Jessica Young Brown: Don't be afraid of a future with more bivocational ministers

Photo courtesy of Jessica Young Brown

With collaboration and clear communication, bivocational ministry can be an opportunity to innovate and thrive, says a professor and counselor for ministers.

A pastor confides his frustrations to me in my office -- not about church drama or a capital campaign, but about the stress of being a bivocational minister.

He works a full-time job in information technology and must be on call a few nights a week in addition to the 40 hours he spends at the office. On Wednesdays, he often works 15 hours. He goes directly from work to church for Bible study, often finalizing his lesson plans while scarfing down his lunch at work. Saturdays are filled with meetings or various members’ events, and then he locks himself in his downstairs office to prepare the Sunday sermon. On Sundays, he gets up early, spends the morning at church and then tries to have an unhurried Sunday meal with his family before crashing on the couch. Too soon, it’s time to go to bed and start it all again.

He’s tired, and his family is as well. His wife has expressed that she’s not getting enough of his time or attention. His kids are complaining that he misses their sports games more than he makes them. He feels committed to his call, and he needs his job, but he can’t seem to figure out how to make everything fit.

This narrative is common in my conversations with clergy as a professor and counselor for ministers. We work hard to discern Niebuhr’s “providential call” -- what specific work am I to do in the world? In 2019, this question is not easily answered.

Many seminaries train clergy for full-time ministry, often in a parish context. However, in reality, fewer and fewer clergy will end up with full-time ministry jobs. Bivocational ministry is becoming the norm rather than the exception. As we adjust to this new way of doing ministry, it’s helpful to frame the changing landscape as an opportunity rather than a tragedy.

A 2017 survey by The Association of Theological Schools revealed that about 30% of graduating seminarians anticipated bivocational ministry. When these numbers were broken down by race, people of color were much more likely to believe that this was their track: almost 60% of black seminarians and over 40% of Hispanic/Latinx seminarians noted preparing for bivocational ministry.

In denominations across the globe, attendance at traditional churches is declining, leaving them less able to pay ministers a living wage. To fill the gap, ministers are finding that they need to juggle their ministry work with other forms of employment.

The natural reaction is fear. But if we prepare for a future with more bivocational ministers, we can equip both ministers and congregations to thrive in it.

Bivocational ministry requires us to be open to the multiplicity of gifts in the body of Christ and the unlimited ways that God can call us to service. Some of us are called to do work in communities, in business and even in governmental agencies. Rather than thinking about a dichotomy of sacred and secular, we can focus on a simple assessment of whether we are living out our purpose and operating in ways that leave us feeling connected to God.

There is still the very real possibility that a second job feels disconnected from our calling but is necessary to pay the bills. In such cases, we can focus on what human resources professionals call “transferrable skills.” A minister with an accounting job might provide valuable insights in the area of church administration. An IT professional might help ensure that the church’s technology is effective and up to date.

Bivocational clergy must maximize efficiency by focusing their efforts on their particular areas of giftedness and seeking support for other tasks. This requires communicating clearly with ministry partners and managing the expectations of both minister and congregation. One pastor with a background in training and development engaged in intensive education of lay leaders to help manage the pastoral care needs of the congregation, including requests related to bereavement and pastoral visitation. Those leaders became so engaged during the process that a new ministry was formed.

Another major key to success in bivocational ministry is time management. There is no standard, one-size-fits-all strategy; each person must examine his or her life tasks and devise a plan for making things work. This might mean, for example, dedicating certain time blocks to ministry work. But it will definitely mean setting aside time to reflect, engage in self-care and be present with family to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

One minister told his church that he was not available for Saturday morning meetings because his son’s soccer games were at that time. Another blocked out Friday nights as nonnegotiable play/relaxation time, whether with friends or family or by herself. While this may take an adjustment, being upfront about unavailability helps all involved to set healthy expectations for each other.

Bivocational ministry requires both ministers and congregations to be flexible, to collaborate and use everyone’s skills to accomplish tasks. It also requires clear communication of expectations and time management.

I have often heard bivocational clergy wonder whether they misunderstood their call: “If I can’t find a full-time ministry placement, did I get it wrong?”

The answer is firmly no. Bivocational ministry is increasingly the norm, and while it is a challenge, it also presents an opportunity to understand God’s work in us in new and exciting ways.