Bi-vocational Church

By Steve Matthews, FaithX Senior Missional Consultant

Across the US, churches are discerning how to continue their ministries (and stay open) as many experience decreased attendance and giving.  Some churches have addressed this issue by decreasing the hours and salaries for their priests and pastors, which often means that the pastor needs to find other work to maintain their needed income. Thus, these priests are often referred to as “bi-vocational.”  Some churches with bi-vocational leaders find ways to continue their ministry in sustainable ways.  Some thrive, and some see this as the beginning of the end — increasingly scaling back on their ministry as their income and human resources dwindle. 

It is common for churches to believe they are clergy-dependent.  The ecclesial water in which many of us swim suggests that seminary trained leaders can and should lead our congregations – setting visions and priorities, offering prophetic sermons and compelling worship, visiting the sick, increasing membership, growing stewardship.  Is this model sustainable?  Is it even desirable?

Fortunately, paths are emerging and merging – paths inviting churches to move from a survival mentality toward empowered innovation that builds on the power and the gifts of the laity.  Rather than thinking that paid staff do all or most of the work and mission of the church, “bi-vocational church” suggests that we are all responsible for church growth and we are all empowered for ministry inside and outside the walls of the church.  Here are a few of the resources and groups that are trying to build on this transforming momentum:

  • The Rt. Rev. Mark Edington (Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe) has written a book entitled Bivocational: Returning to the Roots of Ministry. In the book’s description, he writes, “The contention of the book is simple: A bivocational ministry is not simply a question of whether the ordained minister has a job in the world alongside a job in the church. When it’s realized fully and most joyfully, a bivocational ministry is a work of the entire congregation. It changes the way the pastor functions in the congregation; but it also changes the way everyone (not just the pastor) in the congregation functions as part of an intentional Christian community.
  • Bexley Seabury Seminary offers online courses for laypeople through their Pathways platform.  One group of courses creates a path to lay licensure in worship, evangelism, preaching, pastoral leadership, and faith formation.  The hope is that more and more lay leaders are equipped and respected for the gifts of leadership they feel called to offer. 
  • The Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan has reconfigured their diocesan ministry to intentionally focus on mutual ministry. “We understand that the responsibility for mission and ministry in any place belongs primarily to the people of God in that place. In most settings, we do not send ministry to a community in the form of a professional, seminary trained rector or vicar who might minister to and on behalf of the baptized. Rather, we seek to develop the ministry of all the baptized in each community. Seminary trained persons serve as resource, offering support and encouragement, sharing in the ongoing formation and education of God’s people living the Baptismal Covenant.
  • Genesis II: Re-Vision and Renew is a program of the Episcopal Church.  This is a lay-led initiative that invites teams of churches from dioceses into a two-year coached redevelopment project aimed at reconnecting churches with their neighbors through Asset-Based Community Development and intentional trust-building. The hope is that ministry opportunity develops from these relationships and in partnership with the neighbors outside the walls of the church

These resources are inviting and exciting in and of themselves, but they point to a movement based in nurturing leadership among the laity – not just relying on paid staff.  As we say in the south, this is the work for “all y’all,” and this is our work together.  It is a gift and responsibility.

As churches move more toward bi-vocational ministry, it behooves us to stay informed with who we are in relationship to our neighbors at this point in time.  FaithX has resources to help you explore your community in depth and consultants who can help lay leaders and clergy alike discern best next steps for the sake of your mission and your relationship with your neighbors.  Contact us here for more information.