When caring for ministers, we stand to gain if we better understand the service and needs of bivocational pastors. I use the definition of “bivocation” developed by Kris Bentley from Lexington Seminary: “individuals who are licensed, commissioned or ordained ministers serving in a congregation who also receive income through employment outside the congregation.”
I have found that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) generally does not ask people about their experiences of bivocationality. Do people feel forced to work bivocationality? Do they see both ministry and their outside work as callings? Does outside work feel like a job to make ends meet? These were some of the questions that initially shaped my research.
When I did a survey at a Mission Presbytery meeting, I found that 34% of my respondents (n=38) were bivocational. While this is a small sample, this finding is worth attention and further study.
I asked whether my definition of bivocational ministry seemed appropriate, and a pastor wrote: “Bivocational or multivocational means what God calls us to do is larger than any job can fulfill. Or that our own truest self needs a balance that is not provided by only one role.” Many people completing the survey reported feeling called to bivocational ministry or saw it as a source of creativity.
I wondered if bivocationality correlated with financial anxiety. I asked pastors to rate their financial anxiety on a scale of one to ten. A self-identified Latinx pastor wrote in “20” and also reported feeling forced into bivocational ministry.
More than half the men surveyed had low anxiety about finances, while 84% of the women had medium or high anxiety. Those who are not married had the highest levels of anxiety. Ministers ages 30-40 reported feeling most anxious about finances.
What would strengthen pastors’ ability to minister? Respondents answered: more time for self and rest (64%), more time with peers, others in like ministries (58%), more sermon preparation time (39%) and more time with family (33%). One person wrote in: “BENEFITS … I’d forgo a higher salary!”
I interviewed seven pastors, six of whom are women, about their experience of bivocational ministry. I recruited them by passing around a sheet at a presbytery meeting. Some of these pastors are ordained teaching elders and others are commissioned local pastors. All of the ministers who volunteered to talk to me were white, so I cannot generalize these findings to other races or ethnicities.
One pastor’s story: Let’s value the small
One of the respondents works part-time at a church whose entire budget is less than $50,000. Her husband is a pastor in a nearby town. They have two children, one of whom has special needs.
Her second job involves verifying signatures for ballot measures that would fund police and fire departments in underserved communities. She said that the money is not very good, but it helps pay for Christmas presents. She acknowledged that she probably would not do this outside work if it were not for some financial uncertainty her family is facing.
She stated that her signature verification work helps her use her time more wisely. It requires less emotional investment than hospice chaplaincy, which some of her colleagues do to supplement church work. Because of this, she finds it was a good correlate to congregational ministry.
She noted that she did not seek out the work; a neighbor asked her to help. Nevertheless, she described it as Christian vocation, referring to Jack Stotts’ “A Theology of Vocation,” a book she rereads on a regular basis.
Gender is an important aspect of her experience in ministry. She perceives that she has lower pay and fewer opportunities than her husband. She is an advocate and caregiver for a child with special needs. While she thinks of parenting as part of her vocation, she believes that résumé gaps from these caregiving years would preclude her from getting high-paying jobs in large churches.
She maintains that the church needs fresh frameworks to value small-church ministry instead of tending to use numbers to determine vitality. She said: “How do you know if a congregation is healthy? Butts in the pews is the easiest to count; it plays into the cultural ideas of success. I mean, I do it too; some weeks only 11 people are there; it’s very discouraging and when 20 people are there it’s very encouraging. I think it’s very ingrained in us to measure things this way. … How can we learn to measure, not just on a different scale, but … in different units than numbers of people? I think that would be really helpful for small churches.”
During a recent call to the Board of Pensions, a representative encouraged her to have the congregation’s administrative assistant handle her vision insurance request. She had to remind the Board employee that, as a part-time employee at a very small congregation, she is the only person on staff at her church.
Another pastor’s story: “I couldn’t be myself if I wasn’t doing both”
Another respondent said she was bivocational in that her truest self and calling are invested equally in the identities of teacher and minister. She earned a master’s degree in education from a nearby institution while she was in seminary. Being a teaching pastor and a pastoring teacher (my terms, not hers) underscores in her mind the spiritual aspects of relational formation across the life span. Indeed, she stated that she could not be her true self without each vocation.
She works half-time at a religious school and half-time as a Christian educator. Her husband is an entrepreneur with a stable but fluctuating income, and they have two young children. She pays higher costs for child care than she makes working at the church, but she does so because she believes it’s the only way she can move forward in her ministerial calling.
Teaching and ministering require different kinds of innovation and offer different continuities. Every sermon and Bible study, as difficult as they are to write, are relational engagements with a teaching component. Classroom plans could be changed quickly, but church plans require meetings and deliberation.
In the classroom, she also acts pastorally, paying attention to the needs of her students. In one case, a child grieving the death of an infant sibling played with the nativity set long past Advent. She found this sacred tending seemed to settle something in his heart, helping him move on.
Although she understands the teaching work she does as ministry, broadly construed, it was harder to convince her presbytery to ordain her as a chaplain in a religious school. She was eventually ordained as a Christian educator but finds that there is not much familiarity with the role of validated minister in the presbytery.
She discerns her complex bivocational calling through moments of failure, finding that failure is redemptive and deserves greater attention. She said: “I think that also pastors I know who have gone out and had really hard first experiences or calls might feel like maybe this, like there’s some shame in that failure. There’s really no shame in it if it’s part of your learning. Obviously, there’s some really bad things that could come out of it if you fail grandly and make great, great huge mistake, I mean there could be amends and fixings you have to make if it’s a really bad mistake, and you might have to work back from it. But that doesn’t mean the shame comes from the vocation going wrong. … We know that with pastoral relationships and things that go really sideways. And I would say it is a fail because you go off path for a while. But you can go off path and come back if you find your vocation. You can still keep your vocation even if you feel like parts of your vocation is no longer work.”
She emphasized the deep data for theological reflection in these failures and encourages people processing failure to do so in the setting of confidential and supportive relationships.
She loves her work, and has chosen each part of it, though she also feels like she wakes up on a “conveyer belt” that will not stop. She acknowledged that one aspect of her life – her teaching, her pastoring, or her parenting –
often has to be sacrificed to the others in every season, but hopes that, eventually, they would all balance out. She longs for rest and reflection.
She explains that vocational discernment is a profound and lifelong experience. Not everyone can be or should be anything, she insisted, but vocation is deeply tied to giftedness, life experience and the distinctive blessing that each individual can be to another through encounter.
What does this mean for the church?
With unstable prospects, many ministers wonder about the state of the church when they retire. It seems likely that future generations of ministers will face greater financial uncertainty in their work, but women and single persons should not have to face the disproportionate burdens of this uncertainty.
Women ministers are more likely to be family caregivers, lack health insurance coverage and be poorly compensated for their work. Some of the women ministers I interviewed need a Sabbath. Others need respectable wages that match their position and experience. They face expectations to be the caregivers for the community, but they also need an opportunity to experience the care of God’s Sabbath rest.
There’s also a generational divide. Many of the pastors I talked with who are close to retiring live in rural settings. Through the 1001 New Worshipping Communities initiative, city churches have bivocational pastors who are much younger. I wonder what to do about these gaps.
I believe we must find ways to resist the pressures of the gig economy, those factors that encourage people to work on their own dime and to strive until they succeed, believing that by doing so they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
I think the church needs to equip people for ministry, while honestly exploring what they might have to do to survive. It is necessary to properly prepare bivocational pastors at seminary. Bivocationality can mean multivocationality, whether parenting, caring for an elderly parent, or finding employment in another field.
Yet, there is a risk that we have two classes of ministers: ordained ministers (disproportionately men) and commissioned local pastors (disproportionately women) serving small rural pulpits that are seen as difficult to fill. Bivocational service should be a respectable option, but women, single people and younger ministers should not feel like they have to do it to survive.
We can do something about this. One of the pastors I interviewed suggested that small churches might be subsidized by larger ones — much like mission churches overseas, which might strengthen our connectional nature.
I was surprised by the high rates of bivocationality, especially among women and persons of color. There are many more bivocational ministers today than there were in the past. We need to honor the ways they are working, finding ways to foster their rest and reflection.
Philip Browning Helsel, a board-certified chaplain and teaching elder in the PC(USA), is associate professor of pastoral care at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas. His recent book, “Pastoral Care & Counseling: An Introduction, Care for Stories, Systems, and Selves,” is devoted to strengthening a congregation’s ministry of pastoral care.