Please, Stop Dismissing Bi-Vocational Ministry

The church is smaller and less financially equipped than it was half a century ago. So why do we still assume that full-time ministry is the only ministry that matters?

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This month’s Living Lutheran magazine (which I highly recommend every Lutheran should read) included an article titled “When making a living and living in service intersect: Bi-vocational ministry a gift, challenge for ELCA church workers.”

If you’re unfamiliar with it, “bi-vocational ministry” is a term used for pastors who are not full-time ministers and who work one or more other jobs. This is usually because a congregation cannot afford to support a full-time pastor. Bi-vocational ministry has a long history in the church: the Apostle Paul was a tent-maker or leather-worker and plied his trade in the markets to support himself. The article lifted up four wonderful stories about pastors splitting their time between congregational ministry and other jobs: one is a Starbuck’s barista, another is a pharmacist, another is a substitute teacher, and another is a nanny.

You may wonder why it would be necessary for pastors to take on second or third jobs to make ends meet, and the article addresses that as well: weekly worship attendance in the ELCA has declined by 38% (and it has declined in all Christian traditions). With fewer people supporting a congregation, there’s less money, and supporting a pastor is a big chunk of a congregation’s budget. In the face of this reality, many congregations are relying on part-time pastors who are in turn relying on other sources of support for their livelihood.

Bi-vocational ministry is becoming more and more prevalent in the church, and I’m glad Living Lutheran has focused on it recently. What I didn’t appreciate was this statement:

Though bi-vocational ministry has its strengths, Louise Johnson, president of Wartburg Seminary, said her ‘hope for our church is that this is an exception and not a rule. By and large we all know too well that ministry is full-time work.

The rest of the article was very well written. But this idea, which has appeared in many places outside of the Living Lutheran magazine, really bothers me.

Look, I get it. The church is used to having it easy. We’re used to having large congregations full of members who gave abundantly, who supported large, expensive buildings meant to draw people in. We’re used to the corporate mentality where the church is a thriving business, where we’re judged by the sizes of our rosters and budget.

Such a church was tailor-made for full-time ministry being conducted by one person whose only job was the maintenance of the corporation. Such a church was able to support this minister, who bore sole responsibility for almost everything that happened in the congregation: full-time work. But for the most part, that church doesn’t exist anymore, as these reported numbers show:

  • 50% of all congregations in the ELCA have an average weekly worship attendance of 75 or less.
  • 78% of all congregations in the ELCA have an average weekly worship attendance of 150 or less.

A large majority of congregations in the ELCA are small. Using the four classic categories of church size, three-quarters of all ELCA congregations are either Family or Pastoral size congregations, many of which remember when they were Program or Corporation size. And people are financially worse off now than they were 10, 20, 50 years ago.

The church is smaller and less financially equipped than it was half a century ago. So why do we still assume that full-time ministry is the only ministry that matters?

In a time when congregational participation and resources are dwindling, we shouldn’t continue to insist on a model of ministry that is more and more expensive every year. Congregations are finding that they simply aren’t able to support a full-time institutional model of pastoral ministry, and it doesn’t look like that trend will change any time soon. They’re either resorting to yoking together in a multi-point parish model, keeping their own buildings and staff while sharing a pastor; or they’re calling bi-vocational pastors.

Neither is particularly attractive to the old way of doing church. Congregations that have to call bi-vocational pastors are stigmatized by the idea that a “real” or “successful” congregation is one led by a full-time pastor. This is the expectation congregations work under (and the one the church actively endorses), so it’s difficult to accept anything less.

But the church needs bi-vocational pastors. It needs pastors willing to serve in places that don’t have the luxury of people with enough disposable income to support a full-time pastor. It needs to recognize the gifts these talented individuals bring to our communities of faith.

Are there dangers and pitfalls to bi-vocational ministry? Absolutely. The Living Lutheran article rightly points out that time management is challenging. Congregations that are used to full-time pastors may expect full-time work for half-time pay, leading to burnout. Others argue that bi-vocational ministry diminishes and degrades the institution of ministry.

The truth is, though, that until the church can figure out how to make full-time ministry sustainable again it needs bi-vocational pastors. So let’s stop diminishing them and the work that they do, and instead support, encourage, strengthen, and empower them.

Featured Image: “St. Paul receiving Communion” by Ted is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

2 thoughts on “Please, Stop Dismissing Bi-Vocational Ministry”

  1. Ken, thanks for this helpful perspective. I’m seriously considering a part-time call after almost one year of waiting since graduation, and part of my struggle is to feel like I’ll still be a “real” pastor in a half-time call to a very small congregation–but one that I believe can become sustainable with good leadership.

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    1. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been waiting this long, Jodi. I was very lucky in that I didn’t have to wait very long. But as I look at the congregations around me, most of them (including mine) I think could benefit from a bi-vocational pastor and well-trained lay leadership.

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