Thinking Differently about “Bi-vocational” Pastors & Ministry

First off, I’m a big proponent of bi-vocational ministry.  Actually, I like to call it multi-vocational ministry.  For me, my understanding of ministry comes from the notion that none of us as persons are constructed out of a single role, type of work, or thing.  Our identities are shaped and varied by all sorts of forces, vocations, if you will.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about multi/bi-vocational ministry.  And a while back, I came across a conversation about the “issue” of bi-vocational ministry….primarily the theological problems it presents.  If you want to go into it in detail, you can check it out here.  Additionally, there are other perspectives as well, like this and this.  But here’s my take on their conversation:

  • Bi-vocational ministry is narrowly defined as having another job to supplement your pastoral salary (or lack thereof).  Vocation=work you get paid for.
  • The primary theological justification for bi-vocational ministry is evangelism – both as the pastor and modeling it for those in the congregation.
  • Other justifications for bi-vocational ministry: economic sustainability, church-planting, missional development, more “authentic” than full-time professional ministry.

And that’s where I find these and other definitions and reasoning both narrow and problematic.  Because as someone who is multi-vocational in their ministry….the model works for me much differently.  Because what they’re describing…..I’m not doing it, and I’m not thinking it.  

1.  Vocation is the space in which persons negotiate theological tension in their lives.  There are lots of roles I have to fulfill in my life – pastor, husband, brother, wrestling coach, Navy Chaplain, friend.  Some of these roles pay the bills, some don’t.  All are relational roles though.   And in relationship we’re negotiating theological tension: law and gospel, sin and grace, sinner and saint.  (Having read what I just wrote, I just might be Lutheran!)

In all these roles I bring my person into them – my whole self – which means spiritual gifts, acquired skills, passion, and learned information and knowledge.  It also means I bring my brokenness, insecurities, issues of trust and power, and bias into them as well.  Vocation makes space to work all this out in relationships, and in doing so, it’s the space we seek for God’s presence and action in the world, in our lives, and in our relationships.  Thus, vocation is missional – it’s cooperation and witness in God’s ongoing and eschatological work towards a new creation.

2.  Ontologically, we’re multi-vocational beings.  As I mentioned above, I serve in many different roles.  None of them on their own make up my whole being; they all shape who I am ontologically.  Additionally, they are not mutually exclusive in that process either.  For example, my role as a pastor also shapes who I am as a husband.  

Additionally, my being to others will shift in focus in fluid ways.  For instance, at this point in the year I’m more of a wrestling coach because my athletes need a bit more attention at the end of the season.  I communicate and negotiate that with my pastoral roles, and my wife makes space to allow me to live into that (knowing she gets my full attention after the season!).  This process is true for most, if not every person who lives in the world today.  Being is shaped by our many vocations being lived out together.

3.  Multi-vocational models of pastors seek to be more authentic and vulnerable persons to the people they witness and minister to.  I agree with the authors of the synchropost; bi-vocational ministry has been romanticized as “better” than full-time, conventional models of pastoral ministry. But it is wrong to write them off completely.  If we as pastors live more publicly as authentic, vulnerable, multi-vocational persons, negotiating the theological and ontological tensions with openness, we draw others into a similar experience.  We invite them to partake on a similar journey through life, asking deep questions and experiencing God in places and spaces well outside the church walls.  It is about modeling….but modeling life in the world as an authentic person of faith; not one assimilated into and loyal to the culture of the church.

4.  Bi/multi-vocational ministry is about economy…but it doesn’t have to be.  I’ll be honest: bi/multi-vocational ministry IS about economics.  When your pastor isn’t eating up 30% or more of your church’s budget, especially when that church is just getting started or is struggling, there’s a benefit to a pastor who can meet the same needs at a fraction of the cost.  In church-planting, this becomes essential because more resources are needed for evangelism, outreach…establishing a presence publicly.

But it’s not just about the money, and ministry can’t ever be.  Likewise, vocation can never be about the money.  It’s about calling and witness; participation and discipleship; encounter and worship with God.  This model of ministry isn’t a useful strategy in growing the institutional church; it’s about living in such a way that bends your life towards the life of God.  It’s about living in a way that invites others into a similar life.

Now all that said, I realize that not everyone wants to live into this way of doing ministry.  And I’m totally ok with that.  But bi/multi-vocational ministry is not about leading them into a “better” way of Christian living, nor is it inherently the way to go in church leadership. But I believe it’s a more authentic way.

I believe that if we’re really honest, our lives are multi-vocational.  Our very being is comprised of many different roles and vocations, and we’d do well to understand that as pastors and leaders in ministry. 

It’s about living out publicly who God has created us to be, and I think, calls us to be: multi-vocational beings.


Filed under Bi-Vocational Ministry

6 responses to “Thinking Differently about “Bi-vocational” Pastors & Ministry

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

  2. Thanks Aaron. I am finishing up my class on discipleship and vocation next Tuesday. I’m going to share this reflection with that class. Thanks for putting your thoughts out there.

  3. Reblogged this on Intersections by Terri Elton and commented:
    One of the core theological ideas I find extremely helpful for accompanying GOD’s people in their discovery of what it means to live as Christians in the world is Luther’s understanding of vocation. In this blog, Aaron Fuller wrestles with his many roles, or as Luther says stations, and how he lives faithfully into and out of those roles. Check it out and see what you think.

  4. Aaron…I reported this on my page and hope to get some comments. We will see.

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