Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Who will train the bivocational ministers of the future?

There are some things we know about bivocational ministry.  We know that the numbers of bivocational ministers are growing throughout most denominations today.  From talking to various leaders of these denominations, it is expected that those numbers will continue to increase in the near future.  Various studies show that bivocational ministries are just as effective in most measurable ministry areas as fully-funded ministries.  We currently have too few bivocational ministers to cover our existing churches, and this problem will grow as new church starts begin using bivocational people.  We know all these things about bivocational ministry; what we don't know is who will train the bivocational ministers in the future.

A study I did a few years ago of bivocational ministers in my denomination found a wide variety of educational levels.  Many ended their formal education with high school.  A large number had at least some college training.  Several had been to seminary or graduate school.  A handful had PhDs.  Many of them who had seminary degrees had been fully-funded at one time in their ministry but either were unable to find such ministry now or had chosen to pursue other careers and serve smaller churches in a bivocational capacity.  As I travel the country leading workshops for bivocational and small church leaders I find my study parallels the educational levels of many bivocational ministers regardless of their denomination. 

The problem is that bivocational ministry continues to evolve.  It's no longer relegated to the smallest rural or urban churches that are about to close their doors.  For various reasons, larger churches are calling bivocational ministers to assume their pastorates requiring much more ministry awareness than some bivocational ministers possess.  The demands placed on many bivocational leaders are as great as those fully-funded pastors must address, and the expectations being put on these bivocational ministers by their congregations are growing as well.  There was a time when a bivocational minister was only expected to preach each Sunday and be available for an occasional wedding, funeral, or hospital visit.  Those expectations have changed and changing now even more rapidly in many of our churches.

Many churches now expect their bivocational ministers to be able to lead a meaningful worship service, provide direction to the various ministries and organizations within the church, have at least a minimal connection to the community, preach messages that are relevant and biblical, and provide good pastoral care to the congregation.  One can complain that such churches are expecting too much but that doesn't take away from those expectations.  And, quite frankly, I don't think God calls a person to bivocational ministry expecting any less either.  Just because one is bivocational doesn't mean that he or she is allowed to offer second-class ministry.  This does mean that a bivocational person better understand how to manage time well, train others to do ministry, and delegate responsibilities to those who are trained.

Can we depend on the seminaries to train our future bivocational ministers to do ministry in the future?  My initial response is no unless some of our seminaries begin to realize that bivocational ministry is a calling that requires different skills than what many of them currently teach.  If they want to have a part in training bivocational ministers they are going to have to re-think their current degree plans and courses.  They will also have to make their programs more accessible off-campus.  The good news is that some have already done that.  Campbellsville University now offers their Master of Theology degree entirely off-campus if a student wishes to pursue that degree.  Liberty Theological Seminary provides a host of master's level programs off campus that would be suitable to many bivocational ministers.  Other seminaries are following suit, and this is going to be a good thing for bivocational ministry in the future.

Another option will be some of the Bible schools that provide bachelor level programs in pastoral ministries.  Some of these schools may be conveniently located to the students to allow them to participate on campus.  My first post-high school education experience was through one of these schools, and it provided me with an excellent education for my ministry.

A third option that I think we will see more in the future is the training programs offered through various denominations and judicatories.  Our judicatory offers a Church Leadership Institute that was not designed only for bivocational ministers but for all leaders in our smaller churches.  However, a number of our bivocational ministers have completed this program and are now serving well in our churches.  Other judicatories have similar programs and those who do not need to carefully consider developing one or encouraging their bivocational ministers to attend the ones that do exist.

At least one judicatory has added a fourth option: coaching.  They now provide coaches for the bivocational ministers in their district to help them deal with the challenges they face.  Most of these coaches are experienced pastors or retired.  It was my privilege a year ago to provide some training for these coaches as they began to serve their bivocational ministers.

These are other options must be explored.  Anyone who has been in ministry for any period of time knows how difficult ministry can be, and the challenges will only continue to grow.  God has called men and women to serve Him in bivocational roles, and we must find ways to provide them with the best possible training to help them enjoy effective, productive ministries.

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