John Starke
Jun 25, 2015 · 6 min read

Cautions Against Bi-vocational Ministry

For three years, I worked as a bi-vocational pastor. It was hard and I would do it again. There are many bi-vocational pastors all over the world whose ministry will never, as far as they can tell, be able to support them as pastors and so they willingly work in other industries and, of course, there are church planters who are sent out with small core teams and some cash and they work until the church is sustainable to support his salary.

What concerns me is the rising momentum behind bi-vocational pastoring as a strategy for mission and church planting. There are many who are worried that finances aren’t available for the kind of church planting that we should be accomplishing (See Ed Stetzer and Jimmy Scroggins). “The math doesn’t work,” says Jimmy Scroggins. It’s just too expensive, especially in urban places, where church planting is most needed. Pastors need to become more comfortable about potentially never getting a paycheck from the church. Others, like David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, argue that it’s more missionally strategic to be bi-vocational as a pastor and want to change the culture of pastoring in the United States. These are just a few examples. But I have some cautions.

Challenges to Bi-Vocational Ministry

The Differences in Bi-Vocational Ministry

There are serious challenges to bi-vocational ministry that those who advocate for it as a strategy do not consider — or at least do not mention. Part of the problem, it seems, is that the momentum behind this strategy is coming from those who are not bi-vocational or those who are working two ministry jobs. 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. It’s still difficult to be bi-vocational with two ministry jobs, but tasks can often overlap and it’s much easier to transition between jobs and both tend to be more flexible. That is a luxury that most bi-vocational pastors don’t have and, unfortunately, much talk about bi-vocational ministry as a strategy come from people who have that luxury.

The Biblical Demands on a Pastor Are Not Part Time

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). These demands aren’t part time. In fact, the early church appointed deacons because they recognized that the time demands on a pastor are big enough that they need to be kept from doing other things.

Someone may respond with, “Well, if a church has a plurality of leaders, then they can spread the work of the ministry across a whole team, not just one guy.” The problem, however, is that while I absolutely agree that churches should have a plurality of leaders (deacons, elders, ministry leaders), that doesn’t keep a pastor from being responsible to do all these things. They are still called to be exemplar in these areas. A pastor who is not hospitable is not a good pastor. A pastor that doesn’t disciple, counsel, teach or any one of those things, is not doing what he’s called to do.

David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw over at Northern Seminary in Chicago, argue that what a good church needs is about three pastors who can work a “normal” industry job, but can devote about 10–15 hours a week towards the organization and leadership of the church. Apart from major seminary hubs like Chicago, Louisville, or Dallas or ministry hubs like Nashville or Colorado Springs, I’m not sure you’d be able to assemble such a team of flexible, gifted, and equipped pastors together for the kinds of church planting movements they talk about. Where are these pastors? I imagine you’d need to use a lot of time to train up such a team, which again would take time that you don’t have being committed to another industry job.

Frankly, pastoring just takes lots of time. It takes sitting with people and simply listening to them. Pastoring is slow work. Pastor’s are often called to just be present, not looking at the clock, wondering if this is going to go past their 10–15 hours this week. Pastors are called to pray and listen to God with their Bibles open, without hurrying. Pastoring means the difficult and slow work of church discipline. It means the complex and long meetings of planning and organizing the budget. It means weddings and funerals. It means opening your house up to the outcast and isolated. It means searching out the ones who haven’t been to church in a few months and then having the ability to make time for them when they finally say “yes” to coffee. I don’t think a long-term commitment to bi-vocational ministry can sustain this biblical vision of pastoring.

Something Will Suffer

Between ministry responsibilities (preaching, evangelism, hospitality, discipleships, leadership training), personal spirituality (prayer, reading, Scripture) and family, if one has a second job, it is inevitable that one of those areas in a pastor’s life will begin to suffer. Likely it will be family. When a husband comes home from work, ministry has to be done sometime. It’s likely going to be when you should be spending time with your kids.

Personally, when I was working as both a pastor and an editor, my family took a hit. Regular time for discipleship with my kids was diminished. Time with my spouse felt rushed. This wasn’t because my convictions as a dad or husband disappeared. Most of the time it was because I was completely exhausted. During that time, I was blessed to have a wife who was supportive and with me in ministry endeavors and it made that season less of strain on all areas of my family, but it wasn’t sustainable.

For others, preaching or spending regular time with members of your church may suffer. Evangelism may just completely abandoned. Or a pastor may never have the time to raise up other leaders, leaving himself as the sole leader for an indefinite amount of time. Pastors already have a difficult time fitting prayer into their life, how much more with adding another 30–40 hours at another job.

A More Chastened View of Church Planting and Ministry

Most arguments for bi-vocational ministry come from pragmatic reasons: “We want to get as many church plants out there as quickly as possible and there doesn’t seem to be enough money to do it.” As Scroggins mentions about his church: “Our own church, the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, is taking part in this movement as we gear up to plant 100 churches in South Florida.” For all the need and opportunity out there, there just isn’t enough funds to do what we want to see accomplished. Traditional church planting and ministry models, according Scroggins, are “Hail Mary’s,” and likely to fail.

Who is calling us to plant 100 churches? How about using those finances to plant ten healthy and financially sustainable churches? What if a church raises $100K, a leader, and then gathers a core group of tithing members from your own church, sends them out and then does that as many times as possible?

Let’s encourage our churches to support their pastors. Let’s have less parachute plants from churches a thousand miles away and more church multiplications of people, leaders, and financial commitments.

As a pastor in an urban setting, I promise you, the quickest way to burnout your pastor is to ask him to be bi-vocational. Many churches here in the city have their pastors take a sabbatical every 5 years instead of 7 because of the intensity of ministry life. The idea that we can spend 20–25 hours/week planting a self-sustaining church, while spending another 20–40 at another vocation is naive. I have no doubt that some men are called to this kind of extreme time commitment. I have no doubt that some families can stick it out and maybe even thrive short term while their ministry develops. But bi-vocational ministry as a church planting and missional strategy will, I believe, undermine many pastors and churches from meeting the needs of their congregants and communities around them.

John Starke

Written by

Pastor at Apostles UptownChurch in New York City. Twitter: @john_starke