I wrote this for the Center for Healthy Churches. It was also picked up by ethicsdaily.com, which was kind of cool.
It was inspired by some things I learned as a part of the pilot program for CBF’s Ministerial Excellence Initiative.
The Flip Side of the Bivocational Coin
The treasurer reported that everything looked good. Giving was slightly exceeding our budgeted needs and financial obligations. Immediately, there were smiles all around the room. Everyone relaxed, happy to know that we didn’t have to worry and stress about our church’s budget this time. Everyone, that is, except me.
We knew it was going to happen. The grant money that fully funded my position would not last indefinitely. Our small church wasn’t in decline. In fact, we were seeing growth and our participants were generous and sacrificial givers, many of them going well beyond a traditional tithe. Nevertheless, we knew that significant financial changes were inevitable. A few months before, I had volunteered to essentially become “bivocational.” I had a few other projects that I wanted to pursue and I was willing to see if they could generate some income to cover the resulting shortfall. It seemed like a win-win situation. The church was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
The unintended consequence of that shift was that what began as a challenge for our entire congregation essentially became my problem to solve alone. It was no longer a case of “This is our challenge. We’ll solve it together.” Instead, it was assumed that I had it covered. I was now responsible for making up the difference between our current level of giving and my intended salary. I reduced my work hours accordingly and the church continued with minimal disruption to our regular worship schedule.
While it is easy to count the cost of financial adjustments that result in a loss of materials, programs, or staff positions, it is harder to see measures that are essentially seen as a “tightening of the belt.” Those measures can be largely invisible. Like many things, we frequently fail to count the emotional impact of the decisions we make.
Bivocational ministry is frequently seen as a perfect solution for churches struggling to survive in what may become a post-denominational culture. There are many benefits to having a minster in the workforce outside of the church. Not only does it ease the financial burden of the church, but it allows the minister to be more deeply engaged in the community. It also requires laypeople to rise to new challenges and discover their own spiritual gifts. The minister can be seen as more relatable, a fellow participant in the workforce. In spite of these perceived benefits, we tend to underestimate the impact of financial stress and working multiple jobs on professional ministers.
Working on multiple projects at once can be enjoyable and appealing in many ways. Personally, shifting focus periodically over a variety of projects works well for my brain. I suspect that many people in professional ministry enjoy the ability to engage in a wide variety of tasks. We are frequently called to be counselors, teachers, writers, designers, administrators, and janitors all in the same day. Pastoral ministry is rarely boring.
On the other hand, financial stress has a unique way of short-circuiting my emotional energy. When I feel the press of debt or the uncertainty of the next paycheck, it is nearly impossible to center myself or gather the emotional energy necessary to truly minister to others or open myself up to the holy opportunities that may present themselves in the course of the day.
Bivocational ministry is a great way to meet the financial needs of the church in a changing and uncertain future, but it is not the perfect solution for every situation. There will always be a price to be paid. Sometimes the cost is obvious – diminished services, limited availability, and things that “fall through the cracks.” Other costs can be largely invisible to the church but may have a significant impact on the personal life and effectiveness of the minister.
In an environment where the burden of income is increasingly seen as the pastor’s problem and not the congregation’s responsibility, it is vital that we create new and innovative support structures for those called to ministry.