Paths to the future of vocation?

Rev. Dr. Rachael B. Lawrence

February 18, 2020

“What you’re doing is the wave of the future!”

As a bivocational ordained pastor of an American Baptist church, not a day passes in which I don’t hear this phrase in regard to my multiple jobs. Most often, this statement is relayed with a bright-eyed optimism. Many believe that bivocational ministry is a solution to the vexing challenge of sustaining small local churches. As finances become increasingly strained for small churches, many are only able to financially support part-time ministry.[i]

Yet, I wonder to what extent we (collectively) consider what reliance on bivocational ministry means for the future of the vocation. What implications does this reliance have for how we prepare candidates for entry into the profession? What are the local and national churches’ institutional responsibilities in supporting the complex and needed roles that pastoral ministers fulfill?

Naturally, my interest in this subject arises largely from reflection on my personal experience. My path to the profession was non-traditional, having pursued advanced degrees and training in other fields (namely music, followed by a PhD in Education Policy and Leadership). I entered the ministry out of response to the need of my local church, which had lost a critical source of income and a pastor in a short time period. Quickly, I realized that I needed to have a connection to the broader church community. For this reason, I pursued further education, leading to ordination. I came into the pastorate with qualifications and skills in content areas that are well-suited to bivocational calls. With considerable training and experience in organizational consulting and evaluation, I am fortunate to have reliable income and health insurance that supports my quarter-time ministry.

Yet, our colleagues in ministry who have taken the traditional vocational preparation path – college, seminary, to MDiv – may not feel as positive about taking a bivocational position. Many graduates face a reality in which many churches cannot financially support full-time ministry. Further, many pursuing the traditional route take on significant educational debt in pursuit of their call. From this investment, some may feel they have received an education molded for another time – a time in which full-time pastoral ministry could provide at least a modest living. Are our institutions adequately preparing seminarians for a reality in which 50-75% of their living may need to come from another line of work? To what extent are our future colleagues receiving pre-vocational counseling that considers the financial realities facing today’s churches? How may our institutions meet the changing career needs of emerging clergy?[ii]

I suggest three topics as a starting place for conversation:

  • What are the highly transferrable skills and aptitudes of pastoral ministers?
  • What other careers are truly compatible with pastoral ministry?
  • How can our institutions (higher education and church governing bodies) help potential clergy navigate more complex career pathways?

Highly Transferrable Skills and Aptitudes

People called to pastoral ministry are generally altruistic, bright, and purpose-driven. However, the gifts and aptitudes that contribute to successful ministries vary (1 Corinthians 12 says this is absolutely necessary for a healthy body of Christ). Understanding how an individual’s vocational gifts and aptitudes may contribute to a successful ministry is critical. Understanding how those gifts and aptitudes may contribute to a successful co-career is equally essential. What if someone is a strong teacher? Might someone called into Christian ministry also be a successful public-school teacher? What if another is a skilled administrator? Might that pastor also excel in business administration or certified public accountancy? What if another has considerable gifts of counseling or research? How might their training in pastoral ministry also be supportive of success in those fields?

Careers Compatible with Pastoral Ministry

For bivocational pastors to feel successful in terms of time management, work-life boundaries, and job satisfaction, pastors’ co-careers need to be compatible with and supportive of their primary call to ministry. Some jobs seem naturally compatible, such as teaching and social work. Others may effectively detract from the primary goal of ministry, such as the role of landlord. Imagine if those called to serve the poor also find themselves reliant on income from rent that is not being paid because the tenants are down on their luck. The potential internal ethical conflict could be detrimental to both career choices. While the creation of a comprehensive list of potential co-careers is improbable, those entrusted with educating bivocational clergy may benefit from identifying as many compatible career ideas as possible.

Helping Potential Clergy Navigate Complex Career Paths

Seminaries, other institutions of higher education, associations/conferences, and the local churches need to consider creating systems to support bivocational job pathways. In institutions of higher education, dual degree programs might be one way of meeting the needs of bivocational clergy – instead of awarding an MDiv alone, could it be paired with an M.Ed. that lead to teacher licensure or counseling credentials, or an MBA that indicates sophisticated business skills? Could seminaries partner with other institutions to ensure that emerging clergy could earn both credentials, if they lack the faculty to support such programs? How can associations/conferences help effectively place bivocational clergy, especially if placement in a church is contingent on finding a satisfactory “day job”? What systems might be needed to facilitate job searches complicated by needing two or more jobs? Finally, how do we manage local church expectations about clergy capacity and time management, when the co-careers also place significant demands on time?

The three areas I’ve identified above are ripe for further investigation – research that can help us as the larger church body create more strategic systems to better support the changing needs of contemporary clergy and congregations. Bivocational ministry may well be the wave of the future – but only if we can really prepare our people and institutions for this reality.

Rachael Lawrence, PhD, is co-pastor at Second Baptist Church of Suffield, Conn., and assistant director at the Center for Education Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a classical musician.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i]G. Jeffrey MacDonald, “America’s New Ministers.” The Christian Science Monitor, February 6, 2017.

[ii] For more on the financial strain faced by clergy, see Megan Fowler, “Pastors Don’t Do It For The Money, But Having Enough to Retire Would Be Nice.” Christianity Today, October 1, 2019.

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This