Questions from a bi-vocational pastor

“And because (Paul) was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working; for by trade they were tentmakers. And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:3-4).

Paul was a bi-vocational preacher. A self-supporting apostle.

He received occasional help from the churches he had begun, and he taught that the minister of the gospel has a right to be supported by those to whom he is ministering. (Those who insist otherwise would do well to read the Bible before pontificating on it.) However, it appears that mostly he paid his own way.

A bi-vocational pastor is one who holds down two full-time jobs, the one at church and the other one which pays most of the bills. The wife of a bi-vo minister told me, “Fred has two full-time jobs and two half-time salaries!”

Either his church is small and cannot afford to pay him a full salary, he has started the church himself and it has not grown to the point of self-sufficiency, or he feels called to the bi-vo kind of ministry.

Don’t miss that: “he holds down two full-time jobs.” That’s not a typo.  Ask any pastor trying to do this.  They know.

For six years after God called me into His service, I expected that mine would be this kind of two-headed ministry.  I planned to teach history in college, particularly to freshmen, while pastoring small churches on the side. My plan was to go on to a state university somewhere and get a doctorate in history after finishing seminary.

I was burdened about young people going off to college without adequate spiritual preparation with no people on campus to catch them when they floundered. I wanted to be one of the catchers.

My wife and I were in a hotel in San Antonio.  Margaret was asleep, and I was on my knees talking to the Lord. Suddenly, as clearly as His original call to the ministry six years earlier, the Lord told me I was to pastor His churches.

My plans for history teaching was a thing of the past.

Even so, I have always had a place in my heart for pastors who try to ride this “bicycle built for two,” the ministry of bi-vocationalism.

When asked to write a piece for bi-vo pastors, I begged off, saying that I’m not qualified.  When my friend insisted, I asked for topics I should address.  What follows is his list and my attempt to respond to them.

1) Tell us how to manage our time.

I tell young pastors that if they are to last in this work, they must learn to live in a world of unfinished jobs. There are not enough hours in the day. And, if that’s true of a full-time pastor (you understand my use of the term), how much more of the pastor who has only part of his life to devote to the work.

a) A bi-vo pastor must be pro-active in planning and working his schedule. If he does not, he will always be running behind and forever trying to catch up.

b) A bi-vo pastor must enlist, train, and use his people.  Since he cannot be at the hospital in the mornings before someone’s surgery, he has to select good people who can be there, and train them. Since he is unavailable from 8 to 5, he must ask the Lord to raise up others in the church to fill this breach.

2) Tell us how to manage the financial stress of taking care of our family on limited resources.

Some would think you have twice the resources since you have dual jobs. But we know better. Often, the church income is just enough to cover your expenses.  (Bearing  in mind that those expenses will include the cost of your study, book allowance, mileage, and a hundred other things laypeople never think of.)

Short answer: The pastor and his wife must become a S.W.A.T. team focusing on wiping out the dreaded enemy of emergency expenses.  To do that, they have to agree where to cut expenses and where to spend, how to save money and for what purposes.  If both are not on the same page, the result is disaster.

Second answer: The pastor would do well to have the close counsel of a small group of key laypeople.  At least two or three godly, mature, and informed lay men and women may be brought into the pastor’s inner circle to hear of his finances, learn what he is dealing with, and speak up for him when key financial decisions are being made in the church. Only a secure pastor can pull this off; only the Lord can raise up those advisers.

3. In my church, everyone is related to each other.  Help!

I’m smiling.  This is often the case in small churches.  And it can actually be a good thing.  In a “family church,” the lines of communication and the pecking order are already established and you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.  So, ideally your situation is like that.

You must work to keep confidences, of course.  Anything you tell Aunt Susie is going to get to Cousin John by nightfall, and In-law Betsy is not going to like it one bit. So, a tight lip is absolutely essential.

In intermarried churches where everyone is constantly fighting among themselves, I have no word of wisdom other than to keep on keeping on.  Preach the word, demonstrate and teach the principles of Godly living, praying constantly that the Lord will either change their hearts or move you on.

4. How do I juggle study time, ministry time, sermon preparation, personal devotional time, with the personal activities.

Answer: There will always be tension.  Just accept that and get used to it.  Unless your schedule is exactly the same every day so that you can set a pattern and stick to it–I’d like to see that!–each day is going to be different.  This means you’ll get this right sometimes and flub it up royally at other times.

Cut yourself some slack here, and assume that there will be weeks when your study time suffered. Try to make it up the following week.

And this: Always have a number of sermons in process.  When you begin to work on a new message, begin by reviewing the others in your hopper, adding to them anything that comes to mind. This way, you’re never at the mercy of a hectic week.

5. How do I do effective pastoral ministry in such brief hours?

You probably do it the way the rest of us do, inadequately. But you give it what you have. You try to squeeze in hospital visits with your regular job if possible, so that if your work sends you to the county seat to pick up supplies, you run by the hospital to check on Deacon Waller. Also, you enlist the best and godliest leaders in the church–they’re usually retirees–to assist you. How do you train them? Take them with you a few times to see what you do.

One positive from being bi-vocational is that no reasonable person is going to demand that you be on call 24/7.  You are therefore empowered to stand before a small group of leaders and announce, “I cannot do this without you.  Will you help me?”

I hope you will do this, pastor.  You’ll end up blessing those people, enlarging your own ministry, and freeing up time for your family.  And this will honor Christ.

Never forget that we are sent to make disciples. Among other things, that means I do not try to do all the ministry work myself, but enlist others and show them how. Then turn them loose.  In time, you may end up being the envy of a lot of full-time pastors.

6. How do I mentor the most faithful members?

Paul said to Timothy, The things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).

Whether you make this a formal mentoring relationship with them–which means commitments on each end–or it remains informal and casual, you will still want to focus on a few men and women who have good potential and encourage their growth and development.

This means praying for them often (as Paul did Timothy; see 2 Timothy 1) and caring for them deeply (Paul even knew the names of Timothy’s mother and grandmother!).  This will form a basis for those brief teaching times as you’re able to work them in.

When you are doing ministry, take a couple of these people to visit hospitals with you, take them to visit the home-bound, the unchurched, and those in trouble. In the drive between ministry stops, talk to them about what you just did, take their questions, and respond to their issues. Be their teacher.

This is something pastors of larger churches almost never do, due to the pressure of so many responsibilities, but which you can and must do. So, your limited time could turn out to be a blessing in the long run.

7. How do I reserve time for my wife and a hobby or two?

You do it by planning, and if you are not a planner, this is going to go bad quickly.

Church members mean well, but they think their beloved pastor ought to be present at every event that involves them without one thought to what doing so might cost him. They have to be taught otherwise.

When someone tells you they have a retirement party coming up Saturday night and “I just have to have my pastor there,” you tell them the truth, but not all of it. “I sure wish you’d told me before now, Charlie,” putting the onus back on him. Then you add, “I’d love to come but I have an important appointment that has been on my calendar for weeks.”

That this appointment is a movie and dinner with your wife or a baseball game with your child is none of his business.

Don’t miss that. The church members do not need to know every detail about your life.

Even if he learns what you are choosing over him, be firm. Don’t weaken. Your wife (or your child) is watching to see how you handle this.  You can come through as pure gold or you can cave in to pressure and abandon those you love best and who need you most.  It’s up to you.

In the long run, the church member who is disappointed because you cannot make his/her event because of a prior commitment will come to respect you for it.  If they do not in the short run, then, that’s their problem.

You cannot remain bi-vocational and succeed if you are weak and a people-pleaser.

To repeat, you cannot succeed in bi-vo ministry if you require that everyone always be pleased with what you do.

You will stay focused on the Lord Jesus and obedient to His call for your life or you will throw up your hands in despair and say it cannot be done.


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