Friday, January 10, 2014

The Myth of Bi-Vocational Ministry

In 2002, I started working part time as an engineer for my father-in-law's consulting firm.  It was a little like Gilligan's Island...supposed to be a three hour tour.  Our fledgling church was discovering that centering our efforts on making disciples of Jesus didn't market very well.  It was slow work, planting seeds of the Kingdom.  Amber's small music business for kids was paying some of the bills, but we had a growing family.  So I worked to give those seeds (family and ministry) time to be nourished well.

Eleven years later, I'm still working.  In fact, I manage a department and oversee a good portion of the firm's output.  I laboriously studied for and miraculously passed the Fundamentals of Engineering exam MANY years removed from college then passed another exam to become a Professional Engineer.  This was not in the plans when we moved to Jupiter as church planters.  The plan was to be in ministry full time.  In other words, I anticipated that eventually my livelihood would come from the church or some kind of ministry effort.  But now, I cannot imagine doing anything different.  What changed?

During those first few years, a sea change was occurring in my vocational identity.  It was a painful process, but I eventually discovered that I was not built to "run a church".  The reality is that I have never been good at making up a job for myself.  My tendency is always towards introspection, study, and ideation.  This, unfortunately, does not make a church go.  To run a church, at least in the traditional sense, you need the same skills that anyone has who runs a business.  In the end, running a church means having a boss, workers, money, and a pot full of volunteers to support enough numerical growth to produce a salary.  I'm not being crass or critical.  This is just the honest truth.

The theory of bi-vocational ministry is that you work a second (or third or fourth) job - whatever it takes - to give time for a full time position to develop.  The fallacy is believing that this will somehow result in a healthy church, marriage, kids, body, or soul.  Something will give, eventually.  Many church planters have lost everything in the race to becoming "full time".  Others just give up and take a staff position elsewhere.  For those who make it, maintaining a salary can change godly vision into a drive to survive.

Years removed from that vocational crisis, I have discovered a new freedom.  I can cultivate community, help build up the spiritual gifts in others, teach, lead worship, organize mission groups, and have a lot of fun in the process.  This is all in the context of a missional community that I lead along with Amber while I continue to work as an engineer.  Yes, there are limitations to my time.  But there is now a harmony between work and ministry like never before.  In fact, I have learned more about myself and grown more as an individual through work than anywhere else.  

My model is the Apostle Paul, who willingly continued making tents for a living while shepherding a Jesus movement in Asia.  Part of his decision was to keep from being a financial burden to his fledgling churches.  Another part was strategic.  But I think there was also a part of Paul that simply enjoyed the work.  Making tents was deeply formational.  He learned the value of good materials, how to weave strong seams, and teach an apprentice well.  These were skills developed over time, long before he was a "successful" apostle.  They matured and interlaced with his skills as a writer, teacher, and leader.

My message in this post is to abandon bi-vocationalism.  If you are called to receive a salary within existing church or ministry structures, then find a way to do that in a sustainable manner.  But if you are a church planter or missionary, consider the example of Paul.  Embrace work.  Let it form you.  Enjoy the fruits of your labor.  And watch how it weaves its way into your calling as a minister of the Gospel.


  1. Ever since we got saved, about 33 years ago, we have longed to each the lost. Back in the 80s we went to an incredibly evangelistic church where we got involved in prison ministry, the homeless, and house to house evangelism. It was so exciting! We were helping spread the Gospel and save souls. But over time we got seduced into church, only reaching the people the ads brought in. So now, finally, we are going into full time ministry with Child Evangelism Fellowship. Our mission is well defined and our organization has a vast amount of institutional experience. Starting a church seems a lot harder. We will be partnering with existing churches that recognize their need to fulfill the Great Commission. We don't reinvent any wheels. We just provide the missing spokes.

    I'll write more when I don't have to use my phone. ��

  2. I love reading this and seeing how the Lord is engineering and growing your life- and that of your amazing family. Blessed to call you friend :) Excited to read your book again!


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