To what do I aspire? Be a megachurch pastor or a missionary?

I believe seminarians entering ministry in N. America today must answer the question: To what do I aspire? Be a megachurch pastor or a missionary? I believe it is essential for a new pastor’s spiritual formation and long term spiritual health. The church landscape has changed so drastically in the United States and Canada that the pastoral candidate is forced to face these two choices. Let me explain. See if you agree?
1.) The healthy small parish of 100 to 300 people is getting more and more rare. More and more, in N America, it’s either mega church or small local communities. Most churches of the 100-300 size are elderly and shrinking. Soon they will not be able to afford to pay a pastor. And if they can, this pastor will end up caretaking the death of the church. Unless that is, the pastor becomes a missionary. It is my opinion that the skills needed to do these turnarounds requires patience, relationality and a slow cultivation of imagination for what God is doing in the world and how to join in. This kind of patience is essential! It comes from a commitment of 15 to twenty years to this place and the slow cultivation of the Kingdom. Not many seminarians have this kind of sense of presence. It comes from deciding to be a missionary versus a “mega church pastor.” No?

2.) If you want to sustain yourself financially in ministry, more and more the choice you have to make is whether to a.) take a position at a mega church, b.) go on staff with a small dying church and deal with the expectations of this dying church becoming a mega church, or c.) once again, becoming a missionary. Again, this forces the decision whether to be a mega church pastor or a missionary. The missionary has a totally different approach to longevity and sustainability. You are not looking to make (all) your money from the church. You are going to learn another vocation/skill that shall become the flexible means for you to be in the context earning a living alongside other missionaries. There will be times when ministry flourishes and demands full time of you. You must put this skill aside or give less hours to it. But you always start a.) bi-vocationally or b.) raise your support. For many reasons I choose a.) over b.) (Come to this conference to flesh out this strategy for N American mission). The choice you make to take a full time paycheck, or become a missionary/flex bi-vocational person, changes everything. It’s hard to turn back from this decision by the time you’re in your forties and have a family.

3.) The worst ministry position to be in is in a small dying church that wants to be the local megachurch in town. In my opinion, this small church is doomed, unless the pastor can convince the people to become a missional community. The pastor can best do this by changing his/her own position in the community from paid hierarchical head of church, to bi-vocational skilled missionary working alongside everyone to live in God’s life and mission. The dynamic of the small church to look with envy over at the “successful” mega church in town must be overturned. The pastor can either decide to turn this church into a mega church or become a missionary.

I am sure there are exceptions to this rule. I can think of a few names right now. Many will say (and they did on facebook yesterday) that this is not an either/or choice? For many reasons, I suggest that, though not impossible, combining these two is fraught with mind numbing contradictions. And of course, friends like Alan Hirsch and Mike Breen have often proven me wrong. Nonetheless, I firmly believe it’s important for the spiritual formation of pastors to at the very outset to prayerfully decide “To what do I aspire? Be a megachurch pastor or a missionary?”

What say you? What is your experience? Tell us about it eh?


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43 responses to “To what do I aspire? Be a megachurch pastor or a missionary?

  1. Anyone who asks me about “preparing for the ministry” always gets this advice from me: finish a college degree in anything besides Bible or religion; go to work for 5 years and learn to make a living; then let’s talk about in-service theological training. The future is missionary, not mega.
    My wife and I were missionaries in the Middle East for two years, a long time ago. It ruined us, in that it gave us “missionary eyes”, even when we returned home. So when I “got the call” in my mid-30s and trooped off to seminary, I went as someone who approached ministry as a missionary. We had already helped start one church while working as a consulting engineer. After seminary we helped start another – where we still are 18 years later!

    The offering basket will not keep paying our salaries – unless you’re in a mega that survives the coming tipping point. And many will. And that’s ok. It’s time for the paradigm to change anyway. From Christendom clergy to marketplace missionaries. Us clergy types need to realize we’re the “weird missionaries” and the “natives” are the Christians with jobs. Some of them – housewives, plumbers, business leaders – are Ephesians 4:11 leaders who need to be trained and released to equip the church.

    My 2 cents!

  2. While I was in seminary, I was a member at one of those 100-300 member congregations. Although, by the time I graduated, I was convinced that the congregation was dying and needed to either refocus towards being a missionary congregation or be nursed through its last years.
    Meanwhile, a few months after that, I’ve changed congregations to another 100-300 member congregation that HAS refocused around being a missionary church. While it does have full time pastors/ministers, there is definitely a focus on equipping a group of community minded missionaries. I’m glad to have found my way there and look forward to participating in many different missionary ventures.

  3. I think these are valid questions to ask. I do wish, however, that we would encourage young seminarians to look at their spiritual giftings when making this “choice,” as it may not indeed be as much of a choice as they think.
    I’ve seen far too many pastor-types become discouraged doing mission work, because it’s clearly not where they ought to be. There is a huge difference between your primary work being among the saved (or at least those who act like it) and the unsaved. A pastor can get by with a hatred for bad language and beer and a refusal to be around it. A missionary not so much.

  4. [email protected] says:

    Right on!!!!!!

  5. I couldn’t agree more, David. Personally, I have gone from full time ministry paid position, to tent-maker/missionary. It’s a hard transition for someone with only a Bible College Education. It creates tension of provision as your qualifications for work aren’t high enough for the types of jobs to survive. It takes a great deal of courage and trust to step away from the well paying ministry position (with paid lunches) to living below the poverty line. I understand not all ministry positions are paid well; some are very underpaid, but the positions I held supported my husband and I nicely.
    Beyond the issue of money and supporting one’s family without a church position, you pose some very good questions. Is the church even effective reaching the communities surrounding it? The idea of “missionary” is daring, brave and innovative. It’s the harder road, most certainly, but after living in it for 6 years – I wouldn’t go back 🙂

    Thanks for your posts. They’ve encouraged me in this journey.

  6. David,
    First of all, welcome back to the blogging world. We missed, you.

    Secondly, as the pastor of a medium sized church (around 150) that is committed to a missional mindset, it is amazing how many different choices we make than other churches our size.

    Our focus on what is happening outside of our doors has led us to want to spend less money on what is happening on Sunday morning. As we look at additional staffing it has bot been focused on prioritizing someone who can help us improve our product on Sunday morning, but instead on who can help us better live into our mission and learn to be missionaries. We have intentionally killed off and not started programs that take away from the discipleship and missional energy and focus of our people. My job has been dramatically changed to be one primarily as discipler first, worship organizer/preacher second.

    I am perfectly willing to fail at trying to lead our church in this direction if it doesn’t work. I would rather fail trying to live this out than succeed at just about anything else.

    1. Greg Arthur,You just inspired me and about 500 other small church pastors around the country (by the time this blog post reaches 1000 hits).

  7. Good post! Another missionary and I were talking about this very thing this morning. I’ve been a missionary for about 1 year now. Before that, I served on staff at various churches (none, the mega-sized kind) for 15 years. When I realized I didn’t have the desire to go the mega-church route, I tried to transition a large (500-1,000) church toward a incarnational/missional model. They quickly got rid of me. Now, I’m doing the incarnational/missional thing myself – and loving it!!! We are trying to raise our support, but seem stuck at 50% of our living/ministry needs. We are looking now at doing the bi-vocational/part-time employment thing, but with a Bible degree and little to no job skills – it seems extremely difficult. Like Connie, I wouldn’t go back either!

  8. [email protected] says:

    ” It comes from a commitment of 15 to twenty years to this place and the slow cultivation of the Kingdom. “
    I appreciate you giving this work the appropriate time frame. We’ve been missionaries in our neighborhood for about 8 years now and we’re just beginning to see the fruits.

    “The pastor can best do this by changing his/her own position in the community from paid hierarchical head of church, to bi-vocational skilled missionary working alongside everyone to live in God’s life and mission.”

    I think this would be the most difficult for most pastor-types to wrap their heads around. If you go to seminary as a young adult, chances are you’ve spent most of your formative years within the friendly confines of the church. So much so that you think “church stuff” is what most people really like to talk about. If this is you, I’d recommend stepping out of church life altogether for a few years. Drop the Sunday services, the blogs, the books, the seminars. Go fishing, cut your grass, make friends, or just sleep in on Sunday mornings. If being a pastor is truly a “call”, it won’t go away. In fact, you may begin to discover what pastoring really means (apart from the norms in church world.)

  9. [email protected] says:

    Great thoughts…having worked at all three of these scenarios…I can say the missionary approach as a bivocational leader is by far the most liberating context for ministry I’ve experienced

  10. I agree. As a young pastor, this is very real to me.
    This is the gist of what I discussed with our Diaconate Board at the beginning of the year.

    I choose missionary.

  11. […] While you eagerly wait for these posts, head over and subscribe to David Fitch’s RSS feed. Dave has been on a blog sabbatical while completing work on a new book. His first provocative post of his return is here. […]

  12. Hi David
    Welcome back to blogging. I like most of your stuff here, but I think this statement is pretty iffy.

    “There will be times when ministry flourishes and demands full time of you.”

    I am not at all convinced that a full time worker is healthy for any community. It pushes us back to a christendom mindset and creates a paid professional who is now ‘needed’ to do what others can’t

    1. [email protected] says:

      I didn’t read that statement as David saying that ministry demands a full-time employee sometimes, but rather that ministry will require a bigger time commitment than you normally associate with someone working part-time. He’s not saying that you should quit your tent-making job to focus on your ministry during those times, but rather that those times will require 40+ hours a week from you, and you need to have a plan to manage those hours along with your money making hours.

    2. I actually disagree. The diversity of contexts and circumstances are to broad to be the sweeping. I agree that it should become less common and not the norm, but I know many places where such full-time workers are necessary. Just don’t get caught up in what that looks like.
      Just a thought.

      1. *”too broad to be that sweeping”

        1. I am with you Jamie. I’m bi-vocational and loving it but there have been seasons in our community that “full-time” was needed. I think some of us are so afraid of the extreme abuses of full-time ministry that there is a hard reaction. I’m also careful not to proof-text that the Bible teaches “no full-time pastors” even though missionally I think bi-vocational is wiser.
          Ideally the entire community shares the ministry but we don’t live in Ideal-land.

  13. [email protected] says:

    Yep – just re read it Matt and see what you are saying

  14. fitchest@gmail.com [email protected] says:

    Hamo,I disagree, there will be times, seasons, even long seasons, when someone’s gifting and the demands upon such will demand being released from other employment … I noentheless, insist, that such a “minister” must always be able to return to other emans of emplyment in community… as a long term flex strategy. getting inmeshed in a churc h structure where one becomes depednent totally on it for sustenance is dangerous, and creates conditions for compromise and dilution of mission. This of course is my humble opinion and experience.

    1. Agreed.

      1. Hi Guys
        I hear the caveats David, but I wonder how things would change if we actually refused to allow full time vocational ministry to even be a possibility.

        To be honest there are times when I would like to be back in full time ministry (did it for 15 years) – because this morning I wake up and my body aches and my mind is divided between some teaching I am preparing and some irrigation jobs I have issues with.

        But my own learning in the last 10 years has shaped me more and more to believe that the employment of someone ‘full time’ (however it is framed – support/salary) can easily work against the health of a community.

        If the primary biblical image of church is oikos I can’t imagine an oikos needing a dedicated full time worker… I’m doubting the idea of megachurch was ever in Jesus’ mind! 🙂

        1. I think I get the gist of what you’re saying. However, to be fair, if oikos refers to a household, then there was probably a mother running the household full-time, or possibly slaves “hired” to help run the household in the Roman world. Not everybody had a job outside of the home.

    2. As frightening as, I agree. Just wishing my education provided me other in demand job skills.

      1. **frightening as it is**

  15. The Church needs more of this reminder. I’ve read your similar posts before, and they’ve kept me hopeful and out of despair during difficult times in ministry. My seminary (TEDS) rightly taught that the goal is faithfulness, which leads to fruitfulness, but too many of us expect a harvest overnight. We regularly need this reminder.

  16. [email protected] says:

    Full disclosure: I am and have been a “Missionary” in the Andes Mountains Cloud Forest Region of Ecuador for almost 7 years. In all those years I have not drawn a “salary.” Prior, I was a GM for a Pharmaceutical company based in the Research Triangle Park of North Carolina. My wife was also a GM for an optical device company in the same area. In 2005, after doing an exploratory short-term missions trip, we were called to lay down our lives, home, vehicles, possessions, and jobs to minister in a region of Ecuador where no other cross-cultural missionaries have been. We are still here and have seen 10 generations of disciples made and many churches planted. The work is still expanding. Many have come to work along side us and we have never asked for funds for personal support. People, organizations, and churches however, have caught our vision and have volunteered to support us and the work here.

    Am I presenting this a model or a suggested course of action? No! It just so happens that taking on a “bi-vocational” posture here is not allowed. I can not get a work visa and then do “mission” work on the side. I would never claim the title of “Apostle,” but the work we do is apostolic in nature. My visa (permission) to work in this country is “as” a missionary.

    I have no desire to be a mega anything. I was theologically trained in college and seminary. I left full-time ministry for the corporate world where I tried to be salt and light and bring the good news to people who needed it. God called me out of that life into a life of “full-time ministry.” I am fully convinced that this is where God has called us and where he will support us. My food is to do the will of Him who sent me. Should I feel bad when he provides for our needs while we obey His directive?

  17. fitchest@gmail.com [email protected] says:

    Miguel,The context for this post is N. American mission … when someone goes across nation state boundaries, a whole different set of circumstances and discernments take shape…so this post should in no way be interpreted as negating any of your journey! Nonetheless, there are dynamics that still matter as you enter as one receiving support elsewhere (Luke 10:1-17) etc… But there are hurdles you are overcoming by doing this… and I don’t BTW discount raising support as a viable option here in N America as well.. recognizing how that shifts dynamics as well.

    1. David,
      Thanks for your poignant and rapid response. Forgive me for assuming that there was any negation of our journey in this article. I have many of the same sentiments as you’ve mentioned in the post.

      One caveat: In our mission we don’t seek to establish pastors of churches or even leaders of congregations per se. We seek to equip others for pastoral, apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, and teaching, ministry. Ephesians 4:11,12,13

      I know this may serve to open up another can of worms, but, I hope, relevant to the conversation.

      BTW, I have been an adamant reader of your blog in the past and it’s good to see you back. I have been blogging diligently for the past year and have approached this issue from many different angles.

      Peace and Blessings to you

  18. In looking at your article, I find a number of premises that I do not find workable.
    1. The 100-300 person church is shrinking. If you look at the tendency of mega-churches to plant satellites – this is the size they are shooting for – not the 500-1000 members.
    As well – revitalization movements try to get churches toward this size, as they are healthier and replicate themselves easier.

    2. Spiritual Formation should be based on what you aspire to. I disagree with this completely, as spiritual formation first starts with the relationship of the student with God, and with the seminary community, becoming a model for the relationships in the parish, and within the body of churches which he belongs to. This needs to cut across a number of barriers, from age to economic class, to yes, size of church (talk to Jack Hayford sometime about the small church pastors and their roles in his ministry)

    3. That a small church pastor is better off being bi-vocational because that is more missional. Not sure where you get this as a requirement. It has helped in one of my churches that I replanted, but the others were better off with my being able to be there 24/7.

    1. fitchest@gmail.com [email protected] says:

      Dustin,I think you’ve talked past this post …
      1.) I don’t think church members sitting in front a video screen as part of another church counts in this discussion. It’s art of a larger church structure no?
      2.) spiritual formation… how you see what God has called you to, and how you view “success” or how you reject “success,” how you see money, support, and sustenance, is different depending upon the church narrtaive you have accepted .. accept mega church narrative versus missionary narrative you will look at all these differently, and face totally different expectations …in fact how you depend upin God, pray etc.. I am not denying anything you said about the pastor missionary’s beginning with his/her relationship to God .. you just talked by all these issues … yes?

  19. [email protected] says:

    I feel God shifting me in bi-vocational ministry. Being raised in mega church and now working as a part time youth pastor at a multisite church I realize that church is more run like a business than a missionary field. “if you get more students we can maybe make you full tiBme.”I don’t like that game. When many of my conversations are around salary packages, working over hours, meetings on pointless things, I start to put things into perspective. I don’t want church ever tO feel like a job. It is a way of life.

  20. I agree with you that “missional” and “attractional” under one roof is hard. My organization, which helps churches become more missional, has partnered with a small (120 avg worship), old (est. in 1890’s) urban church that adopted the Willow/Saddleback mega church want-a-be structures and philosophies in the 1990’s.
    Rather than expect the entire church to “go missional” we are collaborating on forming a parallel expression that is purely missional.

    The pastor has been there 25 years and has done an amazing job of preparing this church for this new way of being. They have gone from 80% all white retiree’s to 80% multiracial non-retirees.

    We are only 6 months into our experiment with a parallel structure but we are seeing a lot of exciting things happening. By leveraging my organizations resources of missional expertise and people and the established churches building and people we are doing far more together than we could have done separately.

    The key has been that this new expression is not owned by the traditional church – it is jointly owned at this stage and once it is fully off the ground will have it’s own leadership structure that has been formed in a mission-centric culture.

  21. […] ana-baptist seminary professor bi-vocational pastor is one of them. When he posted his latest blog post after a blogging hiatus I sort of miffed and thought, “so….tell me something […]

  22. [email protected] says:

    I was inspired by a nearby grass roots ministry that is solely dedicated to helping the homeless and poor in the heart of some of the neediest areas of the city. They wanted to reach the lost and forgotten. Great idea right? What makes them different from most other churches or groups? They made serving the poor their sole priority. That’s right, they didn’t start out with paid staff, or even a building. A small handful of idealistic believers gathered donated clothing and distributed it on the street to the poor. They cooked hot dogs, and even brought their own lunches to share with the homeless for chance to share the love of Jesus with the hungry. These people weren’t out to make money, or even ask for it. And if donations were needed they asked for food, toiletries, and other items the poor needed in that area. Monetary donations offered went towards these supplies as well. They were just working with what they had, and it caught on like wild fire. Before you know it, they were overflowing with donated supplies as people heard about it through word of mouth. They were Christians trying to do the right thing, and their small independent ministry grew so much. As it grew they were allowed to meet their need for storage at a local church to store donations until the volunteers could distribute them. The vision continued to grow. They preached in the streets as they helped the needy, and the needy began to respond and get saved. Long story short, as more people signed on to volunteer through word of mouth and the internet, they took off and began to expand their services. The volunteers are amazing, and the originals are passionate about what they do. They eventually got a small building and worked out of it to offer a day shelter, then wanted to expand when they needed more room and managed to raise over a $100, 000 in just three months in donations specifically for this project. Now, they are on the verge of opening up the new center, completely paid for by donations up front, and are going to make such a wonderful impact in that community that so desperately needs it. The point here is that you don’t need paid staff to start an impactful ministry. Perhaps you’ll need them one day, but we shouldn’t feel that we need to be paid first. Most of these individuals had jobs. And they volunteered their time, and whatever was handy to help however they could, even if it was just to spend the weekend giving away clothing, preaching in an open air parking lot, and BBQing some hotdogs on the side. But that’s what the Lord can work with if you are passionate and trusting. Perhaps they may need a paid staff now that they are expanding and getting so much community love and support for what they do, I’m not sure, but don’t think they needed a paid staff to start. Just goes to show you that God can use you anywhere, paid or not.

    1. [email protected] says:

      This ministry is called the Hub Ministry. If you would like to learn more about what this ministry is doing today, you can visit their website athttp://thehubministry.com/
      Be encouraged, because Christ’s Love is changing lives and reaching those who were once thought unreachable! Please encourage and support ministries like this who have stepped out in faith and found a way to bring a messege of hope to the hopeless and vulnurable in our society.

  23. [email protected] says:

    I’m not trying to be obnoxious and pushy but Dan Jn can you describe what you mean by it being needed?
    Could there not be a more creative solution that doesn’t require a full time worker?

    I feel that once we go that route we open the door to many of the accompanying issues that go with being ‘full time’.

    I still feel it is a move back in the christendom direction and ought to be resisted with some real force

  24. [email protected] says:

    A church of 150 ought to be able to comfortably support a pastor…unless its people still have not gone deep…to me issue is then depth of discipleship. from my experience if a pastor is trying to provide a megachurch experience, they are more likely to lose congegants because they will never be able to provide that WELL. i actually believe the small church is the next big thing…

  25. Hamo, what I am hearing from you is a prophetic response to a persistently bad system. And I am with you in the need for radical change. You asked: “I wonder how things would change if we actually refused to allow full time vocational ministry to even be a possibility”. I think we would see some amazing things happen. However, I also think we would see many communities- flesh & blood people- who would suffer. Yes, they might be a minority, but they are important. Yes, the refusal you mention would be more pragmatic with respect to overall results, but I can’t squire that with freedom or love for all. In the end, we cannot legislate this kind of change.
    You posit that “the employment of someone ‘full time’ (however it is framed – support/salary) can easily work against the health of a community”. Yes, it CAN, but doesn’t always. Idealism is a danger here, as no approach is going to be free of ways that will work against the health of a community.

    You are right that there are always more creative solutions that don’t require a full time worker. Yet, those solutions are often (usually) dependent on people making sacrificial, free will choices. Lacking that- given the imperfection, sin and selfishness that we all wrestle with- redemptive alternatives will always be necessary- alternatives that might require a paid/supported missionary.

    1. “Idealism is a danger here…”Jamie, I couldn’t have said it any better.

      As someone in the trenches with a mutual submissive team nurturing missional communities, this is still where the rubber meets the road.

      1. The Zune concentrates on being a Portable Media Player. Not a web bowesrr. Not a game machine. Maybe in the future it’ll do even better in those areas, but for now it’s a fantastic way to organize and listen to your music and videos, and is without peer in that regard. The iPod’s strengths are its web browsing and apps. If those sound more compelling, perhaps it is your best choice.

  26. […] week to have David Fitch return to the blogging world after a self mandated hiatus to write a book. His blog post asked an interesting question: Do I aspire to be a megachurch pastor or a missionary? Here is an excerpt. If you want to sustain […]

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