The Bi-Vocational Pastor’s Manifesto

The other day, I watched this super fascinating TED Talk by Emilie Wapnick.  It’s worth the 13 minutes to watch it.  Watching it, this thought caught my attention:

“It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it. But what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way?”

What if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way?

My response?  “I’m not wired this way.”  My life right now is proof of that.  I have three great callings in my life: pastor, Navy chaplain, and wrestling coach.  (I don’t forget also that I’m a husband to my wife Kelly as well, so make that four!) I love each of these callings for what they bring to my life, how they compliment each other, and for how I see God at work in and through not just myself, but those I interact with.  I hate that I feel pressure to conform to our current understandings of vocation and work, that I have to choose between them and prioritize them into a fixed structure that then becomes my career.

That just doesn’t work for me. As I’ve stated, vocation is more about who I am versus what I do.  Such a notion of “vocation as one true calling” doesn’t seem true to who I am.  Moreover, as someone who truly loves being a pastor and believes that at the heart of ministry is relationship, it’s hard to reduce all of that to the realm of religious convention – the provider, performer, and manager of programs and services that happen in the building called “church” only.

A bit of a rant:  I get tired of colleagues and churchgoers who, when I tell them about my other roles as coach and chaplain and that I’m part-time in my call, make passive-aggressive comments that imply that I’m either not committed to being a pastor or that I’m not a “real pastor.”  I can read between the lines of comments: how overly busy I am, that I’m not in my office, or that I seem to care more about the non-members than the members.  The sentiment is I’m not 100% dedicated to being a pastor simply because I’m not physically around 100% of the time.

As I sit here and read what I just typed, I am sympathetic to an extent.  I can understand that it seems like I’m not 100% committed to the people I’m called to be pastor to.  They’re the ones who pay my salary and so isn’t there an expectation for the goods and services they’re paying for?  Shouldn’t they get their money’s worth out of my time?

I think we’ve done a poor job as pastors and leaders in ministry by equating physical presence with relational presence.  The truth is, your rear can be physically planted in the office 40 hours a week, but you can be totally checked out relationally. Fact is, I am committed to my congregations relationally.  Yet relationship implies that there is a mutuality to the arrangement: congregation members have a commitment and responsibility to their relationship with their pastor and to the life and ministry of the church.  For me, the vocation of the church is inherently relational.  It’s just as much if not more about our commitment to living out who we are as what we do in the name of Christ.  In the end, if we truly understand vocation as identity, then we shouldn’t have to choose.  For pastors and leaders like myself, we shouldn’t have to choose.

So what are bi-vocational pastors all about?  What do they have to offer congregations that the conventional full-time pastor or ministry leader may not provide?  I offer two “big ideas” about what bi-vocational leaders provide in ministry: Discipleship through modeling and “being church” as “co-conspirators” of mission and ministry.

Discipleship through modeling.  We are “multi-vocational beings” in that we have many roles, or stations (as Luther stated), in which our Spirit-given gifts, skills, and abilities are put to use.  I am a Christ-follower whether I’m behind the pulpit and altar on a Sunday, ministering to the sailors in my command, or on the mat at 3pm for practice.  My faith informs what I do, and those I am with inform my faith through the sharing of experiences and life.

Most pastors and ministry leaders feel it is their responsibility to help people in their walk with Christ – discipleship.  We not only want to make disciples, but be better disciples ourselves.  Traditionally, we’ve done that through bible studies, excellent sermons, ministry events and programs, and providing learning resources, to name a few.

But what if we modeled discipleship for people?  One of the great lessons I learned both growing up on the farm and in the Navy was “lead by example.”  Bi-vocational pastors and leaders are at the very heart of their ministry modeling discipleship; they are modeling how to integrate faithful living into the everyday commitments and passions of life.  I juggle schedules just like everyone else does.  I am more than just a guy who stands in front of people on Sundays or visits them when they are sick or have a problem.  Such modeling, I believe, communicates to people that their faith is made up of more than just what they do in the name of X Lutheran Church or Y Methodist Church, or within its walls.  Faith is something that encompasses their whole lives, the whole of who they are.  That is vocation.

Being church as “co-conspirators” of mission & ministry.  So the logical question out of what I just wrote about discipleship is “who’s making sure that church happens then?”  A fair question….particularly if the pastor’s not around the building as much.

Confession: I just don’t like the expectation that I am somehow solely responsible for the successes or failures of a congregation.  Yes, the secular definitions say that ultimately, accountability and responsibility of an organization resides with the leader.  This line of thinking also leads to the justification that leaders then have ultimate authority within the organization.  Both sentiments fall short within the understandings of church as community.  Being church must fall under a more relational, shared model.

Congregations that call bi-vocational leaders are committed to this way of being church.  Bi-vocational pastors and leaders are called to be “co-conspirators” of a congregation’s mission and ministry.  They are called as resources, advisors, and coaches who accompany congregations in carrying out God’s mission in being church.  Leadership within a congregation becomes shared, and thus, decisions more communal.  Yet I think there is an even greater benefit to bi-vocational leaders: it fosters the idea that all within the community are missionaries.  Vocation, then is about being a missionary – one who shares Christ’s love in relationship with the world.  Being church is about being a community of missionaries who share this primary vocation of being Christ-followers in the world.  Being church is about being a community of missionaries who gather, weary from their labors to give praise, learn, and care for one another.  The responsibilities of the community within and outside the walls of the church are mutually borne together.

I am a missionary as a pastor who encounters newcomers who walk through the doors of the church, who talks with those familiar folks facing new experiences of faith in their lives.  I am a missionary who serves young adults 18-22 serving in our Navy and Marine Corps all over the world.  I am a missionary who bears the ups and downs of wins and losses, cutting weight, and who wrestle not only with opponents, but with themselves in a particular context – on a wrestling mat.   My vocation calls me to ministry within and outside the boundaries I call “church.”  And I suspect, that the same is true for people in congregations across the United States.

I am not wired this way; for one set line of work, at least.  I have too many interests and frankly, don’t see any benefit in giving any of them up in favor of the other.  I don’t expect every congregation, colleague, or person to totally get it or even agree with it.  But when I think of everything the church is facing these days, my belief that this Christ who died and raised for us still matters, and my vocation proclaims Christ crucified and risen, even though it’s strange….I guess I’m totally fine with that.  Even more, I think God is too.

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