Written by Dr. Kyuboem Lee
Wednesday, 30 November 2011 00:00
The bi-vocational pastorate is on my mind a lot lately. With the changing economy, we increasingly hear of the portfolio career—it’s “what’s trending now.” And relatedly, I am hearing more and more of a rise of the bi-vocational pastor—I hear anecdotes of them coming from all corners of the US. Of course, many inner city pastors and immigrant pastors have been carrying on bi-vocational ministries for many years, but now it seems bi-vocational ministries are cropping up in the middle-class neighborhoods as well. In the world of mission, there has been a well-established tradition of “tent-making” missionaries, following in the footsteps of the original Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul. Finally, bi-vocational ministry is on my mind a lot because I have become a bi-vocational pastor myself.
Having planted a church in an inner city neighborhood in Philadelphia with the generous financial support of our denomination, we graduated from the grants a few years into our church planting effort. However, our mission of reaching our economically challenged community has not led our church plant into affluence, and I’ve had to become more and more bi-vocational.
I should carry out more research and back this up with some hard data, but I suspect that I am not alone, and we will see a rise of the bi-vocational pastor in the future. Why?
- We live in a post-Christendom world. The church’s influence on society isn’t what it used to be. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The church has an opportunity to rediscover its identity as a missionary body, if it no longer holds the position of landlord of this world. Instead, we are, and have always been, strangers and aliens here, witnessing to the city of God to come. But in a post-Christendom world, the necessity of the clergy is no longer assumed. It will be harder and harder to keep funding a large class of full-time pastorate.
- We also live in a post-denominational world. We are seeing a decline of churches in matters of giving and availability of resources. The economy is bad, but denominations are seeing bad times too. Grants for church planting work are way down. We have to do more with less.
- We live in a global world, where the global cities are teeming with immigrants. Christians are a significant part of this global migration movement, and many of them support themselves with other jobs and carry out their calling into ministry—this is how they are able to carry on sharing the good news of Jesus in their new homes.
Bi-vocational ministry is a hard road to take—there is the toll of carrying out double duty, the financial insecurity, the pressure on the family and the church, the potential to be divided. Many sermons won’t have polish. However, I also see that there are some surprising benefits to going bi-vocational.
- It forces us to develop the other gifts in the church. Often, pastors haven’t developed the other gifts in the church because… well, they didn’t have to. They could carry out the work of the ministry by themselves. When pastors become bi-vocational, however, they are forced to depend on others to carry out the work of the ministry, and leadership development becomes a priority. One of the battle cries of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” Bi-vocational pastorate may more fully realize that vision.
- It also forces us to be creative in our church models, and develop ministries that are much better suited to our contexts. In order to more effectively reach our world, we need church models that are more nimble, flexible, adaptable. We may need to adjust our expectations and visions, because our current ministry models may be better suited to a Christendom of the past than to our world now. For example, mega-churches are certainly effective in certain contexts, but they will prove to be a bad fit in many post-Christendom contexts—contexts that are becoming increasingly prevalent.
- The bi-vocational pastor can potentially become much more incarnational. The pastor becomes one of the “working stiffs” who (really) shares in the joys and sorrows of those we are seeking to reach.
- It can mean great opportunities for evangelism. In the older model, pastors have been cloistered away among the churched. In the bi-vocational model, the gospel messenger is loosed into the world, for the pastor is now constantly interfacing with relational circles that used to lie outside the reach of the pastorate. Pastors are not just servants of the institution called the church; they are also missionaries of the kingdom who have the gospel to share with the world.
For better or for worse, I see the rise of the bi-vocational pastorate in the future. This development entails great challenges, and the church will need to re-examine how we carry out theological education, models of ministry, allocation of resources, among other things, in the light of this shift. But it can also mean great opportunities for the kingdom. Church leadership and theological education institutions would do well to examine the implications of the bi-vocational pastorate, and those called into ministry would do well to consider it a path worth taking.
Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission (http://jofum.com).