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The Dangers of Bi-vocational Ministry

The Dangers of Bi-vocational Ministry

Beau Underwood relates his experience of bi-vocational ministry on Sojourners’ God’s Politics Blog:

The number of bi-vocational ministers is increasing rapidly. Many pastors who work full-time jobs and serve in congregations part-time receive little or no pay for their church service. This trend has been described as “the future of the church” and extolled because the model is a return to “the original church” that will “enliven congregations.”

Such thinking appears to be nothing more than trying to put an extremely positive theological spin on a very dire ecclesiastical reality. There are two very significant reasons I’m skeptical of such rosy claims about bi-vocational ministry.

First, ministry is growing more complex. Our society is becoming both more religiously pluralistic and secular (in the sense that religious is often relegated to issues of private belief). The financial and demographic pressures facing congregations are greater than ever. Technological and medical advances have made the moral questions that individuals and families must answer around end-of-life issues even more complicated. The effects of globalization and public policy choices have increased income inequality and economic insecurity for millions of Americans, which contributes to personal and family crises. Educational levels are rising, which both encourages religious literacy but also fosters a culture of critical questioning of established orthodoxy that requires well-developed, thoughtful responses and guidance from faith leaders. All of these factors and so many others result in a spiritually anxious age where people are hungry for meaning but not finding through traditional religious channels.

Read the whole story here.

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Lisa Shirley Jones

When I grew up, the priest at my Episcopal Church was bi-vocational. He had been a parishioner and decided to go to seminary when the current priest had passed away. He was priest for at least 30 years. Everyone loved him and I always thought that he was a wise and kind man who I hope to find in Heaven. BUT that same church steadily died during those 30 years and is now only attended by 6 people with no priest. I don't expect it to last a year more. I'm sure there were many factors that contributed to the decline of my hometown church, but I have to wonder if the priest's lack of focus on our church as his vocation was the problem. Someone has to feel responsible for a church in order to create responsibility in others, usually that starts with the priest. If the priest just thinks of his church as his weekend hobby, who can be truly dedicated?

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Michael Russell

In the mid-1970s I was involved with the National Association of Self Supporting Active Ministries (NASSAM or Tentmakers for short). I was actually introduced to it by an Episcopal priest at the University of Chicago. At their national convention many expressed the same stresses as expressed in the comments section following the Sojourners article.

When I spoke to a COM about it as a possible path for me, I was told that "Weekend Warriors come to resent the church" and encouraged to think something else. At the time VTS was running an experimental InterMet project with community organizations in DC. It was a great program. But the Church's disinterest shut it down.

So 40 years later, here we are having the same discussion. I believe the confusion is really about what priestly vocation is. Indeed, since the 70s mroe and more CEO sorts of tasks have been imposed upon the clergy (mirroring what we have done to the PB). I cannot count the number of profiles I read in the 80s and 90s where parish's first interests in a potential clergy were administrative or stewardship. Seminaries, however, were not training CEOs of small non-profits, indeed there were hardly mentioning it. And with good cause; we are not called to be non-profit managers, but to do Cure of Souls.

Underneath all of this is the decline in parish revenue. Both in actual current dollars and in actual spending power. The former is related to smaller congregations, the latter to people pledging the same amount year after year despite the erosion of inflation. People give less per capita now than they did during the depression in terms of purchasing power.

So the crisis we should address is parishioner financial commitment. If you want the full-monty cleric then you need to pay for her/him. If you want a 24/7 on call pastoral presence, a person to turn out for pastoral emergencies, a skilled preacher and teacher, a person of prayer who can minister to your soul, and etc. you need to put your quarter down on the table.

Frankly the church is enabling stewardship dysfunction by trying to make everything look like it is the glorious 50s and 60s with one seventh the spendable dollars! One wise person once told a congregation that we had all the money we needed to do amazing ministry all in this room. The problem was that it was int he parishioners' wallets and not in the plate.

As long as we try to make it look okay and not show the consequences of eroded stewardship we remain in a downward spiral. We need to name the demon and deal with it forthrightly.

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