A story was making the rounds yesterday about a seminary trained pastor who had applied to nearly 100 churches and was unable to find a position as a fully-funded pastor. You can read the story here. He asked a question that many recent seminary graduates are now asking: Why didn't someone explain this new reality before he incurred so much student loan debt preparing for ministry?
The reality is that bivocational ministry is growing across denominational lines. Four years ago I was on sabbatical, and for my project I contacted leaders from nine different denominations. I asked each of them what was happening with bivocational ministry in their denomination, what they believed would happen in the future, how were they training these bivocational ministers, and what were they doing to help persons recognize they were called to this ministry. Every single person reported that the numbers of bivocational ministers were growing in their denomination, they each believed those numbers would continue to grow, most had some forms of training available, and they really didn't have a way to help people identify this call on their lives.
More and more I receive calls and e-mails from fully-funded pastors telling me they believe they will soon have to become bivocational or find another church to serve. They are frightened. In some cases they recognize that there are not a lot of fully-funded churches looking for pastors. Others confess they really don't know what they could do since the only thing they've ever been trained to do is ministry. Some are carrying large amounts of debt they aren't sure how they will pay off. Virtually all of them are concerned how this transition would impact their families.
Denominations and seminaries need to recognize this new reality and begin to address the changes they need to make to prepare these new leaders. Many denominations still focus most of their attention on their larger churches and often ignore their smaller, bivocational churches. For some of these denominations that means they will neglect up to a third of their churches, and that number is going to grow. Ignoring that many of their churches, they should not be surprised at the declining financial support they receive from their churches. They should also not be surprised at the number of these churches that eventually withdraw from the denomination.
Seminaries are still training clergy as if every one of them are going to be the pastor of a large, fully-funded church. Too many seminaries, and denominations, still believe that the Master of Divinity degree is a necessity for every pastor. Quite frankly, much of what is taught in the standard MDiv program will never be helpful to most bivocational ministers. Many of the MA programs now offered by some seminaries will often be much more practical for the average bivocational minister and cost them much less money.
Of course, many bivocational ministers will never pursue a seminary degree. If we believe that a trained clergy is important then denominations and seminaries must work together to develop training opportunities for these folks. These courses must be offered at times and locations convenient to the schedule of the bivocational minister. Some of these can be online for maximum convenience.
We are not entering a new time of church leadership; we are already there. We just need to admit that the number of fully-funded ministry positions is declining and more churches are looking for bivocational leadership and begin to make the adjustments needed to reflect this reality.