Thoughts On Being A Bi-Vocational Pastor

How I’ve come to love being a working pastor.

This summer will be our fifth anniversary of planting Bent Oak Church. For the entire five years, I have been a bi-vocational pastor. It might be more accurate to say, for most of it, I’ve been a volunteer. A year ago the church began to pay me for one day a week. Of course, Sundays end up being work days too and most weeks there are plenty of other appointments that get scattered across evenings, lunches, and morning coffee.

When I’m not working for the church, I am a freelance web designer and also teach a couple classes at a local Christian school. My father-in-law refers to it as being tri-vocational. Some days it’s too-many-vocational, but it’s the best way I’ve been able to piece together feeding the family.

I never planned on being bi-vocational. Most pastors don’t. Before planting the church I worked for two large churches on full-time staff. Even as we planted, I would have guessed that five years into it, the church would be my soul focus. But it isn’t and I don’t anticipate that changing anytime soon. More surprising, the church could probably afford for me to be full-time. But I have been reluctant to do it.

Over the last few years, something unexpected has happened. I have started to really enjoy being bi-vocational. I’ve actually discovered some benefits that, for the moment, make it the best possible place of ministry I could imagine.

I need to put a big caveat here. I want to share some of the things I have come to appreciate about being bi-vocational. Most of these have to do with what I sense God doing personally in my life. These aren’t theological convictions. They aren’t reactions to some perceived wrong in everyone else — this is just me trying to find purpose and significance in the place where I woke up this morning. This is the place God has me and I’ve come to deeply appreciate it.

“The only opportunity you will ever have to live by faith is in the circumstances you are provided this very day: this house you live in, this family you find yourself in, this job you have been given, the weather conditions that prevail at the …moment.” — Eugene Peterson

My goal in writing this is pretty simple. I just want to offer some dignity for those who might not be feeling it. Hopefully what I’m learning can be an encouragement to you. There are far more living this calling than our church leadership culture has acknowledged. I just want to offer it a little respect.

The following are some of the things I’ve been learning…

1. Being Bi-Vocational Has Focused My Priorities

Our church is simple — I mean really simple. We rent a meeting room at a local community center. Most Sundays I carry in a cardboard box that contains everything we use: an iPad, an Apple TV, an offering box, and a recording device. One of our musicians usually comes with a keyboard. That’s about it.

That simplicity is partly intentional and partly just the way things have evolved. I don’t have time to develop anything more complex or sophisticated. For the first four years, I worked five days week outside of the church. I spent evenings and early Sunday mornings working on my sermon and organizing worship.

I could dream up all sorts of ideas. Banners, invite cards, sermon graphics, maybe a stage with lights, and for sure better coffee. I’m a designer after all; I know exactly how to get it done. I got paid to help other church with banners and websites. But I honestly didn’t have time for ours. Like the plumber with leaky pipes or the lawyer without a will.

Pretty quickly I had to come to terms with what I could do. Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor was a big help in setting my priorities straight. If I didn’t have time to do everything, I wanted to be intentional about what I did do. I wanted to study and preach well. I wanted to spend time honestly knowing the people I pastored. And I wanted to pray — for my congregation and for myself. For the last five years, that’s all I’ve tried to do.

We now have small groups which other people initiated and organized. We have a benevolence committee which I don’t chair. A widow in our church even bakes the bread for our communions.

I haven’t been idle. My wife and I have had every church family in our home for a meal. I’ve made hospital visits. I’ve officiated weddings. I’ve disciplined new members. I’ve preached. I’ve tried to take people seriously. I’ve prayed. I’ve been a pastor.

I don’t know if I would have found this focus on my own. I think I needed the constraints of time and energy to really pinpoint which priorities were most important.

Over the last few months, I’ve had lunch with several pastors and leaders in my area, all of whom lead larger churches — they are all full-time. We always end up talking about how things are going at my church. I usually describe how much my wife and I are enjoying it. In 2016 the church was able to give 21% of our revenue to missions. I don’t ever have to worry about the church’s finances. We’ve recently welcomed new members. And I’m really enjoying preaching through 1 Samuel.

It’s been fascinating. All of them have given me the same piece of advice. “Don’t stop doing what you’re doing.”

Bear with me for a moment and hear my heart in this — they all seem to say it with a kind of nostalgia. One leader told me about a time when he was first pastoring and worked five days a week for the city planner’s office. He described it as his most fulfilling time of ministry. Another told me to avoid hiring staff as long as possible. “Some days I feel more like a manager than a pastor,” he explained.

I don’t want to push this point too far. These men are doing good work at good churches. There is no doubt in my mind that God is using them. We need them doing what they are doing. Someday I may be in their place.

What I heard them saying was, “appreciate where you are.” My wife and I say something similar every time we deal with a toddler meltdown or try yet another time with potty training. “We’re going to miss this.” I don’t want the stress of the moment to take away my appreciation of what is happening in front of me. Being a dad is a gift. Being a pastor is also one. Even when they don’t seem to be going according to plan. Even if I’m forced to be bi-vocational.

I’m enjoying it. And every day I try to remind myself, don’t take this for granted.

2. Being Bi-vocational Has Helped Keep Me In Touch With My Congregation

One of the deepest convictions I have about being a pastor is living in the same world as my congregation. I’ve met too many pastors that gradually climb the social ladder far beyond the people they preach to on Sundays. I don’t want to do it. I want my feet on the ground.

I want to keep my perspective. I want first-hand experience in the world my congregation lives in. I want to share it with them. Being bi-vocational has given me a huge advantage in staying grounded.

My congregation knows that I put in 40 hours, just like they do. When I ask someone to show up to a meeting or volunteer, I know what that costs. It’s helped me to not ask too much of my people. And they know what I am sacrificing to lead them. My congregation has also learned why I’m a pastor — it has nothing to do with the paycheck. That’s been a good thing.

Paul does something similar while he is preaching in Corinth. Corinth was packed full of itinerant speakers and spiritual leaders. They drew large crowds with their rehearsed oratory and they profited well from it. The Corinthians were obsessed with that kind of spectacle. Plenty of them found Paul to be highly disappointing compared to the professional lecturers in the city square.

Paul was determined not to be measured by their scales. He simply refused to be paid and participate in the system. He wouldn’t work for them. He wouldn’t be evaluated by them. Too much was at stake. As Paul put it:

“In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting.”
That’s Paul’s way of saying, “Pastors should get paid, but I don’t want you to miss understand why I’m here doing this. I’m your pastor because I’m serving Christ. Not just lining up for a paycheck.”

Paul specifically forfeit a salary because he thought it would help him better pastor those particular people in that particular place of Corinth.

Thankfully, my congregation is not nearly as difficult or demanding as Paul’s. But my willingness to serve them for years without pay laid a foundation I have never regretted. I earned their respect. I became their pastor for all the right reasons. In fact, I started taking a part-time salary because the congregation basically demanded it at a business meeting. There is nothing more encouraging than people who give out of genuine gratitude.

It wasn’t always easy. Our finances were tight. But for me, I have no doubt it was the right decision.

3. Being Bi-vocational Continues To Be A Check On My Ambition

This is a big one. And a hard one to be honest about. Being bi-vocational has taught me a lot about personal ambition and the depth of my own sins.
If I were honest, there are plenty of times I want more. A bigger church, a building, a better reputation, a little more respect. Most of it has little to do with what God is doing and almost everything to do with how I tend to dream about ministry.

I started realizing something like this was going on when I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer small book, Life Together. He makes a point that hit me harder than any paragraph ever has before.

“Beware of visions for church. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own laws, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of the brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together.”

It’s hard to follow that up. I have thought about those words hundreds of times. I’ve quoted them at myself more than I can count. For me, they have served as an antidote for so much of the leadership obsession that has been eroding our identity of pastor. (I’ll save that one for another post.)

Bonhoeffer suggests that much of what we describe as “vision casting” might actually be our own ego filled daydreaming. Slowly our obsession with a personal vision robs us of gratitude and leads us to start using people, using our position, and demanding things from God. The people we have been called to shepherd become resources we manipulate and use to reach our goals.

I slowly came to realize that the vast majority of what I imagined myself being as pastor and what I dreamed about the church becoming had very little to do with faith or God and almost everything to do with my own ego.

I started practicing a mental exercise every Sunday when I stepped into the pulpit. I would look out at the 30 people in my congregation, most of which are twice my age, and ask myself this question. “If God asked me to pastor these same 30 people for my entire life — the same people, the same rented building, the same paltry pay — could I do it with gratitude? Could I honestly get to the end of my life and not feel like a failure?

For a long time, that answer was no. I don’t know if I could do it. Slowly my answer is becoming, I think so — I want to. I’ve made it a weekly discipline to start saying thank you to God for the people he has entrusted to me. Thank you for these particular people. Thank you for this church — exactly the way it is right now.

It would be the worst kind of lie to suggest that being bi-vocational has eliminated all ambition and turned me into a perfectly humble servant — it hasn’t. It would be pathetic to suggest that only bi-vocational pastors have a true shot at humility — we all wrestle with ambition.

Here is the best image I know for how being bi-vocational has helped me deal with my ambition. My wife and I bought a 1950’s home that I have been slowly remodeling. It’s one of my favorite hobbies. Right now, I’m working on our bathroom and sitting in the middle of the room is my air compressor.

I use it to power nail guns and all sorts of tools. It’s basically a metal tank that uses a compressor to build up air under extreme pressure. You can then use that air to drive nails into wood. On the bottom of the tank is a safety valve. If the pressure were to get too high in the tank, this valve would intentionally fail. The safety valve will blow open and keep the whole tank from blowing apart. It is an intentional weak point in its design. A weakness built in to protect the tank and the person using it.

I’ve thought about that air compressor before when I think about being bi-vocational. I know that the ambition in me builds. I know that if I’m not vigil, my ambition will grow stronger than this simple lifestyle of pastor can sustain. I’ll start using people and God. Things will start blowing apart. My job as a free-lance designer functions like that safety valve. It’s a place that my competitiveness and ambition can escape before it starts putting stress on the congregation I lead.

I want to learn to quiet ambition in all parts of my life, but I’ve found it much easier to identify and deal with outside of pastoral ministry. Sins have a particular way of obscuring themselves in our religious duties.

“There is no one we swindle more than we swindle ourselves.” — Paul David Tripp
There are plenty of other ways to deal with ambition. Some pastors take up hobbies or personal side projects. Sabbath is supposed to be an intentional opportunity to release some of the pressure building. Being bi-vocational has been an important way I’ve learned to deal with it. It has been a check on my pastoral ambitions. It has helped me discover things in my heart I was completely unaware of. Worse, things I thought were holy that in reality were subversive. I don’t think God is done teaching me through it.

4. Being Bi-vocational Has Helped Me Develop A Sense of Vocation

In Bible College, I remember hearing people use the word vocation. I’ve never been confident in what that word means. It’s something like a career but seems deeper. I started picking up on the idea from by brother who is a Marine officer and my dad who recently retired from the State Police.

If you know any Marines, they have a deep sense of vocational identity — one my brother has reminded me of before. “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” You never “used to be” a Marine. You are always one. Even after you have long since retired.

My dad would never ask for the title, but after 35 years of police work, he is still a police officer. He may be retired, but what made him a good cop is still there. My brother and my dad have vocations. Who they are is shaped by the careers they practice. Their careers have given way to an identity bigger than just a job.

For a long time, I struggled with feeling a personal sense of that kind of identity. I never felt like I could claim being a pastor.

I had attended Bible College and earned a master’s degree from seminary; I could toss around a few Greek words and had even won short sermon at National Fine Arts. Everything looked like it was shaping up to put me in a pretty good position as pastor. But four years out of seminary, I had twenty people meeting in a basement and I was making every dollar of my income from building websites not writing sermons. I felt 5% pastor and 95% web designer.

I wish my sense of vocation had changed in some miraculous moment. It didn’t. It took a long time to change. But slowly, in ways I can’t really pinpoint — a card on pastor’s appreciation day, a late night phone call from a college student wrestling with temptation, a congregant asking me to visit and pray with them before surgery — little by little, I became a pastor.

I still make most of my money building websites. But making money is just a prerequisite for living. Like taking out the trash or keeping the grass mown. How I go about writing a check to the utility company each month doesn’t define who I am. It doesn’t describe my vocation. It doesn’t limit my calling.

Being a pastor has nothing to do with the source of your checking account.
Being bi-vocational has helped me develop a deeper sense of my vocation. I am a pastor. It is who I am. It is who God has called me to be. Getting paid is just the logistics of making life work.

Wrap It Up Already

That’s probably way more than you have ever wanted to know about being bi-vocational or me. Here is the big point; God is doing something personal — particular. Don’t miss it. He is doing it right now, wherever you are.

Dreaming about what you wished ministry looked like is robbing you of what God is doing right in front of you. Don’t let a day go by that you aren’t thankful just for the opportunity to participate in it. I am in on salvation. God, at work around me.

If you can wake up tomorrow morning feeling that — grateful — you’re going to be okay. Regardless of how many vocations it takes to pay the bills.

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