Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How can seminaries better equip bivocational ministers?

This past Monday I was privileged to deliver the keynote message at a bivocational minister's conference hosted by Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana. The event had about forty people in attendance including bivocational ministers, members of their churches, and individuals from the School of Religion. It was a very well developed conference that included insights from a recent study conducted by Phil Blaisley who traveled the country interviewing bivocational ministers and members of their churches as well as a brainstorming session on how seminaries and Bible schools can better train bivocational ministers for ministry.

This final question is one that every seminary and Bible school needs to address. The facts are obvious. Bivocational ministry is growing across denominations and is projected to continue that growth. The church is going through an incredible transition, and I don't think anyone knows right now what it will look like on the other side. Most seminaries are still training pastors for the old model of church. Their assumption is that their graduates will go to fully-funded, growing churches, and the role of the pastor is to manage the church.

I'm not sure that assumption will be valid in the future; I'm not positive it's valid now! The median size church in America continues to be around 75 people. This size church can seldom provide adequate compensation for a fully-funded pastor. In fact, we now see churches of 100-120 unable to provide a financial package that will support a fully-funded pastor and his or her family. Add to this, there are a growing number of ministers who feel specifically called to bivocational ministry and have little interest in serving a fully-funded church.

While bivocational ministers might want to pursue theological and ministerial training, many of them are not going to be interested in the traditional MDiv degree. Serving a church and working a second job often doesn't allow them time to attend seminary, and many of them don't see the MDiv as suitable for the ministry they are doing. Many of them will look for a two-year degree that offers practical ministerial training as well as some theological education, and many of them want that education available online.

As the attendees brainstormed some of the things they would like to see seminaries offer bivocational ministers I was struck by the number of them who did, in fact, already have an MDiv from Earlham or another seminary. However, they realized there were some things missing from their previous seminary education that would have better prepared them for the realities of bivocational ministry. They contributed much to the discussion about how seminaries can better equip bivocational ministers for their ministry.

The Dean of the School of Religion was in attendance throughout the conference. He and others from the school have much to consider over the coming months, and I applaud them for their willingness to listen and think about how they can better serve their students. This is a conversation that every seminary and Bible school needs to have or they are going to see their future students seeking their education elsewhere.

As we all agreed, this is not an easy discussion for seminaries to have because we don't really know what the church is going to look like as it goes through it's current transition. The only thing we do know is that it will likely be different than it is now, so now's the time to begin thinking about how this transition will impact the education our seminaries will offer the students of the future.

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