The Beauty of Bi-Vocational Ministry
A few years back I had lunch with a pastor of one of the larger churches in my town. During the course of our conversation, I described to him my weekly schedule. As the pastor of a small house church, I preach every other Sunday, teach an evening Bible study on a regular rotation, and meet individually with people during the week for discipleship. This leaves me with a lot of “free time” to be out in the community. With most of my free time, I teach classes on religion and the humanities as an adjunct at several local community colleges. Depending on the semester, I typically teach two to four classes across several campuses and locations. Even though I spend a good bit of time with the members of my congregation in the evening and on the weekends, I spend most of my workday with people who are not members of my congregation. As I was describing my weekly schedule, my friend looked at me and said, “I spend all my time with my staff that is entirely Christian. You spend all your time with people from the community who are not necessarily Christian.”
A Foot in Each World
Whenever you pastor a smaller congregation, you have to consider being bi-vocational either out of necessity or out of a desire to ease the financial burden you impose upon your congregation. This is a model of ministry that goes back to the Apostle Paul, who worked as a tentmaker to support his apostolic ministry.1 In my case, I was given the opportunity to teach college classes as an adjunct, which is in itself a challenging and rewarding task. Just recently I was having lunch with a pastor of a smaller church. His small congregation is able to provide him with a full-time salary that meets his basic necessities, but he also sees the value in bi-vocational ministry and believes that bi-vocational ministry will become the norm for many pastors in the future. He was very supportive of my work because he recognizes how important it is to have pastors teaching in colleges, something that does not happen very often. He confessed that he could not personally work in academia, but he acknowledged that we need pastors with the personalities and skill sets to be able to work in higher education.
When I was first hired as an adjunct, I was hired by my local community college to teach a class called Great Books: Bible and Western Culture. The class is an academic look at the Bible as a great work of literature and an examination of the cultural impact of the Bible. The college needed an adjunct with an expertise in the Bible and Christianity, but they were somewhat wary of hiring a pastor because previous pastors had used the classroom to “proselytize.” I assured them I would not proselytize, and they handed me a pile of textbooks to read. Even though I was hired specifically to teach a course on the Bible, very quickly I was offered other courses on world religions. As time went by, and I proved myself a capable and reliable instructor, more and more opportunities were given to me, and I started teaching at other schools as well. Now I regularly teach a general introduction on the humanities, a class that includes some religion, philosophy, and art.
Being an adjunct has been a wild and unpredictable ride. Over the last five years, I have had hundreds of students from all different walks of life and from all different backgrounds. Even though I do not actively try to invite students to my church, I know that my teaching and my classes have made a positive spiritual impact on many students. Every semester, I have meaningful before and after class conversations with students, and I know that the content of my class will at least cause students to reflect on the big questions of life and spirituality.
Being an Adjunct
Whenever I talk with other pastors about my work as an adjunct, they always want to know how I got a foot in both worlds. Unfortunately, the worlds of the church and academia are often sharply divided, at least in a public college setting. My simple answer from a spiritual perspective would be Divine Providence. I personally feel that having a foot in each world is my personal calling and vocation. From a practical perspective, it took a fair amount of networking and meeting different people before I got my first opportunity.
At the risk of over-glamorizing the work of an adjunct and bi-vocational pastor, I should offer a few words about the reality of the situation. As an adjunct, your course load can come and go every semester. Some semesters you can be swamped and others you might be lucky to even get a class. Classes can be cancelled for low enrollment only weeks or days before the semester begins. This means that your income can fluctuate greatly depending on how many classes you get and how many get enough enrollment. Furthermore, adjuncts do not have the benefits that full-time faculty enjoy such as having private office space on campus and health care benefits. Since both of my vocations are part-time, I have to buy my own health care coverage for my family of six. A full-time job that offered health care coverage would be a great benefit to my family, but over time you learn to go on faith and make do with a bi-vocational situation. However, there are some benefits to being an adjunct. You do not have to do advising, publishing, or research like full-time faculty. Most schools only ask that you come for class time and do not require you to keep regular office hours. This means that adjuncts have incredibly flexible schedules.
Ministry Outside the Walls of the Church
As my opening illustration indicates, most clergy spend the majority of their time within the four walls of their own church. In fact, if clergy of larger churches are honest with themselves, they really spend the majority of their time with their staff and the few congregants privileged to know the pastor personally. When this model works, I suppose it is a viable approach to ministry. The pastor disciples the staff who disciple the volunteers who disciple the congregants. However, from the perspective of a small, house church pastor, this is a lot of levels of bureaucracy. I appreciate the ability to know all of my congregants by name and interact directly with the majority of them.
This model of pastoring a small church and being bi-vocational requires a congregation to take a selfless leap of faith. When churches pay a pastor a full-time salary, it seems to come with the expectation that the pastor will devote the overwhelming amount of his time to ministering to the committed members of his church. On the contrary, when a pastor is bi-vocational, congregants have to accept the reality that the pastor may spend more time ministering to people outside the four walls of the church. For example, many days after class, I will spend as much as 30 minutes to an hour, talking with a student about life challenges, jobs, families, parenting, academics, or spiritual topics. A lot of mornings I work from a coffee shop and find myself having conversations with perfect strangers to the neglect of sermon prep. In my case, the members of my church have embraced the fact that they support me to not only pastor them but also people who are not members of the church. I think that is a noteworthy attitude, and it reflects the fact that our vision is on the kingdom of God not only on our local church.
Taking the Plunge
At first, bi-vocational ministry can be a bit frightening. The lack of a full-time salary with benefits can stretch your faith. Accepting the reality of pastoring a small congregation can challenge your personal ego and sense of success. Our American church culture places such emphasis on numerical growth and large budgets that small church pastors have to fight feelings of inadequacy and insignificance. Being bi-vocational, a pastor has to make peace with the fact that many of the people he ministers to will never attend a Sunday morning worship service or an evening small group Bible study. However, as I have personally seen, there is a great opportunity for pastors who are willing to take the plunge and embrace bi-vocational ministry and pastoring smaller congregations. You have the ability to know the majority of your congregants on a personal level, and you have the flexibility to bring the ministry to people who would otherwise never set foot inside a church building or attend a church service.
(1) Acts 18:1-3; II Thessalonians 3:6-13
Image from Isaac Bowen on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.