What do you do apart from ministry? How do you support yourself?” asked the enquirer when he found out that I was planting/pastoring a church. I have had to field this question a dozen times or so in the last five years. It seems that the unspoken attitude behind the question is: “Is that ALL you do? The pastors I know have got other jobs”. I usually respond by saying that I am a full-time pastor, and that ministry is hard and demands lots of time and effort. I would also be quietly confident that I could toss some texts and precedents their way if I needed to settle my case.
Clearly, in some contexts, bi-vocational ministry is entirely “normal” and full-time ministry is considered the exception. In a 2017 article, Church Leadership blogger, Karl Vaters showed how bi-vocational ministry is becoming more common and termed it “the new normal.” In a 2017 article, Ed Stetzer claimed that one-third of all American (affluent American!) pastors are bi-vocational, and that the number is growing.
My background was different. I come from a tradition where a church “called” you, paid you a salary and sometimes even offered you accommodation and a book allowance! Along with my experience came unhelpful and prejudiced convictions and attitudes. I thought that a fully supported ministry was by far the better option. Plus, the pastors who had impacted my life in a substantial way were all full-time men.
Bi-vocational ministry was a distant second-best by my reckoning. I wondered whether a pastor or church planter with another job is a real pastor? Is he doing real ministry? In short, I was biased and ill-informed.
My thinking and attitude to bi-vocational ministry has been tweaked over recent months. There are a couple of reasons (apart from economic realities) for this:
- Scripturally – a study of the relevant passages would indicate that one could legitimately argue either way. 1 Corinthians 9:1-18 is a critical passage and the Apostle Paul affirms the validity of both full-time, fully supported ministry and bi-vocational ministry. It seems undeniable that a strong case could be made for both modes of ministry. Paul was a bi-vocational pastor (for at least some of the time) and his ministry was not second best!
- Circumstantially – this is linked to the previous point. If both approaches can be clearly supported by Scripture, then surely circumstances and providence play an important role in making this decision. The situation in our church plant necessitated a change of plan. Isn’t it interesting how differing circumstances cause you to read and understand the Bible differently?
- A “ big picture approach” – when faced with a dilemma or choice concerning ministry strategy or approach, I have gotten into the habit of asking, “How would this practice or this decision fit in with the practices and decision-making of the church of Jesus Christ in ALL places, with ALL peoples and through ALL ages?“ In other words, I try and take “a big picture” approach. This should protect us from chronological myopia, traditional snobbery and being imprisoned by the bias of the moment. Upon reflection of the “big picture”, it seems that the model of full-time, fully supported pastors was probably more the exception than the rule.
There are certain advantages to bi-vocational ministry, especially in our post-Christendom, post-Christian West.
Evangelistic: I don’t know a full-time pastor who wants to be disconnected from unsaved people who need to hear the Gospel. However, that separation almost inevitably happens. Through employment in the “real” world, pastors are catapulted into contexts where their proximity to non-Christians is no longer avoidable. It keeps pastors in touch with the unchurched and their real-world needs. It frees us from being trapped in the “ministry bubble”. They rub shoulders with colleagues every day who need to hear the Gospel. They are uniquely positioned to live out their preaching and serve people in the marketplace.
Bi-vocational pastors not only understand the world and the unsaved better, but they also understand the struggles of their own people better.
Pastoral: Bi-vocational pastors not only understand the world and the unsaved better, but they also understand the struggles of their own people better. They know what it’s like to work in the “secular world” for eight hours a day, to drive home through horrible traffic, to have supper and spend time with their children, and then also pick up some inevitable domestic chores, while also loving their wives all the time. This routine is repeated five (or maybe six) times a week! They understand the tensions and challenges of juggling work, home, family, leisure, and rest.  Bi-vocational pastors should better understand the struggles of lay people, for they inhabit the same world. This should also inform their preaching, teaching, pastoral strategies, and expectations.
The value of example: As pastors, we strive to break down the secular/sacred divide and show the worth, dignity and importance of work. We strive to model how the Gospel shapes every aspect of life. By being bi-vocational, we show that we can work hard among the people. This “secular” work is not a distraction, but a serious calling and very important in itself. Paul taught and modelled this work ethic: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.” (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9, ESV) This work ethic will lead to a greater respect and credibility among our neighbours. Pastors should understand their secular vocation as a mandate in which they model to their congregation the relevancy of their teaching.
Bi-vocational ministry models good missiology: This is what Chuck Lawless says. Getting the Gospel to all kinds of people, in all kinds of places in the world, will require efforts far beyond the scope and abilities of full-time pastors and missionaries. This is especially true in post-Christian contexts where the “Christendom” paradigm is fast fading (if not, completely gone) and followers of Jesus Christ have opportunities to engage their friends and colleagues through all kinds of work and business initiatives. Furthermore, the reality of substantial financial giving happening outside of the local church, models the sacrificial generosity and missiology of the New Testament (2 Corinthians 8 and 9).
So full-time, fully supported Gospel ministry can be (and is) entirely appropriate, strategic and God-glorifying. Ditto for bi-vocational ministry. It is real ministry for real pastors! It’s not a penalty, but an opportunity!
 Full disclosure is appropriate here. There are various modes of bi-vocational ministry. My wife has been working for a good number of years. So, as a couple, we actually have been in bi-vocational ministry. Without her work as a dentist (which she feels called to), the church plant would not at all have been viable. So, as a couple, we have been in bi-vocational ministry for a number of years.
 Reality check! The sacrifice of having two jobs requires even more scrutiny to time management and balance.