From a First-Call, Mainline Protestant Pastor: 6 Things I’ve Learned about Multi-Vocational Ministry

Well, I think the title of this blog post is pretty self-explanatory!  April 1st marked my 6-months of being pastor to two churches.  Some of what I write probably isn’t much different from what other first-call pastors out there have learned.  But, as you might have guessed, my call is unique on a number of different levels – the main one being based on my belief that multi-vocational ministry is an important and necessary model of pastoral ministry in this rapidly changing world.

Let me make one thing clear: when it comes to multi-vocational ministry (or bi-vocational, the more popular term) I don’t understand it like most.  If you want to know more you can check out my previous post explaining myself in more detail here.  Here’s a summarized version.  For me, multi-vocational ministry shouldn’t be considered strictly on the basis of economic benefit or as a church-planting/redevelopment strategy.  Rather, its real strength is that it models more closely our being (how we live and who we are as humans shaped by varied roles) and it is a more missional model….if you understand mission as realizing what you do in the world is working right alongside God (witness and participation).

However, there are some unique challenges and things you have to be more intentional about, especially when you’re serving two congregations as pastor, a high school wrestling coach, a Navy Reserve Chaplain, and a husband.  So without further ado…..

1.  You better know why you’re there.  You can probably guess that I have limited time.  I can’t do everything.  But being able to define what your role as pastor is even more crucial because depending on the church, they might not always know or understand what your role is.  There are lots of people in both of my congregations who don’t really get what I do because it isn’t what they’re used to.  It’s not the “normal” way the pastors before me have operated.  That doesn’t make this way any less valid, it just means it forces the congregation to think a little bit more.

That means I’ve had to be very specific about what my role is.  Of course, things will shift a bit because priorities shift as a congregation learns along side you, but you better know fundamentally what your role is with them.  And that goes straight to the next point.

2.  A chaplaincy, or “shepherd” model of pastoral ministry doesn’t work.  In both of these models, the fundamental role of the pastor is as this very broad caretaker – tending to their spiritual, physical, emotional needs in all areas of congregational life.  The number one thing in these models is that the congregation “likes” you; they feel taken care of.  That is a part of a multi-vocational model of ministry, but it cannot be the focus of it.  Rather, I’ve found that the model of pastor as missional leader and coach work best in a multi-vocational setting.  The aim of the missional leader or coach is different.  It’s about leading the process of discernment and vision setting, and empowering congregations to live into what comes out of that process (which is what mission and ministry are).

Your role as pastor – preacher, teacher, pastoral care provider all are shaped by the process of helping people discern God’s vision and empowering them to live it out.  And when you really hit the sweet spot, they are actually empowered to do this whole process for themselves and they push each other to do it.  With my two congregations, and on the wrestling mat, I’ve found that when people lean into that a bit, that’s when ministry reaches it highest joy – both for them and for me.  This has been my greatest challenge so far, but they are learning they can provide care for each other, they can learn from each other in studying scripture, they can participate in worship.  They don’t need me to do it for them.

3. Relationships are key, but not in the way you think.  In his book, The Relational PastorAndy Root argues that relationships are important not so that we influence people to assimilate more to a religious life, but rather because relationships themselves are ministry; God’s mission is relationship – sharing of life embodying the sacrificial love of Jesus’ death and resurrection: the cross.  The pastor’s job is to allow space for this experience to occur.

That means inclusivity has to be the #1 job of the pastor.  I’ve taken a definition from a mentor that the church “is a place of safety (physical, emotional, psychological) and belonging.”  So for me two things are important in our churches: one, space is made for everyone to be included, utilizing their gifts in meaningful ways so that no one is disqualified, and two, people are allowed always to voice their feelings (feelings are not wrong) yet we work to find ways to move from those feelings to places where we find mutual middle ground.  We love each other through conflict and disagreement, and we leave space for questions – lots of them.

I’m not necessarily there to form a relationship with every single person in the congregations or who walks through our doors.  My role is to make space and encourage an environment where relationships of safety and belonging happen among them.  I believe that’s exactly a church being the community formed in and through Jesus Christ. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together)

4. You “get” how people’s lives work. In his book Preaching at the CrossroadsDavid Lose suggests that one way to understand people’s lives better is to go see where they work.  The benefit is that you gain insight to where God might be living and working in their lives, making you a better pastor and preacher of the gospel.

I wonder if multi-vocational ministry doesn’t accomplish this same thing.  The community I’m serving in has a huge military presence, so my role as Navy Chaplain gives me access and understanding to how that works for both military and non-military people alike.  My role as a wrestling coach gives me insight into a lot of families and youth and how their lives work.  My passion and love for rural farming communities (the kind I grew up in) and engineering allows me to connect with how older people understand things and connects me to others with similar passions.

And, my congregations get the fact I do a lot of things.  And as I share my experiences from those multiple roles, I think it does two things.  One, it helps model for them the discernment and empowerment I hope to instill in them (they’re starting to latch on to it too!) and two, they understand that they have to take ownership of their faith community and communicate with me and each other.

In short, none of us are mind readers.  So we do a lot of asking of each other…..and because of that, we’re starting to “get” each other better.

5. I’m constantly in a reflective/critical mode – about everything.  I think a lot about multi-vocational ministry, and maybe the point to all this is that this pastoral model doesn’t work in a church where attractional growth is the mission.  Those churches require pastoral CEO’s and managers…..and the bigger it gets, the bigger the salary commanded.  However, the real thriving part for me is that while I know my role is as a leader in my congregations, I don’t feel like I’m at the top of the chain.  I just feel like I have a particular role in a shared life together.

This highlights my point here: because I have to be sharper at defining my role as pastor, because I’m called to be a missional leader who empowers rather than a “shepherd” who tends, because I’m living in all sorts of different spaces….I’m constantly in a state of reflecting/assessing/critically thinking about everything.  Whether it’s worship, ministry events, ecclesiology, what’s happening in our community, or what’s going on with my wrestlers, I’ve created this way of thinking that encompasses my life.

I think that’s a good thing, because then I’m keeping myself and those I minister to and with accountable – is what we’re doing in line with what God envisions for us as his people?  Does how we live and what we do reflect our theological commitments to the gospel?  I think because my environment is always changing, there’s less a chance of stagnation and blindness in my thinking.  I tend not to fall into the trap of “Christianizing” my life – talking and acting in terms only an “insider” would understand.

6. Christ has to be at the center of it all.  Maybe this is a no brainer, and it’s cliche.  However, it’s 110% true.  Doing ministry this way has been hard. It’s been frustrating, infuriating; I’ve put in longer hours that I should be contractually at times, and I’ve had to take away ownership of things that have become unhealthy.  People still drop things on my plate or fall through on things because they still haven’t gotten used to a pastor who isn’t in the building from 9-5.  I’ve inherited some crap from previous pastors that frankly, I wish I could go smack them over the head for….because they’ve consumed a lot of time away from more important, positive things.

But I keep Christ at the center.  And I encourage the congregations to do the same.  I’ve found when I do – whether it’s in the church, on the wrestling mat, when I put on my uniform, or when I’m at home with my wife – I am more present with people.  And when that happens, I spend a whole lot less time running the church and a whole lot more time being the church.  

And I think, as I like to tell my congregations and my wrestlers…….that’s what God’s big dream for us is all about.

(I’d love for you all to engage on this.  Anything I said you want to pushback on? Anything surprise you or make you think?)




Filed under Bi-Vocational Ministry, Leadership

2 responses to “From a First-Call, Mainline Protestant Pastor: 6 Things I’ve Learned about Multi-Vocational Ministry

  1. Pingback: Multi-vocational Ministry, 6 months in: Wrapup | wrestlinginspiredfaith

  2. Great post, Aaron. I think you’ve really touched on an important point – that the call to make disciples involves empowering folks to do the work we’re all called to in baptism. In fact, you might even have an easier job of this as someone who really can’t be the person expected to do EVERYTHING, because of time constraints and other commitments. Administration is important, but a big part of administration is delegating, and walking alongside folks as they practice doing the work to which they are called as a member of the Body of Christ. Blessings on the next six months of ministry and beyond!

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