Bivocational, it’s a term that not everyone is familiar with. It means to work two jobs simultaneously or to serve in two vocations at once. When applied to pastoral work, it is to serve in a church and to support oneself financially with some supplemental income from a secular occupation.
Does this lifestyle have pros & cons? Certainly. Is it for everyone who pursues ministry? Probably not, or is it? There is some data suggesting future trends will include many more churches who will turn to staffing which will be mainly bivocational. Why? Between decreasing attendance and lower contributions in many churches across denominations, this leadership transition might become more of a necessity than a personal choice for ministers and congregations alike.
So what does it feel like to be bivocational? It’s an odd position, given our culture’s projection of what the successful preacher supposedly looks like. On the one hand, you feel like something is wrong with you, or you don’t measure up, thus the need for a secular job as well. After all, if you were doing your job well enough, your church would be able to support you financially. On the other hand, you feel connected with more people who might never darken the doorway of your local church.
At times, when you are bivocational, you can feel rather second-rate, B-team, subpar. Instead of people greeting you as “Brother” (that affectionate moniker for the minster) you think they see you as their “step-brother.” Sometimes you think people don’t take your ministry role as serious as they would if you were in full-time ministry, or they assume the bivocational phase is just a stepping stone.
Also, when you are living in two worlds at once like this, you feel at times rather ineffective. You are stretched rather thin between trying to be engaged in full time “work” and attempting to be fully dedicated to the ministry you feel called to. It’s confusing, at times, to say the least.
Is there a Biblical precedent for this style of ministry? The Apostle Paul is probably the most common case, he was considered a “tentmaker” and he often fully supported himself as well as his companions. Of course there are some differences in what we experience today in contemporary bivocational ministry and what we read about in Paul’s case. For example, Paul traveled more often than he ever settled down in a local community. And, he might have turned down financial support from local congregations to teach certain churches a meta-lesson, or he may have chosen to be a tentmaker to distinguish himself from false apostles who were out to bilk believers.
So why does this subject matter? For starters, it might become more familiar to a wider range of believers as time goes on, so it’s good to be up to speed on this topic sooner than later. Also, it is an important topic since so many people are already involved in a bivocational ministry, and they could use the encouragement of the masses.
This topic matters since there is probably a slight social stigma attached to being bivocational, and most people (more than likely) won’t all understand the circumstances. Bivocational doesn’t mean under-trained or incompetent, and it would be helpful for people to recognize the validity of this style of ministry.
If you thought ministry in general was tough on the preacher’s family, it’s even more demanding when you are bivocational. Churches who have a bivocational minister should be more sensitive to this strain on their ministers.
Yet, there is a sense of authenticity when you find yourself in a bivocational ministry, a rewarding feeling that you are following your true calling. There is certainly nothing wrong with a church providing you with your entire income while serving as their minister, yet, when you are out earning a living elsewhere you know you aren’t in ministry solely for the money and the folks you minister to know you know what they experience week-in-week-out. Being bivocational feels odd at times, but it also feels rather incarnational as well.
By the way, I never aspired to being bivocational when I attended Bible College and then Seminary, but after about 20 years of serving in full time ministry in mainline churches, God led our family into a bivocational ministry. We’ve been serving this way for over five years, it has its ups & downs, but the blessings outweigh the struggles.