Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Ancient Future Ministry*

Why I believe the revival of bi-vocational ministry is the future for the Church...

“[The Church] must begin now to think about what this new form of the faith is and is to become, because what once was an engaging but innocuous phenomenon no longer is. The cub has grown into the young lion; and now is the hour of his roaring.” The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle

Bi-vocational ministry will be the norm by 2025, for most United Methodist churches as well as many other mainline and independent congregations. When I say “bi-vocational ministry” I am referring to those pastors and Christian leaders whose primary way of generating income is beyond the local church. First let me say there is nothing wrong with making a living in vocational ministry. It has been my life for almost thirty years. I am blessed beyond measure to have experienced a season when I was paid to proclaim the gospel and think deeply about theology and evangelism., As we move into the future, the luxury of full-time, vocational ministry will quickly evaporate and a new generation of pastors will be expected to be “tent-makers” rather than professional Christians.

Bi-vocational ministry is fast becoming a necessity because the world is changing, and it is changing fast! Around the world, and even within some of our Wesleyan family of denominations, bi-vocational ministry is the norm. I have friends in the AME, AMEZ, CME, Free Methodist, Wesleyan, and other denominations that have spent their entire ministry serving a local congregation while simultaneously working a “real job.”

Bi-vocational ministry will become the norm for three reasons: first, salary heavy religious institutions are unsustainable in a post-Christian world. Secondly, by 2025 churches will either be large (300-500+ in average worship attendance) or small (less than 100 in average worship attendance). Thirdly, bi-vocational ministry decentralizes leadership and provides for organic forms of evangelism, mission, and discipleship.

Financial Sustainability
If you have ever been on the finance committee or leadership team of a local church you are aware of an uncomfortable truth: staff are expensive. Full-time, ordained staff with health benefits and pensions plans cost at least $70,000 per year per staff person. The average family attending a local church is estimated to give about $17 per week, or $884 per year (nonprofitsource.com). At this level, it takes at least 79 faithful families just to pay the pastor. With worship attendance plummeting, years of lackluster stewardship teaching fueling a decline in financial partnership with the local church, and the cost of living continuing to rise, it is easy to see why many churches will be forced to deal with the fact that they just can’t afford a full-time clergyperson to be their pastor. This does not even include costs like facility maintenance, special denominational initiatives, or connectional giving to support the administrative needs of the larger organization.  

Bi-vocational ministry will be able to provide the leadership the local church needs at a fraction of the cost. What is vital, however, is the need for oversite boards and denominational leaders to provide both effective, theological training, practical skill development, and basic supervision to assist bi-vocational pastors to do effective ministry. This burden will rest upon those pastors fortunate enough to serve larger churches with accompanying salary packages. They will have to return to Methodism’s concept of being a “supervising elder.” Acting as the center of a hub of local churches, they will provide guidance, support, and practical resources to insure small local churches flourish.

The Messy Middle
Mid-sized churches (those with average worship attendance between 100-250) are difficult to sustain. Their long-term survival usually means they evolve either into larger congregations, or smaller ones. The mid-sized church is messy because it has the desire to provide the level of worship experience, mission engagement, and discipleship opportunities of the larger churches without the resources. They also desire to maintain the relational intimacy of the smaller churches, but are too big to act as a single, extended family unit. In the end, mid-sized churches tend to become smaller because intimacy trumps program in most organizations.

Being a small church is not a negative. Powerful ministry happens in small churches. Small churches need effective leaders and that leadership should not be based solely upon their ability to scrape together an attractive salary package. Additionally, there shouldn’t be some form of ecclesial Darwinism that happens when church leaders write small churches off by proclaiming that they will “get what they pay for.” Many of these small congregations are in marginalized communities, struggling cities, small towns, and rural areas suffering from radical population shifts. These are the very places where Jesus traveled, and where the Methodist movement was birthed. Now is not the time to abandon them based solely upon their ability to sell enough Brunswick stew or chicken plates to put together a $100k salary package.

Bi-vocational ministry will provide leadership to these congregations. With proper supervision, lay pastors and clergy can be deployed into these places. Many already live there and are committed to those communities and simply need to be asked to step into leadership at a greater level.

Decentralized Leadership
Bi-vocational ministry means empowering laity at a level unseen since the early church. By giving the Church back to the “ecclesia” (the gathering of the people), it becomes more of an organic body than an unsustainable institution. Yes, the spiritual garden may grow wild, but history teaches us that the Church tends to be self-correcting when it drifts too far in any direction. For decades (millennia?) we have enforced a hierarchical structure of top-down leadership. Even in more “free” denominations, a small cadre of leaders in any given congregation tend to exert control. Bi-vocational ministry can level the playing field and encourage clergy and laity to work as a unified body to provide ministry to the local church. It will require much more equipping and far less pastoral hand-holding. Clergy will be forced to let go of control, and laity will be encouraged to take pastoral responsibility. The church could look more like Acts 2, with every home becoming a ministry center and every member becoming a minister.

Failure to Prepare…
The Church is changing. For years, powerful voices like Lovett Weems have been warning us about the coming “death tsunami” the Church is facing. Now we are in the middle of the tsunami, there is a hurricane off the coast, and a plague across the land. We still have time to make some major adjustments. It is time to embrace and encourage bi-vocational ministry as the norm, rather than waiting for complete collapse of the struggling system.

*I first heard this term when I met Robert Webber at a seminar about how liturgical Christians and charismatic Christians have similar passions for powerful worship. You can read his bio here. I believe it also applies to any Christian practice that was embraced by the early church that is being rediscovered for present-day ministry.


Unknown said...

Thank you! I agree with your insightful comments. Now is the time to assess our values.

David Haley said...

Well said. I have thought for a long time that full-time clergy are one of the worst things to happen to the Christian Church. We place a burden of expense on the congregation and often hinder the church from being truly missional and evangelistic. "That's what we pay our preacher to do!" Too often full-time clergy become congregation chaplains instead of missional leaders. Tentmaker's also have greater opportunity to witness and minister because they are thrust out into the world every day, rather than dealing primarily with church members.