Monday, February 7, 2011

Advice for Pastors, Bi-vocational and Otherwise, on Sustainable Life

An issue that comes up often among pastors who want to work in a simple/organic/house church mode is the need to be bi-vocational.  That is, since you're unlikely to get enough income (let alone health insurance) from your pastoring work, you need a second (or third) job to cover that.  This immediately leads to questions about how to manage it all and have some kind of sustainable life, all the more so if you have a family to tend as well.  Maybe it's no surprise, but the struggle for a sustainable life is a major challenge for full time professional clergy as well.  The depression statistics suggest it's a struggle we aren't managing well.

I came across a conversation on this topic back in November '09 that had more frankness and transparency than usual.  But perhaps the best post just showed up there the other day and I wanted to share it with you here.  I commend to you, and to myself, the wisdom and experience of bi-vocational pastor and church-planter Mark Woodruff:


I was cleaning up old email and this was sent to me by a church planting friend who has planted 4 churches in 2 countries over the last 20 years.
I myself finished my medical training in 1989 having been an elder and assistant pastor and built a church planting team in parallel from 1981-89. We moved to Omaha, NE where I started working full time as a doctor and quickly began to church plant. After 3 years in the Air Force we had established a leadership team(3 elders but unfortunately only me as pastor)and I moved to working part time in medicine(ED shifts, usually 2 12 hr shifts a week, including some nights).
Over the subsequent decade I continued this bivocational lifestyle while my children went from ages 11/7/5 to 21/17/15. The benefits of the ED were short hours but the disadvantages were increased stress and shift work.
At that point I had to make a change in my medical career and joined and subsequently bought into a medical practice. As that practice built it became increasingly obvious that I could not do a 60+ hour a week job and continue to pastor a church of about 75 people. After a 3 month sabbatical during which I sought the Lord I turned the church over to the other two elders and became “pastor emeritus”.
Here’s is what I learned about bivocational ministry:
1. You must be truly part time in both(or all 3 in your case): you can’t expect to work 80 hrs a week at 2 full time jobs, maintain your health and build your family(which is your primary calling/ministry in this life stage);

2. You must have a Sabbath!!!!!!! God established the Sabbath, and we neglect it at our own peril. I don’t know how to put this any stronger: I believe this is the primary cause of burnout, not working too many hours or church problems or anything else. That day must be a day refreshment, deep communion with God and rejuvenation(see Bill Hybels’ sermon tape: “Gifts, Gauges and Playing Games” about maintaining/filling your emotional tank; on my best days I would play some golf, read, nap, study just for the sake of studying, not sermon prep; also write, journal, ponder, think, fellowship with my wife and children, and share my heart with them; but I was not faithful to this, especially after I went back into family medicine and a full time job;

3. You must fight ministry maintenance at every turn; the benefit of newer church models is less maintenance, but you still have to delegate; you should never be doing cleanup,not because its beneath you but because others can do it and they can’t do what you are supposed to be dong when you are doing it!

4. You have to avoid the Superman syndrome–”I’ll do it”; think rigorously about whether “it” is in your calling/role/job description;

5. You must have as clear a delineation of your role/responsibilities as possible; I believe there are 3 primary leadership responsibilities in the church: a. vision casting and mission progression(seeing, articulating the vision and moving people to pursue it), b. pastoral care of the people, c. outreach leadership(leading others as they outreach, serve, care for and incorporate new lives into the Body of Christ). Discipleship is involved in the last two. If you have a 40 hour a week job(s) you will be lucky to do one of those well; at 20 hours a week you can probably do 2; to do all 3 you have to be fulltime(and it makes much more sense to split these tasks 2 or 3 ways anyway–there is quantitative research out of Fuller that shows 2 planters working half time will be more effective than one working fulltime); of note, anything not directly included in the above 3 is the responsibility of the deaconate, leading the people in doing he work of the church; also of note, much of this doesn’t fit the American culture nor the American church model;

6. You must have a pastor’s heart, particularly toward your wife and children; you don’t have to pastor(provide pastoral care) for the church, but you must have a pastor’s heart toward them, or you become a hireling; you must actually pastor your family, and given your busy schedule and your lifestyle, I recommend you be intentional in this(my wife used to sit down for an evening 2-3 times a year, discuss our children individually, talk about our vision for them, and write down a goal for each of them in the following three areas: body, soul and spirit; doing this for them at a young age when its easier incorporated it into our thinking when they were older, so it became almost automatic;

7. You must live a fairly spartan lifestyle; the amount of discipline in terms of exercise, rest, healthy eating(not gaining weight over time)does not leave a lot of time for secular pursuits(TV, following college/pro sports, hobbies–except as it relates to #2 above). One of my mistakes was thinking I “deserved” to watch football on Sunday afternoons(and Monday nights, and Saturday afternoons, etc) because I had “worked so hard”; this is unfair but an elite athlete gives up a lot of things his friends do because he’s “in training”; you are perpetually “in training”;

8. You must have focused one on one time with your wife, where you can shut out the other aspects of your life and focus on her; I recommend a 3 day weekend every quarter if possible; if you can’t afford to go anywhere, see if someone will take your kids(individually or corporately, you can return the favor) and see if anyone you know has a lodge/cabin/vacation home you could use for a weekend; don’t hesitate to talk to faithful pastors of larger churches who may be aware of this kind of thing and will be willing to share it with you;

9. You must have your own pastor/mentor; whether this is someone local with whom you develop an intimate relationship, or a denominational leader(if you are part of one) or another pastor who is translocal, you must have someone with whom you can be transparent, and it can’t be your copastor(s);

10. You must have plenty of grace for yourself and your limitations and the limitations of your lifestyle; God gives grace for your calling, but that grace is for you doing it in your weakness, not in perfection(ism).
These are the lessons I learned over more than 20 years of bivocational ministry.
I am not a prophet, but I do believe that full time paid ministry will ultimately disappear; it may hold on for a long time in the US, but it is already not part of the picture in much of the rest of the world; the American Church model of the 20th century is not sustainable in the 21st, for a variety of reasons.

1 comment:

Dr. Terry Dorsett said...

These are great insights. Thanks for sharing. As difficult as bivocational ministry is, I agree with Mark that "paid" ministry in America will continue to dissappear. Which means that bivocational ministry will continue to grow. Suggestions such as the ones Mark makes in this post are important. It is also important to have practical up to date resources to help a bivocational pastor, and the lay elders who work alongside him, work together as a team more effectively. For that reason, I humbly suggest readers buy a copy of my book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. It is published by and also available at
Here is a link: