When Ministers Moonlight
Is bivocational ministry a recipe for burnout or an opportunity for expanded mission?
By Bob Smietana | May 2, 2016
Covenant pastor A. J. Jones longs for the day when his congregation will be financially secure and thriving. A day when the church will have the money to grow its staff and fund more outreach ministries in the community. And, perhaps, even to pay their pastor. But not today.
So, like a growing number of pastors throughout the United States, Jones has a day job. “If they had to pay me full-time, our church would not exist today,” says Jones, pastor of City of Hope Covenant Church, a five-year-old multicultural church plant in Bolingbrook, Illinois. “It would be too much to handle for where we are right now.”
Most Covenant churches have a full-time senior pastor, if not other full-time positions such as a youth pastor or worship leader. But for a growing number of churches their pastor might also work as a substitute teacher or a bookkeeper on the side. They’re bivocational—people with day jobs whose ministry is supported by paid work outside the church.
Such a ministry model has been around since the beginning of the church, of course. In some urban and rural areas pastors have long had to take on other work to make ends meet. But now their numbers are growing—and expanding beyond those traditional settings. Today less than two-thirds (62.2 percent) of churches in the United States have a full-time pastor, according to the 2015 Faith Communities Today survey. That’s down from more than seven in ten (71.4 percent) in 2010.
“In the Covenant, we have noticed a gradual increase in bivocational ministry over the years,” says Mark Novak, executive minister of the ordered ministry. “While most active, credentialed Covenant ministers serve the church as their full-time vocation, the trend toward bivocational ministry is increasing and we are seeking to educate ourselves more about this reality.”
Some who work in bivocational settings are ordained ministers serving churches that can’t afford to pay a full-time pastor, or their full-time salary is so low that it causes a financial strain. Others started as laypeople and now work part-time at a church or as a chaplain or in another ministerial role. Still others are church planters who are bivocational by design.
“Bivocational ministry is complicated because it encompasses so many types of ministry,” Novak says. “The scope of bivocational pastors’ ministries inside the church and their work lives outside the church is varied and complex. It is difficult to make generalizations about this type of ministry because each situation is unique.”
When Avenue Covenant Church in Toronto began, their entire staff was intentionally bivocational. As a young person, church planter John Cho noticed that his youth pastor had to work outside the church to support himself. “When I went into ministry I understood the strain it could put on the pastor and the church, so I chose to take the bivocational route to lift that strain off both me and the church I served,” he says. When Avenue was planted three years ago, the pastors and staff intentionally worked outside the church. “We knew such a model would really challenge our church community to be more involved in ministry themselves. After all, we are all called to the priesthood,” Cho says.
If they had to pay me full-time, our church would not exist today.
– A.J. Jones
Experts anticipate an increase in the need for bivocational pastors in the United States. That’s in large part due to changing demographics in American churches. Most American Christians go to a big church (400 worshipers or more), while at the same time most churches are small (fewer than seventy people). Fewer people attend church, fewer live in rural and small town communities, and large congregations keep increasing. As a result, the size of the average church has shrunk dramatically in the last decade.
It takes about eighty people to sustain a full-time pastor in most churches, says Dave Kersten, dean of North Park Theological Seminary, and the median Covenant church has eighty-nine people in worship. That may leave many churches about ten people away from struggling to support a full-time pastor.
The median church budget in the Faith Communities Today survey fell from $150,000 in 2010 to $125,000 in 2015. “There are a lot of churches that cannot afford to take care of their pastor,” says Ray Gilder of the Nashville-based Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network.
In those churches, the pastor often has two options—live on a very small salary or get a second job.
An IT professional by trade, Jones has always had a job outside of the church. He worked at AT&T for years while serving as an associate pastor at a Baptist church before joining the Covenant. Now he runs a real-estate business while serving City of Hope.
Having a second job is part necessity, part design for Jones.
“One of the biggest strains of pastoring small churches is the stress it creates on your family,” says Jones, who has two grown children. “For me being bivocational allowed me to make enough outside of the church that I was able to support my family. It also blessed the church—because I wasn’t drawing a salary.”
In some ways, Jones feels he has an advantage when it comes to being bivocational, since the pastorate is his second career. “I was a late bloomer,” he says. “I didn’t go to Bible college—I studied computers and technology.”
Now in seminary, Jones says that bivocational pastors should look for more than a paycheck if they have to work outside of the church. Find something you enjoy, he says. Make sure the job has flexible hours—or an understanding boss. And make sure it pays enough to be worth your time. “It’d be a waste of time to go to seminary and then spend twenty hours a week greeting at Wal-Mart.”
Another key to surviving bivocational ministry: setting clear boundaries. A pastor and church have to come up with a clear set of expectations in order to make bivocational ministry work. The first step is determining which tasks the pastor has to do—and which task or responsibilities laypeople can take care of.
“Does the church need me forty or fifty hours a week?” says Jones. “Or do they need twenty or twenty-five hours? You have to take a really hard look at that.”
One other helpful hint: Don’t write your sermon by yourself.
On Monday nights, Jones meets with a group of about a dozen pastors for Bible study and sermon preparation. They all preach from the same text, and do their background research as a team. It’s a technique borrowed from pastors of larger churches.
“You have the collective knowledge of twelve teaching pastors in a room,” he says. “Within two hours of study, we do what would take me ten hours on my own. I am able to leave that night with an outline that I can take back to my context and make it fit for my church.”
He doesn’t see himself as any less of a pastor than those who are paid full-time at their church. “I care for the people of my church—I am every much involved,” he says. “I don’t just show up on Sundays to preach.”
A Surprising Benefit
For Lee Anderson of Discover Church,
a Covenant congregation in Elyria, Ohio, being bivocational was definitely plan B. “I really didn’t have a lot of options,” he says.
Anderson planted the multiethnic congregation in 2011 with a handful of people meeting in a friend’s living room. The church had about three years of funding to start with, which allowed Anderson to work as a planter full-time.
But some of the funding fell through. Then the church hit some hiccups along the way, and their growth stalled and the money began to run out. “Some things didn’t worked out like we’d planned,” he says.
He’d always done some work on the side while in ministry—mostly in IT and multimedia installations. Still, he felt that holding down a second job while planting a church would not work. Being a pastor, a dad, and a husband was enough. Adding a second job seemed like too much.
“I didn’t see that anything good could come of that,” he says. To his surprise, his second job has become a blessing. That’s in part because he decided to become bivocational by design rather than by necessity.
He and his wife, Cori, started to look for a long-term solution to their financial needs that would allow them to remain in ministry. With the help of a local consultant, they launched an IT company in 2014. Now Anderson works six days a week, balancing his ministry with responsibilities at work.
He’s learned to rely on other leaders at church, because he can’t be in charge of everything as a bivocational minister. So he has spent time training and empowering other people at church.
“As pastors, we talk about that all the time,” he says. “I wasn’t really good about that.”
Early on, he wondered if starting the business was a mistake. The work was hard—and he sometimes feared that starting the business showed a lack of faith on his part. On a practical side, the task of balancing all his roles seemed daunting.
Yet running a business has actually given Anderson more time with his family. His kids work alongside him—allowing him to spend time with them, pass on his skills, and even pay them. “I didn’t anticipate that,” he says. “I thought that being bivocational would be all negative. For us it has been this huge source of blessing.”
There is a growing trend for pastors who are becoming bivocational not for financial reasons but for mission,” says Kurt Fredrickson, ordained Covenant minister and associate dean at Fuller Theological Seminary. “You have a better opportunity to be engaged in the community—you are not stuck in the office of your church in a full-time role.”
Fredrickson, who served for twenty-four years as pastor of Simi Valley (California) Covenant Church, says he had a change of heart about the nature of ministry after about a decade as pastor.
Early on, he focused on building the church as a congregation and as an institution. But he didn’t feel like his ministry had much impact in the community outside the church. He also saw a flaw in how people viewed their pastor—as more holy or more effective than a layperson. “We really tend to think that the pastor’s prayers are better,” he says.
A bivocational pastor, on the other hand, can be a leader in the church but can be seen also as a peer or teammate of the people in his or her congregation. So if someone in the church is sick, the pastor doesn’t always have to be the one who visits. Sometime a layperson can be just as effective.
Min Song, associate pastor at New Life Covenant Church in Palatine, Illinois, says his full-time job as a pharmacist keeps him connected to the world outside of church.
Song, a graduate of North Park Theological Seminary, works mostly with college students at the church. He says that there are time constraints—his full-time job means he’s got less time for ministry. In some ways, however, he feels better able to understand the people in the congregation because of his secular work. He also feels better prepared to mentor college students in how to integrate their faith and their future work.
“The good thing is that it keeps me grounded in terms of what most people are going through Monday through Friday,” he says.
Jorge Garcia, pastor of Gracia y Paz Covenant Church in Chula Vista, California, agrees. “You are in touch with the marketplace—and dealing with the same issues and problems that your people are dealing with,” he says.
Garcia, a bivocational church planter, says his career outside the church has given him a broader view of how work and faith interact. He works as a sales engineer for a company owned by fellow Christians.
“In the mission statement, it says that we honor God with our work,” he says. “Our business meetings sometimes begin with prayer—even when we are talking about money and competition.”
On one hand, Garcia feels fortunate to have a job with a flexible schedule, which allows him to stay in ministry. Much of his work can be done online, so he rarely has to go to the office. He works from home and is often out meeting with clients.
“There are some brothers and sisters here in the Pacific Southwest Conference who have full-time jobs and then in addition to that, they pastor a church,” he says. “That’s hard.”
Still, there’s not always enough time to balance his responsibilities at church and at work. But that’s the place God has put him. So he does what needs to be done to stay in ministry.
“You have the opportunity to serve God as a pastor for a particular flock of people,” he says. “If you need to sell pizzas, you sell pizzas, if that is what it takes.”
You have the opportunity to serve God as a pastor. If you need to make pizzas, you make pizzas.
– Jorge Garcia
Garcia’s church is about five years old and has hit a bit of a hard stretch. They were renting space from another congregation and lost their lease. Now they meet in a high school, which has limited the church’s opportunities to do ministry outside of Sunday mornings. They’ve lost a bit of momentum. Attendance is down, finances have faltered.
“You get to a point of this incongruence—you have been called by God to this holy mission—and you are facing the fact that you don’t have the money to pay the rent or the mortgage,” he says. “That’s stressful.”
He’s been bivocational from the beginning with the church plant. Three-fifths of his income comes from his outside work, not from the church. When things get tight at church, he gets paid last.
“There were a few months when I was not able to pay myself,” he says. “It’s complicated. Things at the church will eventually turn around. But it’s not something that will happen this month.”
Yet Garcia is hopeful.
Being bivocational means getting creative about ministry. Unless there’s an emergency, he’s not always available when people call. But they know he’ll usually get back to them within a day, says Garcia. His wife also volunteers at the church—and she handles some of the calls from church members.
The Same Vocation
Ministry is a second career for Anne Weinberg of Trinity Covenant Church in Livingston, New Jersey. She came to faith in her thirties, and wanted to give all of her life, including her work, to God. She eventually landed a job directing a faith-based child-care center and later went to seminary. Weinberg thought she’d stay at the faith-based center for the long term but it closed.
Instead she ended up working at a corporate child-care center and serving as director of ministry to children and adults at her church. The two jobs require different sets of skills.
“I find that often my biggest challenge is making the transition from one job to the other,” she says. “On Sundays and at times during the week my focus is on teaching others about Jesus, leading others to experience God. Just twenty-four hours later my main focus is on increasing enrollment or increasing revenue.”
Weinberg says she has to remind herself that God is present with her, no matter where she is working. Her vocation as pastor remains the same—no matter who her employer is.
“I find that I have to force myself to remember that even in fulfilling those job requirements I need to lean back into my vocation and be Jesus to those around me even without possibly ever speaking his name,” she says. “Many times it’s easier to teach about Jesus than it is to actually be like him. Yet in the midst of looking at variances in revenue on a spreadsheet, I’m still leading and responsible for those in my care even if I never teach them a single verse.”
For some bivocational ministers, two jobs aren’t enough. Glenn Rounseville, a Covenant pastor and hospital chaplain in South Attleboro, Massachusetts, has been a chaplain, youth minister, bookstore clerk, jewelry maker, and handyman, while trying to fulfill God’s call in his life.
It’s not how he saw his life as a minister unfolding. He graduated from North Park Seminary in the late 1990s and served for several years as pastor of a small East Coast church. By the mid-2000s, he returned to secular work as a middle manager for a jewelry manufacturer. Still he prayed for ways to be involved in ministry.
At times, he wondered if God was done with him. Then little by little, opportunities began to roll in. He was asked to guest preach once in a while, and eventually preached twice a month for nine years at the Covenant church in nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
He was hired as a part-time hospital chaplain—he’s now there about fifteen hours a week, often receiving calls in the middle of the night to minister to a grieving family or struggling patient.
The rest of his time is split between his roles as part-time youth minister at a United Church of Christ congregation, sexton at the Covenant church in Attleboro, and a series of side jobs as handyman, which keep him busy but allow the flexibility to be on-call when the hospital needs him.
Early on, Rounseville wondered if all of his work was making any difference. Without being in a church, it was difficult to measure if he was effective or not.
Now, he says, he often gets feedback while out in the community. Sometimes someone stops him at the grocery to thank him for a kind word he said to a sick relative in the hospital. Or he’ll be working at someone’s house and they’ll start asking him about God.
“Sometimes someone asks you a theological question when you are on your hands and knees plunging a toilet,” he says.
For a role model, Rounseville looks to the Apostle Paul—who made tents to pay the bills when he was planting churches or writing much of the New Testament. If bivocational ministry was good enough for Paul, he says, “it’s good enough for me.”
“It puts me in a place where I am entirely dependent on God,” Rounseville says. “That’s probably a good place for a pastor to be.”