7 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.) But, it would appear 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.

Either his church is small and cannot afford to pay him a full salary, or he has started the church himself and it has not grown to the point of self-sufficiency, or he feels called to a 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 dual-ministry of teaching history in college, particularly to freshmen, while pastoring small churches on the side. In fact, after graduating from seminary with a masters degree at the age of 27, I had planned to go on to a state university somewhere and get a doctorate in history.

For years I had been burdened about young people going off to college and being thrown into that life with inadequate preparation and few people on campus to catch them. I was determined to be one of the catchers.

After finishing seminary and while pastoring the little Baptist church on Alligator Bayou some 25 miles west of New Orleans, a Mississippi congregation called to see if I would talk to them about becoming their pastor. I stalled for time, telling the chairman of deacons that my wife and I were about to take a week’s vacation to Texas (a reward we were giving ourselves), and “May I call you when we get back?”

We were in a hotel in San Antonio one night.  For several days we had been driving and walking and seeing sights and were tired. Margaret was asleep, and I was on my knees talking to the Lord. Suddenly, as clearly as He had extended the original call to the ministry six years earlier, the Lord let me know I was to pastor His churches. History teaching was a thing of the past.

I accepted this and went on to pastor four more churches, and have never doubted that it was of God.

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 a friend asked me to write a piece for bi-vo pastors, I begged off, saying that I’m not qualified.  When he insisted, I asked him to suggest some topics I should address.  What follows is his list and my attempt to respond to them.  I am more aware than anyone how feeble some of these answers are, but I send them forth with the prayer that someone may be encouraged.

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 cannot be passive, but must be pro-active in planning and working his schedule. If he does not, he will always be running, running behind, and running out of everything.

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 and train them. Since he is unavailable from 8 to 5, and presumably at other times, he must ask the Lord to raise up others in the church to fill this breach.  (Clearly, there are a hundred other ministries to which the laypeople can be called, equipped, and commissioned. We’re having to skim the surface here.)

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 aren’t aware 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 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, perhaps your situation is like that.

You’ll want to learn 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 your biggest asset here.

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 make up your mind.  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, meaning 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.

Always have a number of sermons in process, and when you sit down to work on a message, first review the others to add to them anything that comes to mind. That way, you’re not 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, poorly.  But you give it what you have. You try to work 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. And, you enlist the best and godliest leaders in the church–they’re usually retirees–to assist you.

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?”

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

6. How do I mentor the most faithful members?

It’s good you feel the need to do this. 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 with extraordinary 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.

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 stops, talk to them about what you just did, take their questions, and respond to their issues.

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.

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.

Your people mean well, but they just think their beloved pastor ought to be present at every event that involves them without one thought to what doing so might cost you.

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.

Even if he learns what you are choosing over him, hold to your guns. Don’t weaken. Your wife (or your child) is standing back watching 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 need you most; it’s up to you.

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

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

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

God bless you, friend. We’re pulling for you to get this right.

11 thoughts on “7 questions from a bi-vocational pastor

  1. Bro. Joe, good article. One minor suggestion–bi-vo ministry is not ‘a bicycle built for two’ it’s ‘two bicycles built for one.’ A bicycle built for two has two cranks, one chain, one drive wheel and one steering wheel. Bi-vocational ministry is like trying to ride two separate bicycles at the same time…you steer one bike with one hand, cranking that chain awhile, then while still holding on to that bike, you jump to the other and crank that chain awhile. Or perhaps there’s some connection between the two bikes other than the driver, but they are certainly not welded together. Maybe connected with duct tape? (smiley-face goes here)

  2. Thanks for a superb article that touches on many of the needs us guys trying to keep all the plates spinning are experiencing. We in Tennessee have our annual state bi-vocational pastors retreat next weekend in Gatlinburg and I plan to reference this blog to as many as possible. BTW guys and their wives come from surroundings states of N.C., S.C., and GA. to join us, a couple of hundred in all. Perhaps in years to come you could be placed on program as a resource leader. I know we would benefit much from your wisdom/experience of coaching/mentoring guys who juggle pastoring the smaller flock and managing a full time job. Thanks again.

  3. Great article! My wife and I have served as co-pastors (Yes, we Methodists can do that) at a small, rural church in east-central Indiana. If the truth were known, the Conference sent us there to close the church but God had other things in mind. I was 53 when I entered the ministry and that was 18 years ago. We have both held full-time jobs until two years ago. Each of the seven statements you made about bi-vocational pastors is true but I wouldn’t trade the journey God has sent me on for anything else I have ever done. I truly consider it a blessing. Thanks for reminding me of the road we have traveled. God bless.

  4. After one “full time” tenure, through a series of events, God called me into bivocational ministry. It has “freed me” from the image many have that “a preacher only works one day a week”. It has enabled me to stand eyeball to eyeball and say “I’ve gotta be at work Monday morning, too!” It has also expanded my ministry opportunities, as I am connected at work to folks who would NEVER talk to a “regular” minister….yet we are comrades because we work together….and opportunities abound to get a word in for Jesus (encased in terminology that is not “religious”). Living before coworkers : must balance between being “holy” and “compromising” to the point that they see a genuine person who loves Jesus, yet can still be real.
    Best compliment I ever had was when I walked into the breakroom in the midst of a “shady joke” session, and someone said “hush, Doug’s a preacher”…to which one person said “I didn’t know you were a preacher!” I told him that was the highest compliment I’d had all day! That bonded me to that person, and later I was able to share Jesus with him. THANKS for your article…I am pro-bivo!! It’s another way to follow my parents example when they said “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. If you are bivo, if trouble arises at church, then you still have job income. If your job plays out, there’s still church support. It’s a wonderful place to be. Proud to be as Dale Holloway put it : a “twice-blessed preacher”.

  5. Addendum to above reply : My present bivocational church has kept me for 26 years (pray for them)…and they almost make me feel “unneeded” at times as they “take up the slack” when I am unable to be at hospitals, etc.
    I believe I pastor the BEST CHURCH in the SBC! Shiloh Baptist, Vaiden MS (Carroll-Montgomery Association).

  6. Joe,

    As you know, I’m in my 40th year as a “Bi-Vo” — and I can tell you that you definitely hit the nail on the head with your responses!

    Wish I’d had this advice earlier on, but have learned many of those lessons through the Hard Knocks school. Lessons are well learned there, but not easily!

    As an earlier replier alluded, I wouldn’t trade it for another route. Even as I enter semi-retirement, I maintain my consulting practice “on the side” in order to remain in closer touch with the workplace, which I consider the most abundant mission field in the world!

    Sorry I missed you at Pleasant Hill last week, but know that I was praying for you, and shall continue to do so!

    Yours in HIS Service,

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