Three Straw Man Arguments for Bi-Vocational Ministry

Chris —  January 7, 2014

There is a growing voice calling for church leaders to be bi-vocational. In some cases, this seems to be a financial necessity. Others seem to hold it up as a badge of honor.

This is a huge shift. It doesn’t always work, and can also lead to some really hurt people. We need to talk about this. That’s why my friends Zach Hoag and Scott Emery started the discussion.

Whether I like it or not, I’ve been bi-vocational for awhile now. I’ve worked full time church jobs. For the majority of my career, I’ve worked full time, attended seminary and been a leader in my church. Currently, I am helping plant Austin Mustard Seed while I also work as a Freelance Writer and Social Media Manager. So I know it both sides.


I’m not for or against bi-vocational ministry, but I am opposed to any elitism that may accompany it. It is important that we humbly seek God’s calling in our situation. Many criticisms used by fans of this approach are actually criticisms of theology, strategy and ecclesiology, not arguments against paid ministry positions. Consider these three “straw man” arguments:

Straw Man #1: A bi-vocational Pastor is a better way to get people involved in ministry.

The Real Problem: A poor theology of the body of Christ

Most churches are stellar examples of the Pareto principle: 20% of the people do 80% of the work. In many churches, the bulk of the 20% are paid staff. How does not paying the church staff help with that? The problem is more endemic: our consumer culture views the church as a vendor of religious goods as services.

One of scripture’s primary metaphors for the Church is the body of Christ. Everyone has an important, valuable role to play. Moving from vendor to body will require language, purpose and facilitation.

In my church community, we begin our time on Sundays by stating “the word liturgy means ‘work of the people.‘” We all have a role to play as hosts during our time together.” This sets the expectation that while the teacher and musicians have visible roles, everyone plays a part in shaping and caring for the community.

If you want people involved in leading the church, caring for each other and serving the community, it will take more than cutting the church leader’s salary. It will require the hard work of creating a community where every person recognizes their responsibility.

Milk Maid

Straw Man #2: If the Pastor is bi-vocational, the church will be more involved in the surrounding community.

The Real Problem: A lack of relationship with non-church people.

The idea seems to be that if pastors had secular jobs, then they’d be in the community and become evangelization machines. This would inspire the church to do the same.


The fact is that when you’re busy working at a computer or a cash register, you’re not going to have a lot of time to discuss life, the universe and everything. The best moments for sharing about Jesus don’t come at work. They happen at the lunches, parties, and happy hours where people are relaxed and able to share about their lives. They happen because those hours at work have created a relationship of trust.

The key then, isn’t where you collect a pay check, it’s whether or not you have relationships with people outside your church. Yes, this can happen in a secular job, but at the expense of 40 hours a week. It can also happen when you get a hobby, meet your neighbors, or become a regular at a neighborhood bar.

The goal is to meet people, understand them, win their trust, and be available when they are open to learning from you. When the rest of the church sees the leader’s focus on these outside relationships, they will eventually follow suit.

Straw Man #3: Church leadership should not be a paid vocation.

The Real Problem: A lack of theology of vocation.

This idea seems to be a reaction against the idea something like “if you’re really spiritual, then you’ll become a pastor, missionary, etc.” Not only is that unscriptural, it betrays a lack of theology of vocation.

Luther famously said “God is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.” In other words, God is at work in the world through many more than just a few religious professionals. God is working through the one he calls to be a milkmaid. God is also working through the one he calls to be a church leader.

Generation after generation, we seem to forget that the Church is a priesthood of believers. We all carry the responsibilities of priests, in our church communities, families, neighborhoods and workplaces. The question is then: What kind of lawyer would Jesus be? What kind of barista would Jesus be? What kind of mom would Jesus be?

And, yes, what kind of pastor would Jesus be?

Here’s the best way to determine whether or not a church leader should be paid: use the words of Jesus and Paul “the worker deserves his wages.” Is there work to be done, which to do well, requires compensation? Then pay him or her.

Frederick Buechner said, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I’m not a paid church guy right now because that’s the right thing for my current circumstance. I’m looking forward to the day when I can focus completely on my passions and use my skillset. Both now and then, I hope to be focused on my vocation.

Let’s stop encouraging vocational or bi-vocational ministry. Let’s encourage the type of ministry that is needed for a specific church or mission in a specific time and place. Let’s encourage people to serve their hearts out in their current job. Let’s encourage individuals and churches to ask “who is God calling us to be today?”

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