Thursday, October 11, 2012

Straight talk to seminary grads

This post likely will not make me popular with some readers, but at some point somebody has to stand up and tell people the truth.  The good news for seminary graduates is that there are a good number of churches currently seeking pastors.  The bad news you need to know is most of them are bivocational.  The likelihood of you pastoring a megachurch is rather slim because more and more of our churches are becoming bivocational.  Some of you are going to find out your seminary education has prepared you for a ministry that was much more common in the past than it will be in the future.  In the past ministers were expected to manage stable churches that enjoyed favor in the community and experienced some measure of growth on a somewhat consistent basis, and that is what many of our seminaries taught their students to do when they were called to a church.  The church of the future will be looking for more entrepreneurial leadership who also have skills that will allow them to seek employment outside the church.  If you want to eat and pay off that big student loan debt you've accumulated over the past seven years you better have skills that will allow you to find a job outside the church because increasing numbers of churches are not able to provide a living wage and a salary package that will provide for your financial needs.

Some believe that economics is the only factor driving this movement towards more bivocational churches.  While I certainly believe this is a factor, I believe there are also other things going on here.  For many of our churches, until the 1950s bivocational pastors were the norm.  It was about that time that denominations began to push their churches to call full-time pastors.  Anything less than that was suspect in many denominations.  We are now returning to an earlier time for pastoral leadership as many of our churches are now moving back to having bivocational pastors.  Believe it or not, there are some positives to this.

One, it is more difficult for the church to consider the bivocational pastor as the "hired gun" of the church who is responsible to see that ministry is being done.  He or she also has another job which means that more people in the congregation must be involved if ministry is to happen.  This takes us back to the Ephesians four model of ministry: the role of the minister is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry.  For many Baptist churches the doctrine of the Priesthood of the Believer was more believed than practiced, but with the increase in bivocational ministers more churches are beginning to learn what this doctrine means.  We've all been called to serve, to minister, and those whom God has called to lead us have been given the task of helping equip us to fulfill our call to serve.

A second advantage is that being bivocational takes the pastor out of the church office and puts him or her right in the middle of the mission field.  As a bivocational pastor who worked on the shop floor of a factory I never had to worry about being isolated from the real world.  At least from 7:00 - 3:30 every day I was in it.  I had the same challenges the people in our congregation faced.  I understood the worry about layoffs, union contracts expiring, and downsizing that others in our church felt because it was part of my world as well.  Few people on that shop floor deferred to me because I was a minister.  In fact, some seemed to go out of their way to act and talk worse when they were around me than when they weren't.

A third advantage is that it may give the pastor more credibility with persons outside the church.  They have the opportunity to watch him or her in their environment, and if they are able to consistently live out their faith while at the same time remaining human, it can make them seem more real to outsiders.  There were times when I was able to minister to persons with whom I worked in the factory who would have never talked about their problems with another pastor.  While sitting at a break table with a nasty cup of vending machine coffee I heard more than one person talk of a troubled marriage or problems with a child or financial worries as well as a host of other concerns.  I had opportunities to share words of encouragement and advice as well as being able to pray for them.  One individual in our plant who had not been in church in years asked one day if I would conduct the funeral for her father who had passed away the day before.  Only a handful of people attended that service, but I was able to offer a comforting word and share the gospel with them.

From research I've studied and discussions with judicatory leaders from many denominations I know that many seminary graduates are very reluctant to serve in bivocational churches.  That is unfortunate because these churches need your leadership, and, as you can read above, there are some unique advantages to such ministry.  You need to understand that the call to bivocational ministry is not a greater nor a lesser call than the call to a fully-funded position.  It is a call from God on a person's life to serve a particular church at a particular time.  As more and more of our churches move towards becoming bivocational many seminary graduates are going to have to make a choice.  Will they serve the churches that God makes available to them or will they be disobedient to that call?  I pray you choose the first option because you will find out just how rewarding bivocational ministry can be.  To learn more about bivocational ministry read my book The Bivocational Pastor: Two Jobs, One Ministry published by Beacon Hill Press.

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