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Bi-Vocational Pastoring and the Christendom Imagination: John Starke and Me

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My internet buddy John Starke (I don’t really know John except through internet exchanges of various kind) wrote a post a couple weeks ago (see it HERE) cautioning against bi-vocational pastoring. It was a warning of sorts. Don’t go into bi-vocational ministry or any ministry for that matter without counting the costs. I’m with John on that. But I would add a different caveat. Don’t go into bi-vocational pastoring without a new imaginary for what ministry and church life can be. Don’t enter bi-vocational ministry thinking this is the same old idea of professional ministry just sliced and diced a bit differently. Bi-vocational ministry requires a whole new imaginary.

Such an imaginary might look like this:

Start by Getting a Full-Time Job First-Then Look to Minister

John says “there’s a significant difference between working two ministry jobs and having two different jobs in two different industries. The challenges are different and more severe for those coming home from a 9–5 job to do ministry.” I’m with John here as well. But for the record, when I speak of bi-vocational pastoring I am talking specifically and only about someone who gets the 9-5 regular job. For me this is the starting point for bi-vocational pastoring. Start by getting a job and/or a job skill that you can use to support yourself entirely. Get situated. Then cultivate ministry on the ground.  I was that person. John says that the momentum for bi-vocationalism “is coming from those who are not bi-vocational or those who are working two ministry jobs.” For the record, I worked in financial services for 18 years. It is from this place that I planted a church. It is true that I am now a professor of theology. But I became a full time (I was adjunct prior) only 9 years ago and I am an old man in my fifties. When John talks about the difference between working 2 jobs and doing ministry from 9-5, I think this is such an important distinction. I highly recommend not doing the former – getting a job as an add-on to your ministry career. This is murder. And anybody who does this, I suggest, ends up not getting it. They risk destroying their lives and the people they are ministering to (as opposed to with). I recommend you start by getting a job, situate yourself in a community, develop a rhythm of life and then begin leading ministry.

Bi-Vocational Pastoring Abolishes the Single Lead Pastor at The Top

John says “When an individual takes on the role and office of pastor, he’s called to do many things: preach (2 Tim. 4:2), teach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 2:1); the work of evangelism (2 Tim 4:5); hospitality (Titus 1:8; 2 Tim. 3:2); teaching, discipleship, counseling (2 Tim 2:2); leadership training (Titus 1:5; 2:4; Eph 4:2); and pray (Acts 6:1–6).” John gives credence to those who advocate a plurality of leaders to do all of this work, but in the end he says “that doesn’t keep a pastor from being responsible to do all these things.” For John, the pastor must be an exemplar in all these tasks. It’s here where everyone who knows John and myself must realize we are now talking about two different things when we use the words “bi-vocational pastor.” I really do believe the church is called to into a multiplicity of leadership if it wishes to engage mission. There can be no hierarchy in the church on mission because hierarchy centralizes authority and power. For a church to engage Mission we must do the opposite: disperse authority and power.

In a multiplicity of leaders, there are a group of leaders each one, leading out of their giftedness, recognized and charged to then empower the rest of the congregation into their giftedness. Hierarchy, for me, is a sign that we have entered the management of ministries and services to Christians. This smacks of Christendom (an understanding of church and culture that negates mission). Instead, in Mission, we organize the church to live empowered lives of ministry in mission among non-Christians. There will still be ministry going on among Christians and to Christians, but the dynamic and arrangement will look differently. To reiterate again, it takes a different imaginary. I urge the reader at this point to Google me, JR Woodward, Alan Hirsch, polycentric leadership, five-fold gifting etc. etc.

It is important to notice that John starts with the Pastoral Epistles to derive his architecture if leadership. I start with Romans 12, 1 Cor 12, Eph 4 and the gifting passages. I suggest we interpret all the offices referred to in the Pastoral Epistles in light of the earlier Pauline texts on the gifts. In the 50’s, German protestant (centered around post Bultmannian – Ernst Kasemann) New Testament scholars accused the pastoral epistles of Early Catholicism. They said that the pastoral epistles were post Pauline and showed signs of losing the gifted/charismatic nature of the church for a more institutionalized hierarchy. I disagree. I think you can see signs of the spiritual gifts as the driver that leads to ordination and office in the pastorals. I also think we should be careful reading hierarchy into the pastorals. I think John Starke reads the pastorals first and then the charismatic passages second. I do the reverse. When you read the charismatic passages as hermeneutically prior to the Pastorals, you end up seeing the organization as facilitating the gifts leading to a multiple pastorates. When you do the reverse, you end up seeing gifts ordered (and confined) by the institutionally installed offices. To be bi-vocational in the way I have described, you need a hermeneutic driven by the charismatic gifts. That’s a different imaginary. Personal confession: I once wrote a whole New Testament Masters Thesis on this.

Not Two Jobs, but One Life

John says bi-vocationalism “wasn’t sustainable.” John says, “My family took a hit.” I just want to say that I hear this a lot. My response is that … again …we need to reimagine ministry. For many Americans, we see family time as this isolated time just to ourselves separated away from the rest of life and ministry. Although I agree we need some time like this, I believe this idea of the nuclear family is dangerous to ministry anyway you do it. The idea that in our family we somehow have a therapeutic space that needs to be protected is peculiarly American and if dwelt in too much, is its own recipe for disaster regardless of whether you are in ministry or not. Instead, take those times when they come, recognize how much alone time is appropriate, and see everything else (like dinners on a Friday night with friends) not as something I do out of my pastoral leadership duties, but as something so life giving I would do it any way, even if I wasn’t a leader. I’m not saying ministry isn’t hard. It can be very hard. Life is hard. Most sanctification is hard. But when we learn to operate out of our giftings, and the posture of tending to the presence of Christ (as opposed to I need to make something happen), ministry can be life giving even when it is hard. And even when dying to the flesh becomes more prominent in ministerial life, it too can be not only sanctifying but life giving. The way I have termed this is “bi-vocational ministry is not two jobs, it is one life.”

In short, I think the differences between myself and John are reflective of ministry in Christendom and ministry in Mission. I think both forms of ministry are important (even though I admit I focus on the latter). I also applaud those who support themselves via other means (like raise money) and do Mission. I suggest there are many means to plant a church and do mission. But in the end, I agree with John!: under his terms, bi-vocationalism is unsustainable. But as a post-Christendom imaginary, used to implant yo
urself among others in a neighborhood, to engage neighborhoods and shape a church contextually, bi-vocationalism is the way of mission. Perhaps I just need to change the name, call it something else, so that people like John and I no longer talk past each other. Cheers John, I love that you’re continuing this discussion and dialogue!!

What do you think? Change the name from bi-vocational ministry? What about “Che Guevara revolutionary”? We talk about his stuff on our Theology On Mission podcast HERE. Blessings to everyone engaging the world for Christ and His Kingdom in both modes of ministry! 

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3 responses to “Bi-Vocational Pastoring and the Christendom Imagination: John Starke and Me

  1. David, I’ve been one of three leaders in a start up missional community for 3 years and I have attempted and wrestled with this bi-vocational stuff. The major challenge was the lack of time/energy for family, job and ministry. You have rightly noted that the nuclear family has become an unhealthy imaginary in N. America and I think there’s wisdom in the movement toward a wider view of the family. However, when I worked a "second" job for 8 months I soon realized that I was triangulated between job-ministry-family. The difficulty with most trade jobs is that the hours are usually inflexible; thus family and other ministry stuff had to bend around it (evening meetings, 5A.M. sermon prep, etc.). I found myself having to choose between ministry related stuff or time with my wife and baby. My presence in the neighborhood plummeted. While family can certainly become an idol, there are serious needs in a family – especially a young family with children under 5; and no pastor with a joyless home life is going to do ministry well. Any thoughts here other than what you’ve offered above? Is bi-vocational really for single ministers? Is this why both Jesus and Paul flew solo?

    Another thing: my job didn’t become a context for mission; it didn’t provide me a way to share the gospel or bless others and I didn’t try to make it so; it was a job with 4 other people and we got along like nice people who work a job together. It was, for the most part, simply a paycheck. Do you have any thoughts on how to approach finding a job? You worked in finance, how was that? Was it just a paycheck or was it a context for mission? Details details details.

    I should note that "ministry stuff" includes planning and carrying out weekly liturgy. Do you presume that missional communities are worshiping communities or should bi-vocational pastors leave weekly liturgy to others and focus on presence in the community? Just curious because we both know how time consuming liturgy planning can be. If a community carries out creative liturgy on a weekly basis then this can become a hindrance to mission.

    So, I’m just curious to know more because I only worked a part-time job and found it incredibly difficult to find time/energy for the ministry and mission of our community. I can’t imagine how someone working a full-time gig could do it. Help me out.

  2. I agree with John that bi-vocational ministry is not sustainable. I say that because his view of ministry is the sacerdotal version with one guy lecturing the Bible every week and calling it preaching or teaching and one guy being the focal point Bible answer man for every need.. How one gets exegetically form "preach the word…" to strict lecture for the whole time by one man with zero interactivity or participation by any other priest present is baffling to me. This one assumption is what makes this form of ministry unsustainable for those who are not paid to lead. It takes so much time every week to pull off this one expectation. There isn’t time for someone who earns a living to provide for his family to pull this off week after week without end. But, if we think outside this bubble and realize the Word never specifies nor exemplifies this form by any anyone in the NT, we will realize a sustainable leadership dynamic that can be reproducible to any business man that realizes God expects him to "make disciples." Acts 20 tells us Paul raised up a crew of elders in Ephesus in 3 years with a very "each one" focused dynamic. No lecturing in that dynamic. Luke 6:40 tells us a teacher will actually "fully train" his student to "be like him". Real sustainability goes way beyond making the budget work and keeping a core of people walking in a room every week to hear a Bible lecture. Sustainability involves full reproduction of all leadership responsibilities and maturity to other businessmen. That is the example Paul set and Jesus set. I know a lot of verses are used to justify the well worn sacerdotal model but they are all twisted from what I have seen. This could be offensive to some but this is a good place to interact. We’re brothers.

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