The Bi-Vocational Pastor – “I am NOT a part-time pastor.”

“I am a bi/multi-vocational pastor.”

“What’s that?”

“It means I have other callings I live out in addition to being a pastor.”

“So you’re a part-time pastor then….”

I swear every time I try to explain what I do to people, the conversation always ends up here.  It is true; I am only paid part-time and I don’t spend 40+ hours a week doing stuff for my congregations (well, at least most of the time). Again, the conclusion is always based in the economic, as I asserted in my last post.  I’m part-time out of necessity, since the congregations I serve can only afford to pay me “X” amount of dollars out of their limited resources.

I think the notion of a “part-time” pastor is problematic in today’s context.  Congregations operate from a scarcity mindset – they’re making due with less, which often leads to the church doing less.  There’s not a pastor around to lead and ensure all those things that would normally get done, do indeed get done.  There’s not a pastor around to do all those things that make church run.  In a part-time paradigm, the pastor’s relationship with the congregation is largely negotiated on transactional terms – an agreement of goods and services rendered.  In his book, The Relational Pastor, Andy Root names this idea of pastor as “priest, keeper and manager of divine things and the religious life.” (29) The part-time pastor then, is someone who has been contracted and hired to manage as many aspects of the church’s life and ministry as the finances will allow.  The reality for the church community is that they may have to take on some of the responsibilities the pastor typically did.  However, there is little to no conversation about the congregation’s ownership of the communal life and mission of the church.  It never discerns its place within the larger context it serves, nor what God might be calling them to as  on their own terms as Christian community.  The congregation never explores its identity and apart from the pastor.

The notion of “part-time” pastor, without this discernment of identity and mission, actually hinders the congregation’s hearing of God’s call to be church.  It also creates an unhealthy longing for a future borne out of fear of survival and shame-based failure.  Congregations bend in on themselves, preoccupied with their scarcity, fixated on trying to maintain a nostalgic, outdated model of church that simply cannot be recovered.  They dream of the day when someday they’ll be able to afford a full-time pastor, and once again, they’ll really be a fully functioning and contributing church.

Bi-vocational pastors are not part-time pastors.  They offer a gift to the church and congregations borne out of  the theological grounding of a singular vocational identity formed in baptism, lived out in multiple vocational roles.  In baptism we have been raised up from death into a new identity, free to live into the spirit-given gifts and relationships in which God calls us to participate in.  There’s nothing “part-time” about that vision of life – in fact, it’s a pretty full plate!

That is the heart of bi-vocational pastors and their ministry.  There are distinct advantages over a “part-time” pastor model.

The congregation forms an identity, vision, and mission independent of the pastor.  I think there’s a tendency that still exists for congregations to form their identity and ministry dependent on the pastor.  The congregation, therefore, usually ends up adopting and assimilating to the identity and interests of the pastor, not the community’s (both Christian and surrounding context).

It is possible that congregations calling part-time pastors do have a sense of identity and mission that they own 100%.  However, I do think congregations looking for a bi-vocational pastor do ask a set of completely different questions that congregations who seek part-time pastors ask.

The part-time pastor congregation asks:
What will the pastor be able to do?
Will the pastor be able to meet our needs with their limited time?
What things do we have to eliminate or compromise since there won’t be a pastor around as much?
What do we have to do to (growth) in order to get back to a full-time pastor?

The bi-vocational pastor congregation asks:
What role will the pastor play within our congregation and ministry?
What does the pastor offer to our community with their presence?
What is the focus of our communal life and mission to the surrounding context?
How do we utilize our existing resources in a way that is responsible and accountable to our identity and mission?

These set of questions differ in that congregations see bi-vocational pastors as a resource and tool for the congregation’s mission, rather than standard and measure of it.   A part-time pastor’s effectiveness will always be measured by growth and the amount of time spent focused on the congregation and congregational tasks.  Bi-vocational pastors’ effectiveness is measured by the engagement of the congregation’s people.  The bi-vocational pastor serves as an advisor, helping congregations assess the present context, the church’s identity rooted in scripture, tradition, and calling, and the integrity of its ministry in in living and communicating gospel to the world.

Such an understanding of the pastor leads to the understanding that the pastor’s calling is a calling to witness and serve the world, not just to tend to the religious community.  The pastor’s calling is first and foremost a Christian calling to discipleship, and must always be thought of this way.  It is distinct from other callings, but in character is no different from the call to vocation for any Christian called to discipleship.  Bi-vocational pastors, due to their multiple roles and activity, embody Christian discipleship, and communicate it to others through their identity and action.  They serve within the community of faith as pastor in the traditional sense, yet they serve just as all others are called – out in the world.

My faith is an identity that shapes how I live authentically in the world – as a pastor, husband, friend, uncle, wrestling coach, and Navy chaplain.  My faith isn’t something apart from my life – it’s deeply integrated with it.  I don’t believe that individuals who live out more traditional models of pastor don’t believe the same; however, I do think bi-vocational pastors are more explicit and public in living out faith in this way, and serve as a better example to our communities of faith.  Part-time pastors are not around as much due to reasons of scarcity, and therefore their time away from church is thought of as disconnected from faith.  Bi-vocational pastors are not around as much due to an identity and understanding of their multiple expression of calling; their time is communicated publicly as integrated with faith.

Having a bi-vocational pastor is a missional act by the congregation.  In my experience, the congregations I serve “share” me with the U.S. Navy and the wrestlers I coach.  As a part of the congregations, I become an agent of gospel with them.  The time I spend in those other roles is an extension of their mission to the community around them.  As I minister to military service members and as I mentor and coach my wrestlers, I am an extension of the congregations’ concern and desire to minister to these same communities, witnessing to Christ’s love and grace in a pluralistic setting.  That is by definition what God’s mission for the church is.

Relationships with God and neighbor are shared directly in community with each other, rather than being mediated by the pastor.  Again, the bi-vocational pastor is tool/resource and advisor to the congregation. The congregation has 100% ownership of its communal life and ministry.  Therefore, a pastor isn’t needed to mediate relationships between people, or even with God.  Prayer, education, and ministry can be organized and led by the laity.  The bi-vocational pastor provides guidance and resources to carry those things out.  This is not to say this can’t happen in part-time pastor settings, but usually the mindset is that the congregation is “making due” and therefore usually removes and eliminates religious practices and ministry because of the pastor’s limited time.  The pastor is around less to mediate the relationships, therefore, the relationships (and ministry of the church) tend to suffer.

The bi-vocational pastor’s relationship with the congregation isn’t a transaction of goods and services, but is rooted in vocational identity and communal roles.  In my congregations, there are definitely moments where I put in hours that are “full-time.”  When funerals happen, is an example of that.  However, that is my role within the congregation – I provide care and plan worship that helps people and the community deal with the reality of death and make sense of God’s promises in the midst of it.  There are also moments where I don’t work the hours that match my financial compensation.

As a bi-vocational pastor, I see my role as “full-time” in that I am fully present as the pastor they have called to a specific role in their congregations.  My relationship with the congregations I serve isn’t based on a transaction of goods and services.  If you asked them, I believe most people in my congregations would tell you I’m fulfilling their expectations as pastor – as defined by a distinct role and identity.  This communicates, I believe, that I am fully present relationally versus only partially invested.

There are many other reasons bi-vocational pastoral models are beneficial to congregations.  I will conclude with this final thought: if we shed the typical economic mindset when talking about pastors and congregations, I think a good case can be made that all pastors – regardless of their working status – should be thought of as bi-vocational.  What would it mean if a congregation paid a pastor full-time, but encouraged or even required that their pastor spent 10% of their time living out another expression of their Christian vocation (coach, writer, musician, etc.)?  What would it mean if a congregation paid a pastor full-time, but actually agreed to consider shifting aspects of its communal life (worship, education) and ministry so that the pastor could honor their role as husband and father; wife and mother; partner and parent? (Translation: this does not mean increasing vacation time, an economic decision)

What would it mean for a congregation’s spiritual health and discipleship as the church to think of the pastor as a bi-vocational pastor?

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