Bivocational ministry is a life many pastors find themselves in these days. Of course, it is not a new phenomenon among pastors. In the area that I live, there are many small rural churches that have been around for many years. Back when these churches were planted the pastors were bivocational, often farming besides preaching. For those pastors, being bivocational was not a choice instead of full-time vocational ministry, it was the norm and more or less required of those called to ministry. Today, there are still many pastors required to be bivocational because they live in a rural area, are church planters, or are pastoring a smaller church that couldn’t fully support them otherwise.
Being bivocational is not the lesser calling. To be bivocational does not mean playing in the minors until God decides to send them up to the big leagues of full-time vocational ministry. I will confess that I held this view, though I would not have explicitly said it. Depending on what the “other” job is for bivocational pastors, it can be very easy to feel discontent and weighed down by the seemingly unimportant duties of what we incorrectly deem as our “secular” work. That’s good! Now we know how our entire congregation feels much of the time. When we view bivocational ministry as a lesser calling, we both belittle God’s explicit call on our lives and idolize full-time vocational ministry as something that will fix all our problems.
Work is hard, regardless of what it is that we do. We know this from our own experiences and because of the curse God spoke to Adam (Gen. 3:17-19). I have been bivocational for about seven years and I have friends that are also bivocational and friends that are in full-time vocational ministry. They all say that their work is hard. They all say there are days and seasons where they would like their situations to be different. Within the context of the hard work that all Christians do, pastor or not, we are still to be about the work of being a disciple of Jesus in, through, and by our vocations. A primary way that we do the work of being a disciple of Jesus is to make other disciples (Matt. 28:16-20). The New Testament gives many examples of disciples of Jesus that not only make new disciples, but make new disciples who make new disciples who make new disciples and on and on. The spread that took place stemming from the original twelve disciples is one example. There is a clear picture of multiplication that happens.
This process of multiplication can take place in the ministries of bivocational pastors both in their church work as well as in the supplemental work that they do. For bivocational pastors there are some distinct challenges and some real blessings that come from the work of multiplying disciples in both contexts in which they live and work.
Full-time pastors have more margin in their schedules to be able to devote to meetings with people and, therefore, do the work of discipleship. Or do they? Do bivocational pastors really not have any time to disciple people? If you are bivocational, should you only look to preach and teach and leave the rest of the work to someone that has more time?
I think it comes back to redeeming the time that we have. We all have margin in our daily schedules; the challenge is whether we use it and how we use it. Everyone eats lunch, so there is anywhere from a half hour to an hour that could be used to meet with someone or make a phone call. Depending on what time work starts, other people in the congregation probably have to go to work too, so getting up a little earlier before work to meet is an option. Using the time in our commute to and from work for a phone call can be beneficial as well. These are all scenarios a bivocational pastor can use to connect with someone from his congregation in the midst of his work schedule. However, there is also a large pool of people at his workplace that need to and can be discipled.
The effort needed to disciple at work is less than one might think. A great example of how this is done is parenting. Parenting children is discipleship. The life of the parent is lived out with and in front of the children. The discipleship that occurs in parenting does not only consist of sitting down with the child to talk about their walk with Christ, although that happens.
Discipleship in parenting happens while the parent and the child are folding clothes, working in the yard, and so on. The same can be said for discipling coworkers. The little conversations on the way to a meeting, during a break or downtime, at the coffee pot are the primary avenues for discipling coworkers.
Reaching the multiplication stage at work requires a bit more organization and intentionality. This means setting some time aside to meet with fellow believers at work. I meet with a group of guys to do this very thing every other week at lunch. As one would do in the church, there should be an awareness of leaders and/or other strong Christians to develop. Once those folks are identified, then the process of making them into the second generation of disciples in that place begins. In Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in the churches on their way to Antioch in Syria and the same principle stands at work. We are not Paul and Barnabas and we are not appointing elders, but a similar work needs to take place for multiplication to happen. The development of leaders and the passing on of the responsibility for making disciples must take place so that disciples can be multiplied.
A pitfall for many in bivocational ministry can be denying that they are bivocational. We can spend so much time pretending that our supplemental work is only temporary and that very soon God is going to give us that full-time gig. Our time in bivocational ministry may be our life’s calling or it may be only for a season. In any season of waiting on the Lord, there is work to be done while we wait. The sooner we realize we are indeed where we are for a purpose—and God sovereignly plans that purpose—the sooner we can be effective.
I look at God’s sovereign purpose in the time spent in bivocational ministry as a development of my gifts and laying down of my rights. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul talks about all the rights that he has as an Apostle and a minister of the gospel. He immediately says that he does not take up those rights, but essentially lays them down for the sake of the gospel. “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 9:12b).
Like Paul, we who are bivocational (Paul was too by the way) are ministers of the gospel, who have the right to be taken care of through the ministering of the gospel. There is at least a partial surrender of those rights, whether it is by our volition or not, when we are bivocational. There was power that came from Paul’s laying down of his rights. There was an identification that Paul could have with others because he set aside these rights. “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings,” (1 Cor. 9:22b-23). One of the evident purposes of God in the calling to bivocational ministry is the ability to identify with those to whom we minister. There is both purpose and blessing in this identification, which serves as a foundation for the multiplication of disciples in our contexts.
The reality is that if we are bivocational we are probably not speaking at conferences, writing best-selling books, and garnering thousands of Twitter followers. Of course, our mistaken definitions of “making it” in ministry in relation to any of these measures are far different from God’s. The ministry work that is done bivocationally is probably mostly done in the shadows of public view. Ministering bivocationally can be humbling. You may be a church planter that celebrates when there are more than thirty people that show up for a Sunday service. Your greatest joy in ministry for a week may be a good conversation you have with a coworker. This is all very, very good for our souls.
The pitfall of parts of our Christian subculture is an issue, not only for our congregation, but for all those in ministry. There is the fanboy culture of authors, speakers, and podcasts. There are those that many have deemed celebrity pastor. When we are working in the trenches of bivocational ministry, we need not covet fame and fortune in ministry. Our placement in bivocational ministry may be a protection from our own prideful selves. It may be a season that God uses to refine us and humble us. It may be a time where we learn how to celebrate all the small ways that God works. Some of us simply may not have been able or may not ever be able to handle the platform of full-time ministry. God may be protecting us and those to whom we minister from what we would become on that platform. He may at the same time be preparing us.
Humility is one of the most attractive things about Jesus. Think about it, “He is God and he did what?!” You probably know Philippians 2:5-11, but I will remind you. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,” (Phil. 2:5). The mind that Paul is talking about is that of humility, which he goes on to describe in the verses following. When we exhibit Christlike humility, people see the grandeur and beauty of Jesus. We could say that Jesus makes and multiplies disciples through us by showing himself in us. As God teaches us humility in bivocational ministry, people start to see glimpses of Christlikeness in us. The humility that God is teaching us is for our good and his glory. His glory is then magnified by the disciples that are made and multiplied through our lives and ministries.
Thankfully, God does not put us anywhere that he does not intend to put us. If we find ourselves in bivocational ministry, we can be encouraged that it is God who has put us there. It is not the B team and this is not our lot because of some shortcoming that we have. It is the particular vocation that the God of the universe has prepared us for and placed us in for such a time as this. We have the responsibility of multiplying ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ wherever we are. We have been given time to be redeemed and used for the kingdom. God has a Spirit-powered, Christ-exalting purpose for our vocations. In light of all this, we cannot help but seek humility in our hearts and in our actions as we embrace the challenges and receive the blessings of serving Christ.
Nick Abraham (DMin student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) lives in Navarre, OH with his wife and daughter. He serves as an Associate Pastor at Alpine Bible Church in Sugarcreek, OH. He is a contributor to Make, Mature, Multiply: Becoming Fully-Formed Disciples of Jesus and blogs at Like Living Stones.