bioethics, social work and environmental sustainability.

In 1660, a group of English Baptists wrote in their “Brief Confession,” “That such who first come into, and are brought up in the School of Christ’s Church, and waiting there, come to degrees of Christianity, rightly qualified and considerably gifted by God’s Spirit; ought to exercise their gifts not only in the Church, but also (as occasion serves) to preach to the world (they being approved of by the church to do so.)” At best, a new ministerial bivocationalism might carry some folks, “gifted by God’s Spirit,” creatively into the world, where Christ already is and where Christ’s people actually belong.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.