Three Straw Man Arguments for Bi-Vocational Ministry

Chris —  January 7, 2014 — 28 Comments

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.

Maybe.

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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28 comments
AbePh31011
AbePh31011

Hi Chris,

Thanks for your post. I completely agree that each of these straw men are just that, straw men. Having been bivocational for about 7 years now I have mostly heard these from full-time vocational pastors. In my experience their desire is to identify with and connect with those in their congregation in a way that makes them better pastors. There is a fine intention there, but it is a lack (perhaps) of acceptance of God's calling on their lives. Maybe God is calling then to go bivocational but maybe not.

I will push back a little on some of what you said below straw man #2, particularly "The best moments for sharing about Jesus don't come at work." This hasn't been my experience and I think it may contradict a bit of what you were correctly saying about vocation under #3. Are relaxed times as you gave examples easier to share in, perhaps, but what if you never get those relaxed times with your coworkers? Evangelism and discipleship should be woven into everything we do, including our work. I would say yes get your work done, but we don't turn off the love Christ, be who we are in Christ, and talk about Christ switch until we are all sitting comfortably together somewhere.

Thank you for your thoughts here and your efforts in showing us that neither bivocational or vocational ministry is "the thing".

Blessings in Christ,

Nick

simplecelt
simplecelt

Some interesting challenges to approaching this subject.  I have interviewed a couple of bi-vocational pastors recently.  I think that some of your conclusions are false based upon their responses.  If you connect with me off site through email I will share their emails and stories with you.  It is my nic at gmail

ollwenjones
ollwenjones

Good Job, Chris,
My experience has been in more churched contexts, but my most people I've talked to who are set against paid leadership were so because of a particular wound in their past. The temptation is to say that leader was able to do the damage, or the leader probably stayed where he was because it was his 'job.' Someone who isn't payed can betray trust just as well, though they might perhaps be less sheltered by structures. 

Liggin
Liggin

Chris, this is a great post. Thank you for fleshing this out how you did. I think your identifying "the real problem" are indeed the real problems. 


What I wonder is how much of the elitism and tribalism is perpetuated by defensive posturing created by a certain wounded-ness or cynicism due to unhealthy Church experiences. 


I said this to Scott and Zach and want to say it to you. What I appreciate about this conversation you guys have stirred is how it is calling us to a higher ethic and more robust confession: we need not over-react to unhealthy experiences because christian hospitality reminds us that there is room for all. Sadly, the elitism and contradictory postures that have surfaced are creating tribes and camps that are pushing people to the margins simply because of their occupation or ecclesiology. We can argue, fight and flesh these things out in one of two ways, at one another or with one another. Thank you for modeling the latter.

beardonabike
beardonabike

Good stuff. Straw-man arguments indeed. 
I was bi-vocational the entire time I was in vocational ministry. I never thought of one being superior to another, but rather that both had their advantages and disadvantages. I definitely experienced the disadvantages.


I want to submit one thought into this conversation. I wonder if a full-time pastor is a luxury of Christendom that may not be sustainable too far into a Post-Christendom future, at least at the levels of support we've seen in the last 50 years.  American culture has in the past been filled with people who believed that it was a non-negotiable to go to church and pay a tithe. Now, in post-christendom, the average person feels no such obligation.


I'm guessing that full-time pastors existed before Christendom since Paul said "the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel." (1 Cor 9:14) (as an aside, it seems obvious that he didn't mean that this was required since he was himself making tents on the side to support his ministry) However, I wonder if it looked much different back then for a pastor to receive his living from the gospel, than it has in modern Christendom.


Just a thought. 

yhwhtheologian
yhwhtheologian

Number 3 is not a straw-man pastors or more accurately elders should not be paid and how can you say it is a lack of theology of vocation when the whole concept of a solitary authoritarian pastor has no scriptural precedence?

HappyHeretic
HappyHeretic

Hi Chris, linked over here from Antioch Session.  Read your piece on Mission Begins with Liturgical) Words, nicely done.


So here is my question, if churches are subject to the Pareto principle, which I do not doubt but find very sad, how, if the 20% is made up primarily of paid staff, do you avoid a drifting focus to keep 4 people for every one of you in the pews in order to keeping paying the bills?  I know theology, mission, etc, etc but I'm talking real world populated by human beings with families here.  Is the reason why the Pareto principle reigns is because it has to.  How else could there be 20% paid staff if not for the 80% pew lurkers.  If there was no financial incentive, could the church be more challenging to that complacent 80%?  And maybe they would decline to 20%, but who cares.  If, to take the opposite position, you have a church where 80% of the people were engaged, would there be any need for a paid staff? 


So I am not making the obvious straw-man that a bi-vocational pastor would magically motivate people to be more involved, because, well, 'human beings.'  But a bi-vocational pastor doesn't have the financial incentive to keep 4 people riding pine so s/he can pay the mortgage either, yeah?


Disclosure: I am not a pastor and do not currently attend any church.  I began a search last year but after a seriously dispiriting 8 months, I am taking a break.  My general view, from the churches I visited, is that you could mostly take all of the people out of the pews on Sunday, and the show would have gone un unchanged.  Sounds like you are doing something different which I applaud.  Best of luck to you.

BrianBoitmann
BrianBoitmann

Touch topic to take on Chris, and this is really well done.

ChrisMorton82
ChrisMorton82 moderator

@AbePh31011 Thanks for your thoughtful response Abe. Regarding #2, all I am saying is that the moments where you can have these meaningful conversations can happen with co-workers, but they don't happen because you have a day job. They happen because you've found a way to share life with people outside church. Thoughts?

ChrisMorton82
ChrisMorton82 moderator

@simplecelt I have no doubt there are a variety of bi-vocational experiences. My point is to temper some of the fervor, and even legalism I've heard promoting bi-vo with some deep thought. I myself am bi-vocational, because it seemed like the right thing for now.

ollwenjones
ollwenjones

@beardonabike In a 'post-christendom future,' I hope we give up our full time buildings before we give up our full time leaders. 

zachhoag
zachhoag

I agree that the post-Christendom context changes everything. That's where reform is so desperately needed. Even the role of pastor needs to be reimagined, & Missional reorientation of institutions will require creativity. But I think there will be both full time & bivocational ministry expressions that are sustainable even in full blown post Christendom (which I basically inhabit here in VT).

ChrisMorton82
ChrisMorton82 moderator

@beardonabike Shane, my tendency is always to ask "what best helps my mission?" I know some people who don't take a salary because they think their situation is so skeptical of religion that they would lose all credibility. In other situations, where the church is still a part of the larger culture, it is a given.


Hopefully it doesn't sound like a cop out. I would just ask "what is incarnational?"

ollwenjones
ollwenjones

@HappyHeretic  What you describe "keep 4 people for every one of you in the pews in order to keeping paying the bills?" has been a snare for a lot of churches. There's no sense denying that. But really, counting heads can be a snare whether you're paying staff or just paying rent for a facility you meet at sometimes. Really any time you build some kind of a(n institutional) structure, even if its set out to serve the needs of the people, there's always a dangerous point of shift to where the people become servants of the institution. 


I think the important thing is for the congregation, and it's leaders, to keep a focus on the person of Christ Jesus, their relationship with Him, and what he's calling them to do. If that requires some institutional trappings, it's a continual reliance on his grace not to let the 'stuff' get the upper hand, just as it is in all things.


I would offer the same advice to you. Seek Jesus. Knowing him is infinitely more important than what what piece of pine you are riding. Even so, as you seek him, he may just have something to say about what piece he has in mind.

ChrisMorton82
ChrisMorton82 moderator

@HappyHeretic I think we're in agreement, Happy. As you said, you will always be dealing with human beings, and choosing whether or not to take a paycheck is a part of that.


My answer is always "be incarnational." What type of leadership structure makes the most sense in your context? If the context is so skeptical to churches, then a paid pastor will have a hard time being taken seriously by outsiders. However, if the church is engaged in the community in a visible, helpful way, then people will assume they have to be paid to get it all done.


As to your disclosure, please don't give up. We weren't made to be alone, and following Jesus always plays itself out incommunity.

AbePh31011
AbePh31011

Hey Chris,

I agree that the X factor in discipleship and evangelism is not having a non-ministry job. Although, I know pastors who don't fully understand people's day-to-day lives that aren't in ministry and therefore seem to have a hard time connecting with them. This is where some "regular" work experience would do a pastor some good. Nevertheless, neither should be held in higher esteem.

I understand a little better now where I think you are coming from and what you are speaking against. Some who, as you said in #3, misunderstand vocation feel that ministers shouldn't be paid and that they are the same people who probably have a problem with what they would call hierarchical church leadership? The funny thing is, most of those that wrongly elevate bivocational ministry over full-time are in fact full-time in ministry.

Thanks for the chance to chat it through.

Grace,

Nick

simplecelt
simplecelt

@ChrisMorton82@simpleceltChris, I get that.  In my experience being bi-vocational is considered to be a handicap and bi-vocational ministers as lesser than their paid counterparts.  We are both pushing back against the extreme views of the issue.  Thanks for the dialogue.


yhwhtheologian
yhwhtheologian

That is the model that goes hand in hand with a salary. You hardly if not ever see a presbytery where all elders are equal and share teaching time. Salaries generally goes with the solo pastor that usually runs the whole show. And even if they answer to a ddenomination they still run things locally.

HappyHeretic
HappyHeretic

@ChrisMorton82@HappyHeretic Chris, thanks for the response. 


I like that you mentioned context.  It seems that might undermine the concept of larger, super-contextual, institutions, but perhaps not. 


Either way it is certainly a tough nut to crack and I don't envy you who have to struggle with it.  I face something similar in my profession, and we struggle with it constantly.  Especially when faced with others in our profession following a different path and getting handsomely rewarded for it. 


We haven't given up.  Not yet at least.  Just taking a break. 

ollwenjones
ollwenjones

@yhwhtheologian  I think it would be awesome if all the elders had equal teaching time, but that might not be in line with all of their different giftings or inclinations. If the main teaching elder is 'running the whole show' then it isn't really a 'presbytery,' then, is it? A cult of personality and misapplication of effort and attention can arguably happen more easily with a salary involved, but we can't say it won't happen when a salary is not involved either.


I would hope a body of elders could lead a congregation without arguing about whose gifts (or pay-checks) are more important. Not to say you couldn't point to countless failures, but because people fail doesn't necessarily make the goal wrong.


Now if the 'teaching elder's goal becomes $10k suits and a jet-plane, then we know things have taken a turn. 

ChrisMorton82
ChrisMorton82 moderator

@yhwhtheologian Well, I disagree that what you are criticizing is related to what I am talking about. Even in a shared model there may be some times when paying people to doleg work is needed. 


I'm not a fan of authoritarianism, either. That's just not what this article is about.

ChrisMorton82
ChrisMorton82 moderator

@HappyHeretic I'm not sure what you mean by super contextual. I'm a theological locavore and a neo-anabaptist. So I'm a bit skeptical about what a local body can do to take on the great problems of the universe.


Either way, I pray you find a place you can call home.